Giving the Young a Chance

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Giving the Young a Chance

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In my years of practice, I discovered that there is a natural resistance to giving the young, the fresh, and the inexperienced opportunities to do a matter. By matter, I mean conducting a hearing of an application or a trial, conducting a client interview, or even just attending case management. I knew some of my peers in larger or prestigious firms who went for several years before they were allowed to conduct matters on their own.

That attitude regrettably continues to increase, not decrease. These days, it does not matter whether the firm is small, medium or large size; they differ only in the degree of opportunities given, and not widely.

I anticipated that when I began my practice because I heard about it. I expected my boss not to let me handle matters on my own. It turns out, I was wrong about that. On the contrary, I was fortunate to be entrusted to conduct hearings and trials even as a pupil, which continued right through as a fresh and young lawyer. This was the exception instead of the rule.

I think several factors allowed for this: firstly, my father was my boss’s boss; secondly, I was competent enough for my boss to trust me to do the work; thirdly, ours was a small firm. There were only two legal assistants once I was called. My colleague, Rose, was leaving litigation to move into corporate work so most of the litigation matters came my way. A crucial factor was that I wanted it, and demanded it.

Despite that, I was famished for action but demanded variety too. The cases at the firm were not enough. For me, they took too long to hatch i.e., get called up for a hearing or trial. The courts moved at a slovenly pace then. I felt most of my early practice was about getting one mention date after another in the courts in the hope that we would reach the promised land of a hearing or trial.

Because of that, I looked around for opportunities. I was fortunate to find a treasure trove of them at the Kuala Lumpur Legal Aid Clinic (LACKL). Back then, the LACKL took on both criminal and civil work. Desperate for hearing or trial work, I took on and conducted many civil and criminal matters on my own. I consulted my boss and colleagues when I had to. Otherwise, I was happy to do my own research and be left to conduct cases on my own the way I wanted to.

The work from the firm and LACKL were the base from which I honed my abilities, gathered experience and matured as a lawyer. I was fortunate to conduct a variety of matters on my own in my earlier years. Those accumulated experiences were my foundation. Each moment, good or bad, taught me just that little bit more about legal practice, life, etc.

My belief then and now is that as human beings, we mature when we take responsibility for something or someone.

It is the same with lawyers. We mature by being responsible for our cases and clients, by having to make difficult and important decisions for them and bear the burden of blame for any misjudgment or mistake. It is taking responsibility for others and ourselves. It is being on our feet and taking the hit.

We will not grow or we will grow slowly if we only sit beside and assist our seniors. We should only do that for so long. Yes, we learn a lot. Yes, we see things; we will know things. But knowing and understanding are different things.

We will not have that understanding until that responsibility is placed squarely on our shoulders. We won’t know it until we have felt the trickle of beads of perspiration squeezed out of the side of our faces from the weight of our responsibilities. We will not grow up until we are responsible for something that counts to others.

It is because of this I am big on giving my junior colleagues opportunities to conduct matters on their own or with me beside them as soon as possible. I always want my pupils to attend court matters and my lawyers to conduct hearings or trials as soon as possible. Of course, only deserving and competent pupils are afforded such opportunities.

If they ask for it, I am happy to find an opportunity for them to conduct a matter. But if they don’t, I will coax them into having a go when I think they are ready; if not give them a nudge out the door. I deliberately take on magistrate court cases so my pupils and lawyers have an opportunity to conduct an application or examine witnesses at trial with me and under my supervision.

It is not just the lawyers I have to coax but the client too. I would have to assure the clients of my belief in my colleague’s ability to conduct the matter. That is an important part of creating opportunities for my colleagues to step up to gain valuable experience.

Once, there was an appeal in the Court of Appeal involving a public interest matter where I was called upon to argue as counsel for the appellant. It was an appeal against the dismissal of leave for judicial review by the High Court. The issue was singular, simple and straightforward.

Assisting me was a talented and hardworking lawyer in his second or third year of practice. He prepared the cause papers and submission for the appeal. Before the hearing, he asked if he could argue the matter. I agreed.

On the morning of the hearing before our case was called I chatted with the client.

‘So Encik Fahri, how do you feel about our chances today?’

‘The law is on our side. The court below clearly erred. We hope to convince the court of that today. It’s a straightforward issue. To me, lah.’

‘You are arguing the appeal for us later, Encik Fahri?’

‘Ah. About that. Well. My colleague will be arguing the appeal. You see that guy over there?’

‘Yah.’

‘Ah, that’s him lah.’

‘He looks so young! Are you sure or not, Encik Fahri? What if the court doesn’t believe him?’

‘Of course, I am sure. He prepared the whole appeal. He did the submission. I checked it, it’s all good. It’s not about the court believing him. It has to listen to arguments. It’s a one-issue appeal and simple enough. I have been working with him and I can assure you, he is good and he will do well.’

She looked dissatisfied.

‘Why can’t you do the appeal instead?’

‘I could. But I think it’s important to give opportunities to my junior colleagues. Look, if it were a difficult appeal, I would certainly not pass it down. But, this case is a simple straightforward issue. He prepared all of it. I am just here riffing off his submission. So let’s give him a chance. I vouch for this guy’s competency.’

‘Fine. Let’s see, then.’

I went back to my seat at the bar and didn’t say anything about it.

When our case was called up, my junior colleague lead the matter admirably. He was articulate, concise and persuasive. I was impressed. The judges were too. We won the appeal. He also impressed the client. She came over excitedly when we met her outside the court to congratulate us and for us to hear what they thought about the hearing.

‘That was very well conducted, young man!’ she said.

‘Thank you. I am thankful we won.’

‘Wah, but you were very clear and articulate. I thought you did well.’

‘Oh thank you, Puan. You are very kind.’

‘So? What do you think of him now? Now you see why I had no issue leaving it to him?’ I asked.

‘Yes. Okay, lah. I admit. He did very well and impressed me.’

‘Ha. That’s why. You must give some of these young fellas a chance to impress you. I am not going to put up any donkey there to argue your case for you, lah my dear.’

‘Okay, okay. Fair. I will be sure to keep an open mind in the future.’

Three elements need to come together for young lawyers of competency to have opportunities to gain valuable experience on their feet: a mindful senior lawyer, a patient and welcoming court, and a trusting client. It is important for the courts not to be too taken by seniority and to listen carefully to the arguments presented. At the end of the day, a matter should be decided based on the facts and law, not on the personality of the counsel.

I always thought that starting them on their feet early is a win-win situation in the long run. They get to conduct cases. Once they get confident enough and enjoy it, I can trust them to handle more challenges and move on to work on something else. In that way, they eventually become a lawyer of value to the firm.

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