8 tips for young lawyers
8 tips for young lawyers
Folly is bound in the heart of a child; but the rod of correction shall drive it far from him
Litigation is a minefield replete with career-ending pitfalls.
All it takes for a Disciplinary Board hearing to be called is one unhappy client or a misconstrued email. It is of the imperative that lawyers keep on their toes and ensure that nothing has the slightest opportunity of going awry.
It is hoped that the mistakes I have made and learnt from would be of use to the reader (and serve as a timely reminder to myself!).
1. Time management
Hang out with a group of young lawyers and what's the first complaint that will be bandied about? Work (or rather, its surfeit).
It is no revelation that lawyers are overworked and from the recent survey carried out by eLawyer Malaysia; underpaid. One need only compare the salary scale for lawyers against that of medical doctors to see that the latter does hold true.
Despite this, the noble calling of being a lawyer still holds sway amongst graduates and from anecdotal evidence, I am fairly certain that numbers are not on a downward spiral.
Despite this, a work-life balance needs to be struck and effectively allotting one's time has never been more important.
The best way to do this would be by rigorously policing internet habits.
An invaluable application to combat the creep of social media is Cold Turkey. This excellent programme is absolutely free (or you could make a charitable donation towards the Against Malaria Foundation prior to download) and is not easily uninstalled.
All you would need to do would be to put in the URLs of the websites that you intend to block (e.g., reddit.com and facebook.com), set the times for when the block is to take place and voilà! You're in productivity heaven. For mobiles, try Self Control for Study.
2. Draft well
Teach a man to fish and he'll feed himself for a lifetime. Teach a lawyer to draft and you've successfully measured how long a piece of string is.
Drafting is an intimate moment between lawyer and parchment; what you put to paper is a culmination of your skills and abilities that will never be handled by another lawyer in quite the same way.
Be it Notices of Application, Affidavits or Submissions, each draft is an individual snowflake with its own particular strengths and foibles.
I believe that it is essential to develop one's personalised drafting stance early on. This should be tweaked accordingly as new skills and abilities are gained but ultimately, a lawyer must concern himself with these 2 pithy questions:
a) Does it put forth the Client's position whilst being legally correct?
b) Is it ethical?
If the two are answered in the affirmative, then it’s relatively safe to say that the draft is on the right track.
An excellent command of English is essential. Before any drafting exercise is undertaken, it is always useful to draw up a skeletal frame. With a frame, you are less likely to ramble and the possibility of leaving out a relevant issue(s!) is reduced.
An excellent primer on legal drafting is available here. It outlines further resources that would be of assistance.
Reading goes hand in glove with writing. If you don’t have the time to read, you will not have the time (or the ability) to write well. Grammatical mistakes and syntax errors abound in many legal documents and eradication is only possible if the writer takes the time to consider this overarching question: Does it sound right?
The ability to consider whether a sentence “sounds right” comes only from reading. By the digestion of articles, books and magazines, one is able to look at a sentence and immediately tell if a grammatical error has been made. An easy example would be “than” and “then”; far too many use these terms interchangeably and if it was to appear in a letter or affidavit, it comes off as being exceedingly sloppy.
An easy fix for this would be to read more and to read often. Set aside a dedicated time for reading and follow through.
Many lament that they do not have the time to read but this cannot be true; George W Bush read numerous books during his tenure as President of the United States and I wholeheartedly believe that not many are as busy as a President.
A good mobile application to keep one’s reading consistent is Moon+Reader. It’s free and you will be allowed full access to innumerable classics.
The copyright has run out on these books allowing them to be freely distributed. It’s a great way to keep the reading habit going (or ignite it) when commuting or waiting for your Case Management to start.
4. Accumulate knowledge
It is always useful to know something that you previously didn’t. This ties in with the point made before; read widely and without discrimination.
If an issue is outside your field of practice or even if it’s completely unrelated, take a moment to read it.
Skim it if you must but try your very best to get to the kernel of the matter. You will never know when this knowledge may come in handy. It may be in Court or it may be at a swanky networking event; either way, should the circumstance arise, you will be glad to not play the part of a buffoon.
In addition, always keep abreast of the times. Newspapers (local and international) are freely available online and it is always useful to keep an eye on The Edge Malaysia’s publications. Don’t be the person who asks “What’s going on in Gaza?”
Take a few minutes out of your day to read up on issues aside from law. A good place to start would be NowIKnow. Just input your email address and receive well-written, perennially interesting articles sent to your inbox daily. If it helps, Dan Lewis who authors these articles is also a lawyer.
