Words to a pupil, over coffee

As you enter into pupillage, what would you like to know? What is it like on the other side of the fence? What does a pupil-master expect of a pupil?

A few months ago you were at the university; and now you are at the Bar.  What would your life be like for the next nine months?

The Bar is not a local tavern, but a body of legal practitioners.

An acolyte entering the Bar is called a ‘pupil.’

Some lawyers use the word, ‘chambee’.

Those who do know nothing of the Legal Profession Act 19761See section 12(1) or the Traditions of the Bar. [Click here for the Traditions of the Bar. You would do well to understand them].

So avoid the term ‘chambee’. It detracts from the master’s dignity, and denigrates the pupil.

The senior practitioner who supervises the pupil is called the ‘pupil-master’.

The word, ‘Master’ is of old coinage.2Ibid It is not to be taken in a literal sense.  A master is only a guide.  You are not his slave.

Teaching styles

Pupil-masters have different styles of teaching.

Some are good; and some are indifferent.

There are those who exploit.

And there are those who are beyond the pale.

Avoid the latter like the plague.

Every profession has them.

My own training

As a pupil you aspire to be trained under a good pupil-master: that is, if you desire to become a good lawyer.

I had similar aspirations.

Most pupils don’t care for that.

They want to get over the nine months of ‘forced internship’ and desire to be cut loose.

We’ll come to that soon.

I was trained in a mid-sized firm.

They huddled us into a Pupil’s Room.

When summoned, we went out to face the staff, the lawyers and sometimes, the masters.

We were only cannon fodder.

We did the work everyone avoided:the photocopying, the binding, the indexing, and the highlighting of caselaw.

We were the local porters.

We carried all of our pupil-masters’ bags.

We filed documents in court; and sometimes, when the firm’s despatch clerks were busy, or the chief clerk was feeling particularly sadistic, we served documents as well.

All that experience came in useful when I had my own chambers:

I did not have to beg anyone to do anything.

I knew exactly what was to be done, and in what order.

The master’s staff had taught us well.

Sometimes I still do it.

My pupillage was a trying time.

I had a pupil-master who was hard to please.

In fact, I ended up having not one but two good pupil-masters, both leaders in their own fields.

We called them the ‘Two Bosses’.

They would influence my career, but I did not know it at that time.

Many senior practitioners, who had trained under the Two Bosses, still speak of each fondly: on how much they have learned from them.

My pupil-master once said to me:

“If you can take me, you can take on anyone, any judge, any opponent, anywhere”.

After two-and-a-half decades, I find him to be right.

The material masters work with

One can master the law eventually; but to master aptitude – that takes genes, and patience.

When pupils present themselves to us, we have to work with all sorts of material.

Like putty, pupils come in all manner of colour and consistency.

A good pupil requires only a little buffing.

A bad one requires major re-alignment.

Some require rock sculpting.

Unlike putty, some pupils cannot be shaped at all.

Pupils have simple demands: they want to do minimal work, and reap all the benefits

Pupils want to ‘do’ ‘corporate law’ (without knowing what that means, but ‘Corporate Work’ does have a ring of self-importance to it, does it not?)

They want to earn loads of money (well, at least, I can hear them say “7.5K within 3 years?”), and own a BMW, in short order.

They ask to leave chambers for the pub by 5.00 p.m.

They also need Saturdays off and are often heard to say:

“What do you mean, I don’t get to be a partner in four years?”

Yet, even into their sixth month, most pupils are unable to master the most basic legal concepts:

They are unable to distinguish fundamental legal terminology, (e.g. the difference between a warranty, a term and a condition, and how this distinction matters in practice).

They do not possess enough confidence to write a simple letter to a client.

They do not know how to speak to a client who is hurting inside, who seeks assurance, and a legal remedy.

The pupils I have trained

I have had numerous pupils.  I remember them all. Each was unique.

It seems to me that as time passes, pupils’ expectations seem to be getting more and more outlandish.

They desire the benefits of the legal profession, but will not bear its burdens.

Pupils do not realise that the burden comes first.

Juniors have to wait upon the benefits, which will come later – much later. [Mine took ten years].

This is the complaint of the entire senior Bar.

Some techniques cannot be taught – they must be experienced 

Some things I can teach you.

Some things I cannot.

These are beyond instruction.

You have to pick it up by observation; and by doing the job.

You have to be thrown into the deep end of the pool.

You may feel traumatised, but you shall have to find a way out.

It is a typical commando technique.

