Singapore

10 Things I Wish I Knew When I Started Practice (And How To Be A Better Lawyer)

Like Irving Younger’s 10 Commandments of Cross-Examination, these are the 10 things I wish I knew – and which I still try to digest – when I started practice (and naturally as I continue practice).

I thought this somewhat neurotic piece might speak to the junior lawyers out there who perhaps find themselves in situations I was in before. Or perhaps mid-career lawyers, who identify (or not) with the things I say below and consider this piece as an affirmation of their own lessons and experience.

I won’t hazard that this may be of use to senior practitioners, but who knows?

I’ve therefore come up with 10 rules which, in my view, make a great lawyer.

1. You’re Not As Clever As You Think You Are

The very first thing junior lawyers learn extremely quickly – if they are ever to become competent – is that they are no where as smart as they think they are.

Sure, you qualified to read law and successfully graduated with your second-class upper honours – or even a first – but believe you me, there are lawyers your senior, junior or equal, who are just as motivated as you may be without having the hang up that they think they’re intelligent.
Accepting that you know little to nothing is the first step towards becoming a great lawyer.

Not all people have this problem, but quite a fair number do. They graduated from the top junior colleges, had always been ahead of their peers, qualified for what is generally considered a prestigious course and successfully completed it to boot.

If you have a hint of an ego, I highly recommend you consider the words of one of the foremost former Associate Judges of the Supreme Court of the United States of America:-

“In truth, I am nothing but a plodding mediocrity—please observe, a plodding mediocrity—for a mere mediocrity does not go very far, but a plodding one gets quite a distance. There is joy in that success, and a distinction can come from courage, fidelity and industry.”

Benjamin Nathan Cardozo (May 24, 1870 – July 9, 1938

I was a cocky, thought-I-knew-it-all, arrogant trainee. And that made me un-teachable. And because I was lucky enough to have mentors who wanted to push and train me, they had to disabuse me of the notion of my own intelligence and for that I am eternally grateful.

Humility and courtesy in a highly competitive and ego-driven profession will be your distinguishing and defining feature.

2. Craftsmanship

There is a reason law is referred to as an honourable profession. Most people don’t see what’s honourable about it and some lawyers themselves harbour doubt.

That aside, the word “professional” use to be a term of art, referring almost exclusively to doctors and lawyers (and arguably auditors). Now almost every job is labeled as a profession.

So instead of saying that you should treat law as a profession, my view is that you should approach the art of lawyering as a craft which you hone each and every day until it becomes a part of you.

Like that Leica camera or lens which is individually inspected and crafted to the highest quality – or that hand-stitched birkin bag – or even that hand-carved wooden trinket you picked up from the Christmas market in Munich, the practice of law is as much a craft as any of those.

The moment you feel that law is merely a job to sustain you – which is perfectly fine by the way – know that you will never reach the upper echelons of your career, which is reserved only for those who dutifully, expertly and meticulously practice their craft.

This means grinding, grinding and grinding. It means that you never stop learning. It means reviewing every submission you make before you make it and reviewing it after. It means measuring the temperature of the courtroom or boardroom (as you get more senior). It means that it doesn’t get easier; you just get better.

Ultimately, it means a lifelong disciplined dedication to the contribution of something greater than yourself, but which at the same time is so much a part of your own core and being.

3. There Is Always A Way

You’ve pored over textbooks for hours, you’ve burned the midnight oil – you’ve searched legal journals and explored the case law of other jurisdictions but you still can’t find the answer.

Well, I’m here to tell you that there is always a way. Note not an answer, but a way to resolve the situation and achieve the best outcome possible.

Even if the answer is that there is no answer – which may not be commercially viable – you have to be sure of this absolute fact and then ask yourself how you are going to overcome that very same burden to deliver on a deadline.

If your case has legal difficulties that prove an impasse, explore the commercial situation between the parties. Clients want an answer and a solution and this, more often than not, isn’t legal in nature. The law helps them get there but sometimes when the law’s not with you, what then do you do?

Maximize the win and minimize the loss. Just as with any other points-based game.

Oh, and equity is not beyond the age of child-bearing and neither is Singapore’s jurisprudence. Just because it hasn’t been done before doesn’t mean it can’t be done.

4. The Art Of Persuasion
This dovetails nicely with the last point. You have to understand what you’re senior is asking of you, and to pay close attention to what you are specifically being asked to do.