5. Be friendly
Don’t hold a grudge against that Registrar who refused your extension and don’t scowl if they’re somewhat slow. Court staff have an excellent recollection for faces and it’s always easier to exchange pleasantries than barbs.
Be nice to the opposing side. Remember, it’s your clients that are quibbling, not you and the other lawyer. Indulge in banter and the occasional time extension; don’t be unnecessarily belligerent but at the same time, don’t be easy game.
A maxim to take to heart when mulling over any request from the other side is this: Today you, tomorrow me. You will never know when you may need to pull in a favour, so entrench yourself in everyone’s good books.
6. Communicate with your client
Communication: the means to make or break one’s reputation, career, life and limbs.
Clients are never the easiest people to deal with. In litigious situations, most clients come in an emotional state. They are angry at a perceived slight and at times, their decisions may seem irrational.
Flip the tables, though. Imagine that you are the client and you have been wronged. Angry and hurt, you seek out your lawyer and lay your cards face up.
Your lawyer promises that he will do his best. You leave filled with hope and then… radio silence.
A month goes by, then two. Calls and emails remain unanswered and you are repeatedly told by his receptionist that he is out.
In such a situation, it is easy to see why a client may go rogue. The entire situation could have been averted if the client had just been kept updated along the way.
In the scenario outlined above, the lawyer may well have prepared a detailed opinion and drafted a preliminary set of pleadings but due to his failure to communicate, he would be met by an apoplectic client.
With the ubiquity of email, there really is no excuse for non-communication. A few simple lines to update the client as to the latest happenings in his case may seem trivial to a lawyer but to a client, those few lines take on a hue of their own.
For lawyers who utilise Gmail, an interesting add-on is Boomerang for Gmail. If you can’t respond in time, “boomerang” the email back to your inbox at a later time or date. That way, you won’t forget the email (as some are wont to do) and are allowed a little breathing space.
7. Attend Continuing Professional Development (CPD) events
Would you willingly be treated by a surgeon whose last refresher course was in the year he was admitted into the medical profession?
Why then should a client trust a lawyer who doesn’t keep himself updated as to the latest legal developments?
CPD Courses are a relative newcomer to the Malaysian legal field but as the saying goes, better late than never.
At the 2014 Annual General Meeting, I was dismayed to note that many are still opposed to the notion of attending CPD Courses. The hackneyed excuse put forth: I am too busy.
This will come off as abrasive but if you’re too busy to improve yourself in your chosen professional career, then you’re better off engaging in mindless drivel. With the ever-growing globalised stance of the legal profession, remaining opposed to professional development is akin to the proverbial ostrich (despite the insertion of its head into sand being a myth, you understand what I’m getting at).
CPD Courses allow Malaysian lawyers to consider different facets of the industry. Many rail against this and believe that just because one primarily handles litigious matters, strictly corporate work is non-palatable (and vice versa).
To have a grasp of different practice areas is essential. Knowledge of corporate matters as a litigator would allow one to know where and what to look for in an agreement.
Similarly, a corporate lawyer with a good grasp of litigation would understand the impact of certain clauses better and be in a position to draft agreements holistically. This is only a boon to clients and to deny them the same is backward.
Several CPD Courses are free and the year’s itinerary is accessible here.
8. Embrace technology
Industries fail when they do not adhere to the trajectory of technology. As dusty as the legal profession may present itself to be, it is of the imperative that lawyers take hold of technology and run with it.
Many do not utilise LexisNexis and CLJ Law effectively, making searches for case law a protracted affair. It is important that a good grasp on this is made early on in one’s career; trying to master the intricacies of silicone when older, as with most undertakings, is much more difficult.
Do also get into the habit of scanning and saving important documents and letters. There have been numerous occasions on which this habit has saved me much time and hassle.
If you were to lose your opponent’s submissions, it is less humbling to simply print out a scanned copy than to make a sheepish phone call. Applications such as Dropbox allow for documents to be readily accessible anywhere and ought to always be in one’s toolkit.
The law, as with any profession, is protean. It morphs in a chameleon-like fashion and as cliché as it is, a failure to keep up with leave you blinking in the dust. Consistent and conscious efforts at self-improvement are the only way in which a young lawyer will be able to truly shine.
I am certain that as the years progress, I shall update and refine this list. Keep this space in view and do feel free to add your own tips.
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