12 Tips to ace your legal career

If you are in the middle years of legal practice, how – and where – do you learn the tricks of the trade?

(or ‘Advice to Juniors-Part 1’)

You are a mid-level practitioner.  Not so new. Not so senior. What do you need to equip yourself for the long years ahead?

Well, you will need the one thing you cannot get.


But that is exactly the point: you don’t have it!

Where can you buy some experience?

So how do you get it? Where do you start?

I don’t know about you.

When I first started, it was all very confusing.

I wished I had a mentor.

So I went around asking.

But most of these guys would not tell me.

They guarded it with their life: ‘trade secrets’, they said.

These were the middle-income, not-so-successful, selfish seniors.

The really successful seniors gave it away for free.

But there was a catch.

They would scold, sometimes bully and often berate.

This was because they were not willing to give up their lifetime’s effort to someone wet behind the ears.

That didn’t help.

Who can show you all the ‘tricks’ of the trade?

But if you are a small-time lawyer like me, not so clever, with not so many contacts, in a tiny firm.

You wish you had somebody who would be prepared to show you how.

Someone who could show you all the ‘tricks’ so that you could hunt sharks.

I thought of a good idea:

I would search out for someone who’d read it all and ask him.

Eventually, I discovered that such a person had three qualities: –

He was either too senior to take my call, none existent, or was about as dead as a doornail. Mostly dead.

So the next best thing: look for a lawyer who had jotted down all his experiences for you to exploit. I met no such person. But I did get some jottings written by a few people.

You snigger.

It is true.

That’s what books are.

Books are the Wisdom of the Ages: especially ‘textbooks’.  All those ‘tricks’ are recorded in journals and in reference books.

They are the ‘shortcuts.’

Books are superb shortcuts.

Essential List of Techniques, Books, and Materials

A cobbler needs his awl, stitcher, measuring tape and glue. A carpenter needs his set square, and ruler.

So you also need the tools of your trade.

Some tools cannot be borrowed.  Buy them and keep them within easy reach.

You need to buy several ‘essential books’. They should not break your bank account. Different lawyers have different preferences. Mine is a simple technique. I buy what works.

This is my ‘Essentials list of techniques and books’. I hope these suggestions are as useful to you as they have been to me.

Here they are:-

Mobile Library of Primary Statutes

First, carry around a stack of what I call ‘Primary Statutes.’

These are:

Courts of Judicature Act;

Civil Law Act;

Subordinate Courts Act;

Interpretation Acts [there are two – guess why?];

Evidence Act;

Contracts Act;

Companies Act;

Rules of Court;

Court of Appeal Rules; and the

Federal Court Rules.

My master had these bundled up.

He’d carry this bundle everywhere.

He’d consult it all the time.

He’d make sure he’d read every line.

Especially the ‘Interpretation Section’ in each Act.

He’d memorise the sections.

He knew it so well, that after a while, he wouldn’t touch it. 

But he didn’t object to us helping ourselves to it.

It helped so much, that when I had my own tiny practice, I’d lug around a CD-ROM full of statutes and a Macbook.

It got too heavy.

So now an iPad does the job.

As does iCloud storage; or an iBook; or a PDF Pro app.

Same thing.

Get the essential Acts into your head. If nothing helps, that memory will.

Second, which books to buy?

Don’t go buy any old tome with a 500-page explanation when you have only three minutes before your turn is up at the High Court. And it is far too expensive to buy all the MLJ and CLJ reports. And too far away when you need them: sitting in some library. There are far too many reports to read on online sites. Too many things to do. Too little time; and scarcely any money to spare.

Bullen and Leake are God’s gift to the Bar. Personally, I prefer the 13th Edition.

That section on ‘Statements of Claim’ shows you how a Plaintiff’s case should be laid out– both in pleadings and in submissions.

It tells you what to say at the beginning of the case. And, at the end of the trial, what to say in your Closing Speech.