Remember the phrase,“Learning the ropes”?3Some people say this is a nautical phrase. Sailors had to master different kinds of knots; and learn which rope hoisted or lowered which sail. Some others say the phrase comes from the theatre. There, as the acts of a play progressed, ropes raised and lowered scenery. For example, James Skene’s travel mémoire, Italian Journey, [1802] states: “I am a stranger and… I beg you to show me how I ought to proceed… You know the ropes and can give me good advice”.  Contrast that with Richard H. Dana Jr’s Two years before the mast, [1840], who says: “The captain, who had been on the coast before and ‘knew the ropes,’  took the steering oar”.  Go to the Phrase Finder

That is exactly it.

You cannot be taught to how to yank the halyard until you get it into your hands.

You have to sense the pull of the mainsail: the same thing in law.

So I have to teach you that.

So you shall have to hang around me all day.  You have to observe-and learn from- what I do.  When I have a moment to spare I will explain why I did something in a certain way.  Often, I will not, so you have to trust me; you have to bear with it, and soldier on.

As I go along, I will point out different kinds of work, and how each has to be treated.

You will not find it in a book.

It will feel like fixing small pieces of a large number of unfinished, confusing, jigsaw puzzles. As time passes, you will begin to see the larger picture;  but you shall have to wait patiently for that.

Are you okay with that?

Having a pupil is a terrible responsibility

Legal work is complex, and tedious.

And when you do  teach, you need to repeat yourself; and it grates your soul.

Masters need a great deal of perseverance to instruct pupils. Why teach for two hours when you can do it yourself in 30 minutes?

Some partners in the firm just will not accept them.  They complain that pupils create more problems by being around.

It takes energy, effort and patience.

A pupil has to be taught one fibre at a time at odd moments:

… when a case is going on,

… when the client is clamouring for your attention,

… when the other side lawyer piles on the pressure,

… when the judge is breathing down your neck,

… when written submissions have to be drafted within a short time,

… when affidavits are outstanding,

… when a trial is to go on tomorrow and we have not prepared cross-examination questions;

… when one is shuttling from court to court, or from one corporate meeting to a difficult negotiation.

But someone has to teach.  

An educational moment

An ‘educational moment’ presents itself.

You know you cannot squander it.

It may be gone in a flash; and never come again.

This is the best time to get the pupils’ attention.

It will be of no benefit to you.  In fact it is a burden.  If the pupils master the technique, they’d will be set for life.

You know it.  Your pupils do not.

So you call all your juniors to your side.

Dropping everything, and muttering darkly, they gather around.

They put on a martyr’s face.

Describing the problem, you teach them how to analyse the facts, how to deploy the law, and how to arrive at a neat solution.

You demonstrate various techniques not taught at Bar School.

In ten minutes, you are done.

You dismiss them.

Rolling their eyes, they return to their tables.

Our work is unappreciated, unrewarding and exhausting:  but someone has to do it.

We know this happens – we teach, anyway

Twenty years later …

Your former pupil sees you at some function.

He accosts you.

With a gratifying tone, he relates how he had found your ‘lessons’ to be a life saver.  He waits for your approval.  You smile.  He does not know: most pupil-masters don’t need gratitude. They are relieved you did the right thing.

Despite the most strenuous efforts, most pupils care little for technique.

They regard you as – and they will regale their friends with tales of how you were– a Slave Driver.

Do pupils from foreign universities do better?

Not in my experience.

My observations encompass all pupils: including the overseas-trained.  You know the type.  They speak with a Slavonic accent for the first few months; and consider themselves God’s gift to the Bar.

And then there are the locally trained ones – they are no better, or worse.

It is all individual.

The first category

Some people turn up knowing nothing and leave the firm reaffirming your faith in the human race.

Some slide right into the system, understanding what it requires of them; others just mark time and move on.

The Dangerous Second Category

These are those you fear associating with in public.

The latter are the 3-year BMW, or ‘corporate law’ sort.  They will do anything to get by: principles do not matter do them – money does.

They will demand for higher salaries, and move from firm to firm until there is no place to go.

Then they open their own firm; and then recede into the shadows of the legal profession.

The Third category – the ‘social status’ types

These people seek the title of  an ‘advocate and solicitor’ because it gives them some form of ‘social status’.  They desire the presidency of the child’s parents-teachers association; or they seek the chairmanship of the local women’s club; or worse, the chair of a political party seat.

They cannot fathom why they should kill themselves on hours of research and study.

The Fourth Category – Daddy’s Blue Eyed Boy

This is where everything has been set up just pat for the pupil.

