I had wished that other senior practitioners had told me some practical aspects of legal practice bluntly and directly (and maybe even curtly), when I was still new and fresh from the oven. But for some reason, they didn’t always do so, and I had to learnt many of these things the hard way over the years.
My views below may differ from other practitioners, and is painted solely from my personal perspective of litigation practice in Peninsula Malaysia, especially in a small firm setting. Nonetheless, I believe having some mindfulness of these things would help propel any fresh or wannabee lawyer ahead of their peers:
1.Learn the Common Practices & Customs of the Firm
There is a saying, “When in Rome, do what the Romans do”. Nothing could be further from the truth when one joins a new firm.
Most firms have a certain ‘standard’, from the way letters and other documents are drawn, so usage of phrases/words deviating from that which are so common ground (although you may be linguistically right) may not be appreciated. What to do? Observe or ask for samples from the clerks or other lawyers, and imitate what you find from your own fair observation of what appears to be ‘standard’, and be prepared to take some beating when you err to do so.
Unless it is something unethical or highly impractical, toe the line until you gain sufficient seniority to become a trend setter. At other times, the right occasion must first be sought before voicing out one’s views of dissent (and even that comes with risks).
2.Creative Legal Research
Whenever one talks about legal research, most dive head-in into online legal databases in search of answers. That is however not always the fastest, best or even surest way to procure an answer. Instead, try a variation of the following when it opportune:
a)Google Search, and surprise yourself with the discovery of articles written by others with relevant case citation which could be right to the point.
b)Do a court file search on relevant case laws to discover how papers are prepared by more experienced practitioners for unfamiliar legal proceedings.
c)For non-apex court reported cases, consider contacting the lawyers or even the court of the given case. Why? Most cases only became ‘reported’ cases because a dissatisfied party appealed, forcing the presiding court to provide its written grounds of judgment which soon find their way into reported case law, although subsequently overruled on appeal.
d)Be familiar with the table of contents of the various legal textbooks available in your firm. Referring to a textbook in a specialized area of law can be faster way, than digging at a Lexis Nexis database.
e)Consider sourcing decided cases of your present presiding judge. Judges are more likely inclined to follow their own past decided cases, albeit being merely persuasive, since no judge likes to think that he/she decided wrongly in previous matters.
3.Unspoken Rules of Legal Ethics
The ethics learned in law school and subsequent courses as part of my legal education all sounded like a set of rules which members of a legal profession had to abide. For example, legal ethics dictated that one must not mislead the court and whereas, the interaction between fellow members of the Bar should be laced with ‘candour’ and ‘courtesy’.
But true legal ethics is bigger than a set of rules, it ought to become an inherent trait and quality of a practitioner. Afterall, ‘courtesy’ is so broad - no rule of ethics could possibly itemize every given situation of acceptable courtesy. It thus requires some thoughtfulness to be imbued into ethics. Some unspoken ones include greeting court clerks and fellow lawyers in court and in appropriate occasions, to even given a courtesy call to an adversary on a certain course of direction which one may wish to take in each legal proceeding.
There was once when I was waiting in court and another group of lawyers were set to proceed for trial. When their matter was called, a lawyer stood up and requested adjournment of the trial - parties had also consensually agreed to do so. The judge was however entirely unimpressed, as the court was not informed prior, and the judge had already spent the night before reading the brief. Parties were thus directed to proceed with the trial regardless. Perhaps, some practical-common-sense-courtesy by writing to the court earlier could had avoided the embarrassment.
4.Be Service Orientated
Clients must be treated like babies, as there are no legal and advocacy skills to perform, if there are no clients. It is not an understatement to call each client a ‘baby’, as every client appoints a lawyer to champion and to fight for their course. In that respect, clients ‘demand’ to see that their lawyer actively and passionately engages in their matter. To continue this ongoing relationship with a client, some lawyers believe that attending regular social functions with a client is necessary.
I believe, sticking to the following basics will be most helpful, such as:
a)Keeping clients closely informed on the progress of their matter from time to time through emails, text messages and even phone calls make a huge difference. A common complaint of client dissatisfaction is often that their lawyer was either too busy, uncontactable or were not properly informed over their matter.
b)Adopting effective communication with a client through baby step explanations. For instance, rather than saying, “We can procure an ex parte interim prohibitory injunction against your abusive husband”, say instead, “We can get a court order to stop your husband from continuing his abuse”.
c)Offer viable and practical solutions to a client’s problem. That includes recognizing that contesting a matter head-on in court is not necessary a good solution, even if procedurally possible. Sometimes, taking leverage over a weakness of an adversary’s position can prevent costly litigation, as it so often happens in the popular American legal drama series, The Suits.
d)It goes without saying that in all ongoing files, keep to court datelines and continue to mend the fort.