So you follow the senior’s instructions to the letter, but you have your own thoughts about how the case should be run. Put that aside immediately. Do what you are told to do in the first instance by someone with (hopefully) more experience than you.

When you’ve completed your primary objective, then pursue your alternative arguments on your own time. If you’re sure that your suggestion makes legal, factual and commercial sense, don’t raise it at the first instance. Go through what you were supposed to do with the lawyer / partner who set you the task.

Then, having satisfied all queries and noted down all follow ups, bring up the alternative point you thought was worth looking into. Practice the art of persuasion by perhaps saying:-

“Oh, I’ve also considered the issue from [this particular angle]. I think it is something we may want to look closer at if you feel that it is a viable course of action.”

Have your material handy, highlighted, tabbed and ready to prove your point. If you expect your partner to go into Court with your argument to persuade the judge, you’d better be prepared to stand there and persuade the lawyer himself.

There’s a caveat to this rule though – if you try to persuade and are flatly told no – accept it and move on. If you feel extremely strongly about it, perhaps mention it once again in brief passing to see if it catches.

If not, your job is to do what you’re told to do as the partner has formed a view as to how he or she wants to run the case and achieve the objective.

Ultimately, your job is to be the best assisting counsel you can be. Even when you’re lead counsel, you’re still duty-bound to assist the Court. For corporate counsel, it means advising, assisting and leading the client.

5. Unlearn What You Have Learned

Those of you who are Star Wars fans will appreciate this one.

After spending all those years learning how to think and be a competent assisting counsel, you have to unlearn the way you’ve been taught to process and piece things together.

It’s not that the jigsaw pieces are no longer useful, just that the puzzle has changed. For example, the skill you require to do research remains the same, or to follow up and chase an oblique point down to oblivion – but getting more senior requires that you martial more information and oversee more cases.

Your skill set must adapt to the change in roles and responsibilities. From learning how to do good research (which you may in any event have to do regardless), you have to learn how to spot good research, meaning identifying where the cracks are, how to give pointers and giving clear instructions to get the result you need.

From learning how to draft, you have to learn how to revise a draft and for me this means ensuring that all the necessary and critical material remain inside, although I generally do not make stylistic changes.

You don’t exchange time for money as you get more senior, even though you still enter billable time. What you exchange is experience for remuneration and learning this earlier rather than later is a lesson that cannot come too soon.

On a somewhat separate note, there comes a time when a different way of doing things is proposed / implemented. Give it a chance and if it proves useful, unlearn what you’ve learned and adapt with the times.

6. Work With A Kind Boss (Competence & Capability Assumed)

First and foremost, this assumes your boss is capable, intelligent and has a great deal to teach you. But this is true of almost every partner (bar the incompetent outliers).

What’s most important is that you work for a boss which is kind. They can be hard on you, they can be difficult to work with, they can have their idiosyncrasies and they can be downright strange – but it often goes unsaid that you should ensure that you work for a kind and good person.

My dad told me that if I wanted to see what my life in the future would be like, all I had to do was to look at the partners that I worked with and for and that would be what I would become.

Working with the same person every day rubs off on you – and if you work with an asshole, then well…that’s what you’ll be in 10 years or less if you work really hard at it.
7. Build A Collegiate Atmosphere

This is probably where I need to take a little of my own advice.
You probably spend more time with your colleagues than you do with your friends or family. This is particularly true of the practice of law.

It therefore makes sense to ensure that even if you can’t make everyone your best friend, it’s good to get to know your colleagues on a personal level. They’ll be the ones covering for you, and the ones in the trenches next to you on the eve of trial.

I somehow was never able to achieve this, having developed a siege mentality from a very early stage. It’s something that I’m working to change, but it’s important to empathise and care for your colleagues.

8. Stand Up And Be Counted (When It Matters)

When difficult situations arise, and you are put in an impossible position, stand up for what you believe in and be counted. Just make sure that the situation calls for it and you’re prepared to deal with the consequences of your actions.

As Edmund Burke so starkly put it:-

The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.

Know what you stand for because if you don’t stand for anything, you’ll fall for anything.

The End

Like Irving Younger put it in his seminal speech on cross-examination (viewable here), there aren’t really 10 commandments, more like 6 or 7. He just put them in the form of 10 as it has that ring to it.

So – well – I only have 8 suggestions, and hope you find them useful.
Best,
Alex

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