They would glide along nicely because their father or uncle is someone pretty influential in a large legal firm.

Or their parents are a client of one.

The pupil’s retention is guaranteed.

Thereafter, a few years in a political party, and lo!

They become nominees for some politician.

Their career takes off.

Or their father, uncle, or patron dies and there is no place to go.

Or they get hauled up before a court facing corruption charges – as we see, to this day.

The Fifth Category:  the Commandos

These are those who have had nothing to start with.

After years of back-breaking toil, you discern a glimmer of the law.

You think the law lies tranquil in your hand; that you understand it all.

Suddenly, it slips in your hand – and then you begin chasing it.

It can be exhilarating, if you are of that sort of person!

This is the person who enjoys the law for its own sake.

Here is a little secret: discern patterns, then replicating them

After years of plodding, you realise that legal practice is all about discovering repeating patterns.  People are creatures of habit.  The law is nothing more than human relations.

Under a certain set of facts, your opponent will behave in a predictable way; as will the courts.

Having discovered this pattern, you exploit it to benefit your client.  Then, you say the right things, in the right order, at the right time.

But you cannot be dishonest, unfair, or improper. “That is not cricket”, as we seniors say.

Winning is not everything.

Being proper is.

You are here for the long run – forget about the short battles.  They just drain your energy, attention and resources.

Keep your eye on the prize.

Remember: the legal profession is an adversarial one – do not expect favours

Your opponent is there to defeat you.

He will not ask for a quarter, nor give you one.

And please do not piss-off your opponents or the judges.

They will never forget you.

You would have created an unnecessary enemy.

But do not be cowed

Fear nothing and fear nobody. Otherwise you cannot survive at the Bar.

You need adamantine nerves.  You’ll have that soon enough.

If you have the honour of  a gentleman, the diplomacy of Henry Kissinger, the fearlessness of Subutai,4Genghiz Khan’s most fearless tactician who tore through Eastern Europe with only a band of scouts) and the patience of Job, you’ll be fine.

Is familiarity everything? Is it Who you know, as opposed to What?

After decades at the Bar, you might fall despondent.

You entertain doubts whether it is all about not What you know, but Who.

Lawyers less clever than you, less hardworking than you, and usually less honest than you – they seem to get all the good cases, and all the fat fees.

If you have no friends at high places, or the patronage of a steady client, yours seems to be a fate of living hand-to-mouth.

Lawyers tie themselves up into all sorts of knots so as to get to know people. They put themselves in all sorts of places just to meet the one (right) client who would lift them to stardom and wealth: they play golf, they go clubbing,

Everyone else is at it too:

…the doctor, the engineer, the banker, the dentist; and the politician.

All are into self-preservation.

These are the hard truths.

Or so it seems

Do not let appearances deceive you.

Your time will come.

Righteousness prevails. Always.

The ‘commando seniors

Yet, in all this mêlée, there is a small band of lawyers:

They keep out of the fast lane, slog silently, appease their conscience, balance their bank accounts, and educate their children.

In the end, they are the ones with the stamina, the strength, and the knowledge.

At the end of the war, theyd be the only ones left standing.

That matters.

They are the legal commandos.

The Bar has them.  You just have to look for them.

Go ask them to teach you, long after you have been called to the Bar.

My own reference points

So when a pupil appears out of the blue and says, ‘Teach me’, I have but three reference points.

(1).  Does this person have the right aptitude?  Should I waste my time with him or her?

(2). What skills did I yearn to master when I was a pupil?

(3).  What experiences were important for my professional progress?

If we accept them, they are trained to be legal commandos.

They are put through a difficult period.

The training will be intense: it will test their bodies, minds, and endurance.

Some of my colleagues at the Bar do it too.

We seniors seem to have a common policy about training

‘Buang yang keruh, ambil yang jernih’.  That is our motto: for ourselves and for you.

At death’s door, I hope to look back and feel that I left behind a good piece of my life.

I would expect my pupils to do things a little better than me.

I desire that they leave behind them a Bar, and a Judiciary that is a little fairer- than when I was given the privilege to walk into it.

If you are prepared to put up with me, or the many others like me, I am prepared to teach you –  what little I know.

While it will not always be a pleasant journey, it will not be an uneventful one.

You may yet find me – and others like me – a tolerable guide after all.




[This article was originally entitled ‘If you are prepared to Learn, I am prepared to Teach’. It was published in the Malaysian Bar website on 02 December 2005. That was 14 years ago.]

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