‘Boss, how come I say the same thing, but you get it and I don’t!’

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‘Boss, how come I say the same thing, but you get it and I don’t!’

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My colleague said this to me the other day after we completed an online case management. Over the last few case managements he attended alone, he could not prevent applications that were filed after ours from being heard first despite our application being filed earlier and dealing with a threshold issue of the case.

His exasperated remark was true. What I said and asked for was in substance exactly what he had said and asked for at earlier case managements. We had discussed strategy and worked out tactics; several times over. The correspondence and recordings confirmed that. And yet, it boiled down to who said it and instead of what was said. I empathised with him because I knew exactly what that felt like.

His remark sent me down memory lane back to my very early years of practice; sometime in my first or second year. I went down for the day to day matters, mentions and straightforward hearings. There were occasions when my boss, Uncle Izzat, as I then knew and regarded him, would come down to the Kuala Lumpur subordinate courts. He came down for the bigger, more complicated or stickier matters. I relished when that happened because it was an opportunity to watch, listen and learn.

When he came down to the subordinate courts for a matter, I would tell him about our problematic files. Those were the sort of files that were stuck in court for weeks or months without progress. Back when I started, cases not listed, cases listed but file was missing, or cases not updated with the latest filed documents were regular occurrences that I had to contend with everytime I went to court. When my efforts to remedy the situation by way of letter or pleading with the counter clerks at the subordinate courts registry failed (you thought we lawyers only plead in courts, eh?), I had to bring in the boss.

There was one time he came with me to sort out some problematic files at the sessions court registry, which was located the top floor of the Jalan Raja court house. Behind the plexi-glass counter sat a lady clerk with a tudung and baju kurung with an uninterested and indifferent look. I was familiar with her as well as that look and facial configuration. Truthfully, it did not not matter who sat there because they all had the same look and attitude about them. She was consistently and patently dismissive and on occasion rude to me aside from being disinterested and slow.

Often, I waited for hours for an unlisted file to be found and re-fixed for mention the next day. Each time I asked for progress (with long intervals in between), she (and anyone who manned the counter) would rebuff me by curtly telling me she would call me when it was found. Oh, and if she did not call me it meant it wasn’t found. Whowp-pish.

Those were the growing pains in my early years of legal practice; being thoroughly disrespected and dismissed by the court counter clerks. Once the court computerization initiative was implemented, their immense blocking powers quickly faded and then vanished completely. That was a good thing for efficiency and to reduce opportunities for corruption. But I digress.

Uncle Izzat ambled up to the counter with a disarming smile and greeted her with a salam. She responded to him in a far different tone of voice than I was accustomed to. I often wondered, during my many hours there, whether she was capable of any other tone of voice other than disdain. Her attention was directed solely at my boss. She completely ignored me. Even though I was next to him. Like, right next to him.

Now the thing about Uncle Izzat was that his PR skills were first class. He was the sort that could convince an eskimo he needed a three door freezer. He was a kampung boy from Kedah that came to the city and made good for himself. He had uncanny natural ability to build rapport with people quickly and surely. It mattered not how high or low that person stood in society. He was good at reading people and figuring them out.

I came to learn that reading people was as important as reading the law, because the law is ultimately about people. The conversation went more or less like this in Malay after the greetings.

‘How are you this morning, Cik?’

‘Good. Healthy. Alhamdulillah. And just to correct you, I am a Puan, not Cik.’

‘I am so sorry about that, Puan. I am Izzat. May I have your name?’

‘Zaiton.’

‘Thank you Puan Zaiton. Can I tell you something?’

‘What is it?’

‘You are looking good today. Your husband is a lucky man to have such a beautiful young wife like you.’

She was surprised and flattered.

‘Eh, thank you lah. But I am not young anymore. I have two kids already lah, Encik Izzat.’

‘If you did not tell me, I would not know. If you asked me I would think you had just got married recently. If I didn’t believe you I would ask for proof!’

By then, the hint of a smile that crept up the sides of her mouth had seized control of the whole and her cheeks turned a shade redder.

‘Eh, no lah. But thank you. You are too kind. What can I do for you today?’

The conversation was cringy and corny. It was the type I rub my eyes vigorously when I listened to it. I couldn’t imagine having the temerity to say such things. But bloody hell, it worked. She lapped it up. And that was the first time Uncle Izzat had met her.

After he related to her about our problematic cases she asked him to have a seat while she sorted it out. I saw her immediately leave her station; scurrying here and there. With me I never saw her move from her station. In less than 20 minutes she had located a few ‘missing’ files and re-listed two matters for mention. That led me to the realization that when I came, the counter folks really didn’t give a damn about my requests. I stared at my boss with a mixture of disbelief and frustration.

To me, what he pulled off was magic. Black, white, purple, I don’t know. But it was magic. I saw the whole thing and I still don’t know what went down. He did in less than half an hour what took me weeks and months with letters and begging to get done. This was an example of the Junior Experience young lawyers face during my time.

The next time I was there and Puan Zaiton manned the counter, I thought to apply the same approach. I remembered the lines Uncle Izzat used and thought to use them too.

‘Assalamualaikum Puan Zaiton.’

‘Salam.’

‘How are you this morning?’

‘Unh,’ she grunted.

‘You are looking good today.’ I admit I lacked the confidence. It was completely not my style. I was too scared and lacking in confidence to utter it but gave it a shot. It came out half-hearted and instead of the warm reception I hoped for, Puan Zaiton’s eyes narrowed and her mouth drew itself into a straight line.

‘What is it?’ she asked in her usual tone of disdain.

Whatever mound of courage I had built up to that point was smashed. I meekly gave her the list of unlisted and missing cases and quickly retreated to safety to the chairs across the counter. And waited for hours like I always did. It was no different from any other time I was there. Not a drop of the goodwill Uncle Izzat fostered with her fell upon me. None.

When I got back to the office and met with him, I lamented, ‘Uncle Izzat, how is it I say the same thing as you, but you get it and I don’t!’

He laughed and said, ‘Those are things you cannot learn in the law books, Fahri. You need experience for that.’

I have since understood that in law as in life, who says it, how it is said, when it is said is just as important, if not more important than what is said. That is not to say the words are not important, but they are sometimes not as important as we make them out to be. And we best use our own words instead of others because what worked for them may not work for us.

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