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Of the legal profession, inhouse counseling and staying power

October 27, 2020

I hope everyone is coping well during these unprecedented times. Perseverance is of utmost importance. I see people losing their jobs, salaries get deducted (some more than others) and a multitude of other challenges. Praying hard we get over this. In one piece. And together.

Yesterday I came across a tweet from a young lawyer about being disillusioned with the legal profession. Lamenting difficulties from studying for the degree up to issues faced in the profession.

For those not conversant in Bahasa Malaysia, the tweet literally translates to, “It’s difficult getting a law degree, to get admitted to the Bar and being a lawyer…” and it continues in English. Asking the position of fellow young lawyers and considering the possibility that young lawyers may be in the profession having no other choice and due to their passion or the investment they made in obtaining a law degree.

It’s disheartening to know/find out that young lawyers these days are feeling that way. I figured the challenges in going to court, getting flak from judges/seniors/clients stay pretty much the same. The same very much applies in drafting agreements and again to cater to clients’ needs. I too went through it. It’s demoralising as a young lawyer having prepared thoroughly (or so I thought) for a trial but finding yourself being trumped by your opponent. Even worse if it’s caused by something you could’ve avoided or been aware of beforehand. All that culminating with getting an earful from the client for good measure.

I used to go through all that and more. Going to court almost everyday for many years, I’ve had my fair share of emotional beatings. It’s the emotional bit that hurt a lot. Not to mention the stress in the preparation and the potential negative aftermath that follows. I used to have clients rant and rave on the phone to me on Sundays. Which is strange when it would not have cost anything for the call to be made on the following day. At times I do feel I became the clients’ punching bag for some odd reason. I agree it was not an easy life and it’s really easy to consider giving it all up. Being a young lawyer I sometimes question my own motivation.

So I can thoroughly understand if young lawyers feel utterly demoralised. Oh and the pay’s not great either. If you work hard enough (and probably play your cards right) you can be promoted to the firm’s partnership. Which doesn’t really mean the suffering is over. Two situations here: you may be a salaried partner where you’ll be paid a fixed salary and receive some commission from the fees you receive. The other situation is where you are in an equity partnership where you get to share the spoils in terms of the firm’s annual income. Sounds really good isn’t it? In fact in many ways the real hard work is only starting. You’ve got to find work and collect fees. Which is not easy unless you’re in one of the larger firms. Even they are having problems getting work nowadays, what with the pandemic and all.

I started practice life as a litigator. Went to court everyday for a number of years. After a few years of practice I became a Partner in a mid-sized firm. As said before, I had to do other work (apart from my usual litigation work, which I enjoy although in fairness I did learn a lot. Useful now but more on that later), find new clients, collect fees and of course cover overheads. The stress was on another level. Significant difference from the days when I was only a legal assistant. It just came to a point when I didn’t feel the enjoyment I once had as a legal practitioner. That was when I made the biggest decision of my life (up to that point) and ceased practice without a job standing by. I just had enough of practice. The difference between the sentiment in the tweet I shared before was I reached that point after about 10 years in practice. Maybe I just had better tolerance levels or more patience I’m not sure.

I was jobless for a number of months. Then I got a call from Sime Darby Property Berhad (Sime UEP Properties Berhad then). To be honest when I went inhouse, I really appreciated the fact that I was a practitioner before. The skills I acquired during practice proved to be invaluable in the way I carried myself and my work. It just felt like I fit in well and have found my niche being inhouse. The rest, as they say, is history. Where I am now, I’m feeling reasonably content and looking forward to the challenge.

Ever since then I’ll always advise younger lawyers to stay in practice, at least for three years. Five years would be ideal. Legal practice trains you on creative ways to think and approach issues. You also meet all sorts of people thus honing your people skill. It’s a massively underrated quality, is people skill. Learning the art of diplomacy and practicing it well inevitably will prove to be useful in the corporate world. It does present a different set of pressures from legal practice, but qualities learnt from practice will serve you well. Which I found out ever since I started going inhouse.

I urge young lawyers to persevere, keep chugging along and take advantage from all the learnings it presents. I’m well aware the situation nowadays is markedly different to the days when I was in practice. But the virtues of patience, tolerance and composure will always be relevant and never go out of time. So to my younger brethren, keep on with the good work and one day you’ll see the rewards.

Note: I wanted to write about leaving practice and starting an online business to keep up with the present trend, but I’m sadly rather ill-prepared to do so.

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