Will I Ever Argue A Case of Some Importance?

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Will I Ever Argue A Case of Some Importance?

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I asked myself that question from time to time in the first few years of practice when I ran the gamut of debt and traffic claims and defences in the lower courts for the firm.

I asked myself that question during those long, dull and lonely waits. If I weren’t waiting in the subordinate court registry, I’d be waiting in court waiting for my case to be called up.

In the good old days, whatever we filed in the court registry took ages to be sealed or find its way into the court file, if at all it did. If you filed something the day before the court mention date, forget about it being the court file the next day. Either the application or affidavit would be missing or the court file altogether. We had to file them at least a week before the mention or hearing date. But that was no guarantee that it would be in the court file.

Since the digitalization of the courts, lost applications, affidavits, and files are a thing of the past. But in the past, it was a regular and common occurrence, which explained why I was a regular and common visitor to the subordinate court registry.

Back then, the subordinate court registry at the Jalan Raja courts was split into two. The Magistrates Court registry was located just inside the official entrance of the Jalan Raja courthouse buildings. The Sessions Court registry was on the third floor if I am not mistaken. It was a long walk up.

I spent many hours of the morning (sometimes afternoon) under semi-bright fluorescent lights that cast their cold, indifferent light over the cheap-looking wooden partitions and transparent acrylic counter divider, waiting for lost applications and missing court files to be found. Sometimes, I waited for hours only to be told, ‘Fail/permohonan tak jumpa. Tulis surat.‘ (The file/application cannot be found. Write a letter) I often went back disgusted at having wasted a whole morning sitting around unproductively.

The work at the office did not get done while I waited in court.

This was the time before mobile phones and laptops. If you didn’t bring any entertainment to the courts, good luck passing the time if your friends weren’t around. I was always braced for the wait. I had a book, newspaper, notepad, a pen, my files. My tools of entertainment were always close at hand. But even those failed to stem the relentless waves of boredom at times.

Back then, I waited so much in court I used to joke I wasn’t a lawyer but a waiter. I waited for a mention date, a file to be located, an application to be called up, and to see court clerks and officers.

There was always something to wait for.

In those lonely, futile moments, I wondered whether I would ever argue a Federal Court or a Court of Appeal case. Never mind if it is not significant, though any appellate court decision is. It didn’t matter what area of law. It didn’t matter if I won or lost. I was happy to argue any case at that level.

There were occasions when the anxiety of never having an opportunity gripped me. It seemed so far away from my daily work. I did traffic accidents, debt claims and defences, execution proceedings, petty crime and the routine, low-level kind of litigation. I didn’t see how kicking tenants out, auctioning off goods and suing debtors for their dues, never mind spending half my life at the court registries, would elevate me to the exalted heights of arguing fine ethereal points of law in the appellate courts.

I’d like to think I have come a long way from my early days, at least 20+ years of practice worth.

I don’t do routine legal work like I did when I started practice. I am privileged and pleased to be called upon to be involved in a variety of interesting litigation and cases. There is never a dull moment or case. I am privileged to argue matters in the superior courts, not infrequently.

I don’t know whether any of the decisions I was involved with were significant or influential. That matters less to me these days. Anyway, those matters are not for me to declaim. It is for others and legal history to consider. I am simply there to argue the case as ably as I can within my professional ethics, tradition and abilities and to savour the experience along the way in the company of my colleagues.

I’d like to share a few observations from my experience of coming up with legal grunt work in my early practice to conducting cases at the appellate level.

Firstly, it is not about how you start but where you end. We all have to start somewhere. When we start at the beginning, in a long-established profession with deep traditions, it is inevitably at the bottom. There is no shame in starting at the bottom because it is natural. We don’t have experience. We don’t know enough law.

The shame lies in never leaving the bottom.

I learned a lot at the bottom. Though it quickly became drudgery (routine work bores me), those were important years. I learned how to carry out service of documents, what substituted service is all about, judgment in defaults, how to set them aside, striking out, summary judgment, discovery and all kinds of applications. I learned the nitty gritty and the granules in between, as well as a lot of useless stuff.

I learned the various ways to enforce judgments: how to bankrupt someone, wind up a company, sell their belongings or property, and evict tenants. It was just as important to know how to enforce a judgment as it is to obtain one. Although they are no longer at my fingertips, I can still find them around my elbows.

All these basic, low-level, routine work later served me well throughout my career in practice. That work helped lay the foundation for my legal practice.

Second, develop your legal skillset and interests in the law.

Keep your head down and eyes open for the first five to seven of practice. Keep your ears open, too. Focus like a spotlight on your work. Develop your legal skillset and practice relentlessly. Do the drafting. Deal with clients. Complete as many cases or transactions on your own. Listen for opportunities to learn from others. Experiment. Try stuff out.

Concern yourself simply with doing whatever you are given to the best of your abilities. Keep that intensity through your work. Make it an ethic.

