Updated: Mar 12, 2021
Legal practice today is progressing tremendously. Driven by digitalisation and the welcome embrace of technology, even simple things like case management are now conducted very differently (from the comfort of your office, rather than after hours of waiting outside the registrar’s room) from when I entered the profession not 5 years ago. However, irrespective of your intended area of practice, there are general skill sets that would be beneficial to develop as a lawyer in Malaysia.
1. Avoiding legalese (or in non-legalese, write simply)
I recently came across the following passage in a judgment by Lord Roskill while conducting research on a tax avoidance matter:
“It is perhaps worth recalling the warning given albeit in another context by Lord Atkin, who himself dissented in the Duke of Westminster's case, in United Australia Ltd. v. Barclays Bank Ltd.  A.C. 1, 29:
"when these ghosts of the past stand in the path of justice clanking their mediaeval chains the proper course for the judge is to pass through them undeterred."
1936, a bare half-century ago, cannot be described as part of the Middle Ages but the ghost of the Duke of Westminster and of his transaction, be it noted a single and not a composite transaction, with his gardener and with other members of his staff has haunted the administration of this branch of the law for too long. I confess that I had hoped that that ghost might have found quietude with the decisions in Ramsay and in Burmah. Unhappily it has not. Perhaps the decision of this House in these appeals will now suffice as exorcism."
I must confess myself to be enamoured by writings like these that have brightened many a long evening in law school and have lamented the lack of room for it in my everyday practice. However, simplicity in writing works best, whether you are drafting a legal opinion to a client or crafting legal submissions for a court matter.
2. Ability to work with different people
You will encounter different types of people in practice, some of whom will be your bosses, clients, judges, or opponents. In your early days of practice, some of these people will nurture and encourage you, some will be condescending and dismissive, whilst others may be outright indifferent. Nonetheless, your ability to get your job done should remain unaffected regardless of who you work with, or for.
If you have ever developed a reputation of being ‘difficult to work with’, do not carry that label as a badge of honour. If your work performance is exceptional, you may be tolerated, but never liked. And if you are merely competent, well, there is no shortage of competent lawyers available in the job market.
3. Managing expectations
High expectations, be it from clients, judges, or your bosses can (optimistically) be construed as an indicator of trust in your ability as a lawyer. However, it is always crucial to align the expectations on you with your anticipated ability to deliver. Advise clients on the strengths and weaknesses in their case, highlight potential pitfalls, delays, or problems that you expect to face or perhaps seek a deadline extension in advance if your workload is too heavy. Above all, never overpromise and under-deliver.
4. Building relationships
Building and maintaining relationships are important in and outside of legal practice. Clients may first instruct you because of many reasons, be it the reputation of your firm, a professional referral, or simply because you are priced more competitively than your competitors. Whether or not that first engagement results in a long-term professional relationship (i.e. more work, more fees) depends on your ability to instill trust in your ability to deliver, and the personal relationship you have built.
It is easy to be open-minded to ideas and advice from your seniors (for most of us, this is mandatory rather than optional). However, the very best practitioners display the ability to accept or consider ideas and arguments from all levels of people, including their juniors.
My erstwhile Master, a senior practitioner at the Bar now in his fourth decade of practice, told me on the first day I met him that: “just because I happened to be born a number of years earlier than you doesn’t automatically mean that I am wiser or smarter than you, or that what you say is necessarily worth less”. The ability to accept and evaluate an idea or argument solely on merit, is an important skill to have.
Essentially, you must recognise that legal practice is just that i.e. ‘practice’. Practice in taking the skill sets that you have acquired in university, the BPTC or CLP, and transferring them into your early years at the Bar, and then honing them continuously through experience.
Credits to Chis Toh, Tax Lawyer,
Lee Hishammuddin Allen & Gledhill