What is a lawyer?

To me lah-ha,

A lawyer is someone that wants to earn a living only through the practice of law. They do this because they enjoy it, are fond of it, or at least don’t mind it so much. Whatever the case, they cannot imagine themselves doing anything else. They enjoy the practice of law and attending to the ministrations whatever they may be required of their legal practice. Others prefer contemplating legal issues that arise from factual situations or exercising their legal abilities in court settings, corporate meetings, etc.

For them, the law and its practice are a matter of compulsive interest, pleasure and intellectual stimulation in and of themselves. They always gravitate to it. Tell them a factual scenario and they will cast a legal overlay to it. Tell them about a legal case and their minds snap to verify the ratio decidendi (Latin for the core of the decision).

In that sense, legal practice is an end in itself, not a means to something else. It is not a stepping stone to somewhere else. There is no career progression. Not that we care about it. Practising law in and of itself is enough. We just want to keep doing this because we like doing this kind of work. We are lawyers. We are not going anywhere. This is it. End of story. Unless we get elevated to a judgeship. I call this that feel for law.

Now, if I really wanted to, I could earn a living doing something else. I could be general counsel in a public listed company or some start-up entrepreneur (I did give that a shot). Or go into some consulting company. I could learn a new skill, baking, for example, and start my own bakery business. Sell hot cakes like hot cakes. Earn a lot of money. Or a tennis coach, which is looking more and more appealing as I get older.

But I don’t. I still have that feel for legal practice.

I had a few occasions in which to seriously consider giving up legal practice and the firm. Each time, I couldn’t do it. Each time, I didn’t want to give any of it up. Each time, the thought of not working with those I have carefully recruited over the years and doing what I do made me sad and unhappy.

Right now, I wouldn’t want to give up my modest legal practice and all that goes with it. I am comfortable with the chains of responsibility I am shackled to and the limited freedom it gives me.

Those that leave legal practice to do something completely different and find themselves suited for whatever they do never were lawyers to begin with. That’s why they didn’t like it or didn’t like it enough. That’s why they probably complained more than those that want to practice law.

The complaints of those that want to practice law are: I don’t get enough opportunities to do this type of case or prepare that kind of contract. I wished I could work with this lawyer or watch that lawyer in action. The complaints of those that don’t like it or don’t like it enough are: I am not paid enough. I am made to work too much. So much to read.

The latter is the cari makan sort. To them, legal practice is just a way to earn an income. If they could earn more money doing something else, they would take it. They don’t mind doing something else for a wage. It’s a question of which wage is higher.

That’s fine though. They are entitled to that. No one says one must be a lawyer. But don’t diss the profession after leaving after a couple of years of practice.

If they haven’t been in it for at least seven years before they left practice, they are not qualified to critique the profession, legal practice and matters related. They haven’t experienced enough. They are only qualified to talk about their employment, not about practice at the bar in general.

As I have said in a call speech, there are generally two kinds that come to the law: those that know what they want to do and those that don’t. What I didn’t say is the latter has two sub-categories: those that stay and thrive and those that just survive.

For those that found success elsewhere, I come across those clickbait articles every once in a while: Lawyer leaves practice to open a successful bakery. Makes a million in 6 months. Great! He was a baker truly, not a lawyer. Lawyer leaves legal practice in Malaysia to pick fruit in Australia for money and loves it. Great! She was a fruit picker, not a lawyer. Lawyer becomes insurance agent; hits millionaire round table in 1st year. Congratulations, you were an insurance agent all along.

These are the fortunate ones. They discovered what they were better suited for and left legal practice to pursue it. Kudos to them. I am truly happy for them. I want those ill-suited to the law not to be in legal practice. I wish them out of it to wherever they are better suited.

At least they are not like those that survive i.e., cari makan people in legal practice. The ones that wandered in and languished. They are ill-suited to the practice of law but for some reason or other, they cannot or do not want to leave the profession. They have no genuine interest in what they do and take no pride in their work. These are the strict nine to sixes. Do the bare minimum. They read the clock more often than what they are supposed to. These are the ones that don’t improve or repeat the same mistakes repeatedly.

There are so many other ways to go about earning a living. You don’t have to be a lawyer to earn a living. You don’t have to be a lawyer to make money, which is different from earning a living. In fact, if we really want to make money then legal practice is just an inefficient and unambitious way to go about it. Stupid, even.

Let me explain why.

If we do conveyancing work (selling and purchasing landed property), our fees are ‘regulated’ by the Solicitors Rumeration Order 2005 (SRO2005). I used inverted commas because the SRO2005 is flouted more than followed.

If we do litigation, there is no fee scale. We are free to charge as we think appropriate. However, a client dissatisfied with the fees billed can ‘tax’ the bill. To ‘tax’ a bill is to have the bill assessed by the court for reasonableness given criteria in Order 59 r 16(1) the Rules of Court 2012. Fees for litigation and how lawyers can recover them from clients are regulated by Legal Profession Act 1976 (LPA76) and therefore, the court.

The point is that legal fees, like the legal profession, are regulated.

Ergo, making money is best carried out in a place where there is little or no regulation as to how much we charge for our services or product. We can do things like profit-maximize, marketing, surreptitiously obtaining customers’ consent to keep, sell and trade their data, and spam others.

As lawyers, we cannot do these kinds of things.

And that is the problem with the legal profession or as some prefer to call it, legal business, it is restrained and constrained by regulation. We are a highly regulated profession because of the nature of our work.

We, lawyers, deal with confidential information, clients’ money, other people’s property, and stakeholder money. There is a lot of trust placed in the lawyer to be ethical. Laws make clear to the public the ethical standards lawyers must meet and the repercussions for falling short of them, if they care to know them.

Don’t get me wrong, one can grow rich from the practice of law (although it is less common than the general public thinks). I have heard of and personally know a handful of rich lawyers from legal practice but even then, I am hardly in such hallowed company. That is not a complaint.

But if you want to make money, and make serious money, get out of the legal profession. You are wasting your time here. Found a start-up. Do something novel. Sell it for tens of millions after a few years.

Like Inside Scoop, Malaysia’s homegrown ice cream brand. They sold a 65% stake in the company for RM 83.9 million. Now that is making money. They started in 2013. It’s 2023. That’s RM 83.9 million for 10 years of work. RM 8.39 million per year. How do you likes dems ize-kReaMz? You are likely to realize more than what a majority of lawyers earn in a lifetime of legal practice. I will never earn money like that but that’s fine with me.

That is why when someone tells me they came to practice law to make money, I think them foolish and hope they will not last long. They came to the law for the wrong reasons. These sorts won’t last. I hope they crash and burn fast and leave the profession. Go somewhere more suited to them. All those that complain, can go too. It is best for all concerned.

And for those that want to earn a living by practising law, they will find their way somehow and endure what they have to. Because that’s what they do to earn their living. I just hope it is by the book and not by hook or crook.

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