Don’t concern yourself with things like curating your work or work life on social media. Don’t waste time trying to market or preening yourself for public consumption unless you want to attract the kind of crowd that lives on social media. Don’t compare yourself to others. We are all on unique, different trajectories in our lives.

Find or set up a firm to settle in with good work and get down to doing the work. Seize every piece of work like that was the only file you had. Believe that if you mess it up, you won’t get any more work. When friends or colleagues call for help, help them.

Find out as much as you can about whatever provision you are invoking and what procedure you need to use. Read the actual statutory or enactment provisions. Read the case law about it. Read around the subject. Go for courses. Ask your friend for guidance, but check his answer.

Let your walk do the talk for you. Make others know you as a sound and formidable lawyer through your work and conduct, not your own words. And if there be words, let them be the words of others.

Quality always finds its way to the top, or close to it, because quality is always appreciated. Quality is scarce. It stands out. Especially next to mediocrity. Quality is irrepressible. If you have cultivated quality, don’t worry. It is simply a matter of time.

Convince others of your quality and qualities with action, not words. And that takes time. It is not instantaneous. But it lasts longer. Positive words travel three times slower than negative words. Don’t watch the time. Watch what you are doing and give it your best.

Third, patience.

A legal career is a long one. By my finger-in-the-wind estimation, we generally enter legal practice between the ages of 23 and 26 years old. If we take a full legal career to be 50 years, that would take us to the ages between 73 and 76 years old. I am nearly halfway there. I hit 25 years of legal practice next year.

On the one hand, I can’t believe it’s been that long. On the other hand, I can’t believe there’s still half a career in legal practice left if I live that long. It feels like at least two or three legal practice legal lifetimes since I began.

If you are in the legal profession for the long haul, work towards the long term. Try more areas of law or deepen your interest in one. Refining your legal skillset takes practice, effort and time. Lots of time. So take time. Don’t rush it. Having a mentor enriches and accelerates learning and provides opportunities.

All those add up to experience. Building a legal career based on a solid legal skillset sets us up for a long time in practice.

Don’t worry if nobody knows you early on in practice. We all start that way. If you work smart and hard, and your work starts to speak for itself, others will notice and talk about it. Opportunities appear. Find opportunities to do the kind of cases you want to do. Or imagine each case as the one you wanted to do.

Don’t worry about taking your time.

Fourth, friends and comrades-in-cause.

Both are important for our mental, psychological and legal well-being. They are there to console, inspire, support and help us. They pick us up when we are down. They raise us higher when we are up. It is our duty to do the same for them.

A comrade-in-cause are those in the trenches struggling for the same cause as I am. The comrades-in-cause comprehend, if not share, our disappointments and frustrations, including the legal arguments that go with them.

If I didn’t have friends and comrades-in-cause, I would have left legal practice long ago. As much as I love and enjoy legal practice, I know that much about it is disappointing, enervating, disgusting, and hypocritical. Friends and comrades-in-cause are the balm to my encounters with those kinds of situations and people. They are the ones who restore my faith in people and in the law. They remind me that amidst all the bad, there is still good, and we should strive for better.

Fifth, think organic.

I am not talking about produce. I have in mind the nature of growth we should have about ourselves and things around us.

Organic. That means ‘developing in the manner of a living plant or animal’. That means growing and developing naturally. Growth is not hurried. It is not forced. And the rate of growth is incremental and modest. It is not exponential. It is not artificial.

Whether personal or firm-wide, organic growth is sustainable over the long term; it is slow but steady. Organic growth is like taking a walk. Exponential growth looks exciting over the short term, but rarely can we sustain it over the long term. Exponential growth is running very, very fast before you warm up. The inevitable hurt comes later. It fails in the long run because it is unnatural and dehumanizing.

Since a legal career is a long one, go organic. Take your time. There is no hurry. Read things carefully. Think things through. Explore what you don’t know. Do not violate your integrity and those of others to get things done faster. You only hurt yourself in the end.

Those who try to grow quickly remind me of those on the roads who want to get ahead fast. For all their overtaking, zig-zagging and light flashing, my car is right behind them at the traffic light or toll booth. Bluster doesn’t make us faster. Bluster is just bluster.

Finally, luck and faith.

Luck because not everything is in our control. In fact, few things are actually in our control. The stoics tell us the only thing we can really control is our reaction to events. That is an important clue. I don’t believe we can make our own luck, but we can prepare ourselves when it comes or be sensitive to its presence.

Faith because there is much we don’t know in terms of knowledge and what is going to happen. The future is unknown and not lived yet. We will never have perfect knowledge. We will never know what’s going to happen. So, faith in ourselves, our abilities, and our hopes and expectations is important and necessary to keep us going.

I believe if we keep working on our legal skill set, remain patient, humble and open-minded, cultivate the appropriate friends and comrades-in-arms, take our time, grow organically, be ready for luck and keep the faith; we will get to wherever it is we want to be.

That was how I came to answer the question I asked myself.

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