The call of the legal profession

I was once asked to answer three questions at once.  I think it was on Quora. Since then a lot of people have expressed interest in the questions and the answers I gave. I reproduce them here: Q-1:          How difficult is it for a lawyer to set up his own firm? Q-2:          How do lawyers […]

I was once asked to answer three questions at once.  I think it was on Quora.

Since then a lot of people have expressed interest in the questions and the answers I gave. I reproduce them here:

Q-1:          How difficult is it for a lawyer to set up his own firm?

Q-2:          How do lawyers advertise their services?

Q-3:          How do they attract clients to their firms?

These were all questions related to the life of a legal practitioner.

As to the first question, is not difficult to set up a law firm. All you need is a valid practising licence. Different countries, and in each of those different states may have different requirements. These have to be complied with.

As to the second question on advertising, other than the US, in Commonwealth countries, lawyers cannot advertise.

As to the third question on how to attract clients to your firm, I am not sure. But I have been in this field for a long while.  I have been looking around.  I ask myself, what makes that guy so successful?  It is always the same.  Always.

There are two kinds of successes.  One is based on pinning your mast to a rising star.

The second is to build your own ship, and to steer it between charybdis and scylla.   Properly navigated, the ship always makes it to port, heavy with joy, passion, health, family, friends, and wealth.  There is an order to the cargo. Remember it well.

When I first started, some of my colleagues had rich parents; they owned property development businesses. Other friends had relatives who owned, or held senior positions in banks. For them work flowed in uninterrupted.

I was different. I was a nobody.

When I started, I had a practising certificate, and RM2.00 in my wallet. That is about USD 0.50.

I still remember that day. There was no work. I had no cases, no clients.

So, to while away time, I used to go over to the Legal Aid Clinic the Bar ran, and appeared in court, and argued for free.

At the end of the morning the senior lawyers would meet at the court cafeteria. They’d hold court. I’d watch and listen, open jawed at the exhibition of their skill, the fees they were getting (and they’d make it a point to emphasis that!), and feel crestfallen.

After a few weeks, I heard lawyers ask each other questions, mostly questions of law. I’d give my opinion. I’d go back, research the point, call the senior lawyer and say, ‘This case is in your favour. You should cite it’.

They’d say, ‘Yes, I knew it all along. It was that decision by So and So two years back wasn’t it?’ I’d say, ‘Yes, you are right’. He wasn’t. He was bluffing. His pride was so great, he’d not admit his own ignorance.

Yet what this brought about was a realisation among my group of friends that I was prepared to work hard, and I knew my way around the law.

Slowly the cases came. At first, only the tiny ones. Or the worst of the worst which no one wanted. My first brief earned me RM50.00 [USD 12.00].

But after a few years word got around. People saw me in court. Some senior lawyer would say, ‘I am busy on Friday. Could you handle this application for me? I’ll give you RM500.00 [USD120.00]’. I’d take it. I’d read like mad. I’d write out arguments. I’d  photocopy authorities and make numerous copies to be filed. Then I’d discover the client had given the senior lawyer twenty grand for the application. And the senior guy would not have done any more than the most basic work. I’d go, win it and come back with news.  He’d look astonished.  He hadn’t expected to win.  That was why he had sent me: cannon fodder, for the judge to shout at.  Oh, I had my fair share of those bruising run in with judges.

After 5 years, practice flourished. In 1996 there was a global economic downturn. I ran a one-man show with one assistant.  She is a big shot lawyer now!

I nearly went under. I persisted. And built the practice—brick by weary brick. I did everything. Crime. Civil. Appeals. Industrial law. Divorce. Building contracts. Immigration.  Anything that I came across.

At some point in those 5 years I realised that there was a common pattern to everything. So I carried on. A day of 18 hours was a normal thing.  I had a boxy Macintosh Classic.  Every night I’d lug it into the car and drive 40 miles home. I’d eat while I was typing out arguments.  I’d hit the bed at 2.00 a.m., shot to bits. In the morning, I’d lug it all the way back to office.

It has been more than a quarter of a century now.

I look back.  I look around. It has not been bad. Not bad at all.

Just get going. Persist. The rewards will come. Don’t be in a hurry. Don’t cut corners. Once your reputation is gone, it is never regained. Don’t worry about big clients. They pay the least, complain the most, and bay for your blood. Be happy with mid-tier clients. They usually pay. And they stay. And they are far more courteous. As they ascend the corporate ladder, they’d keep you close.  But here is a warning: if your path and theirs diverge, especially on account of ethics, do not think for a second.  Give them up.  You’ll sleep better.

One trick is this: you must stay in the field for at least 5 years. This is crucial. That is the minimum period of incubation.  And stamina is everything.

Two further points: slog; and be honest. These yield magical results.  Your clients will eventually realise that you won’t bluff them into giving you money.

If I thought a case was bad, I’d come right out and say so; and ask clients not to proceed.

Some clients were not happy.

I’d say, ‘You are throwing away good money after bad. Go start a new business with the fees you are prepared to pay me’.

This attitude had two results. The bad clients went away. The good clients stayed. There was a lot of goodwill.

These things take time. But work will come. In good times; and in bad.

And guess what: the most important things in life are what my father had drilled into my head:

First, you must have a life to enjoy it.

Second, family is everything.

Third, honour your work, and it will honour you.

Fourth, read widely and deeply, and keep changing your technique.

Fifth, keep your word.

Sixth, honour your friends.

Finally always heed that inner voice.  When it says stop, stop. You’ll know what I mean.  Instinct is everything.  Not legal knowledge.  Not money. Not experience.  Instinct.

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