Bullen and Leake contains typically two-page explanations of all the laws in that area; under almost every subject. Imagine, all that law in two pages. The sort of thing you’d need to turn up quickly if you are in the Federal Court and the judges are breathing down your neck.

If you are the defendant, go to the ‘Defences’ section. That tells you how to attack the Plaintiff’s case. Easy stuff. Useful 80% of the time, for all the cases. Wouldn’t leave home without it!

Third, Two Invaluable Acts

Be very familiar with two Acts: the Contracts Act 1950, and the Specific Relief Act 1950 (‘SRA’).

The Contracts Act has 191 sections. Only 76 sections are about traditional laws of contract.

Beyond that, it has bits that have nothing to do with the law of contract at all!

Really good stuff.

Bailment; Pawner and Pawnee; Guarantees; Indemnities and Sureties [guess what is the difference between the last three words?].

And a load of other stuff on the Law of Agency [57 sections]. Very useful material.

The SRA is another story.

It is often overlooked.

The SRA tells you how to create or kill any injunction, specific relief, or declaration.

Every injunction in this country is not regulated by the case called “American Dynamite”1American Cyanamid Co v Ethicon Ltd [1975] A.C. 396; [1975] 1 All ER 504 (as one judge once told me, to my utter shock. Mercifully, he has retired).

It is the SRA that will do it. It will save your client.

Contracts, Torts & Remedies

The following are a must:

Lewison’s ‘The Interpretation of Contracts’ is a brilliant book. It will tell you how to take a term of a contract and turn it around in your favour; or wrap it around your opponent’s eye and confound him to no end!

Do you want a masterpiece? Burrow’s ‘Remedies for Torts and Breach of Contract’, (Oxford) is all of that.

Burrow has really thought about how to explain difficult and advanced concepts lucidly, with an economy of words. It is a gem.

It is easy to read, easy to understand — importantly, easy to apply.

It will tell you what remedies to apply for and what not.

And if you can get it, buy David Wright’s ‘Remedies (The Federation Press)’.

Tiny book: 292 pages in all.

It tells you what remedies you can apply for, what is the law in that area (whether a breach of fiduciary duties, contract, torts etc.), and what you need to show before you get your remedy.

Brilliant stuff.

None of that highfalutin stuff in Chitty’s.

Carter’s ‘Breach of Contract’ is another indispensable reference.

Company Law

Buy the CCH Asia’s version of company law called, ‘Malaysia Company Law: Principles and Practices’, 2 Ed., 2018,(Wolters Kluwer). 

This is another masterpiece.

You can carry the tiny volume everywhere.

There is another CCH book on Secretarial Practice: ‘Guide to Company Law and Secretarial Practice’.  

That has almost everything about Company Law.

Well, almost.

In the CCH books, you can understand everything about Foss v. Harbottle and all its exceptions, possibly under three pages.

Nicely laid out. Lucid.

It has saved me time and time again.

I need not look elsewhere; almost all I need is there.

If I needed something more detailed, I find an Australian book [usually HAJ Ford. By the way, he is not a ‘Haji’ as someone once thought]: or an Indian book [e.g. Rao].

Indian authors are notorious for providing copious references without a deep index.

It can be trying.; but it is their style.

The books will include useful English references. There may even be a useful critique of the case.

Most senior lawyers look to these books.

They won’t quote the Indian cases.

But they will quote that one English case the Indian books quote!

Usually with a great deal of fanfare.

You do the same thing.

Also buy Lexis Nexis’ ‘Guide to Table A- Articles of Association’ by Chen Thim Wai.

Brilliant stuff.

Packed into 290 pages.

If you wish to master company law, you must master the articles and the surrounding law.

You can kill your opponent faster by telling the judges that the ‘the Articles do not allow what my learned friends is asking for My Lord.’.

If you can afford it, have two copies

I have two copies of some of these books. One at the office, one at the house. Given the time, I would keep one in the car!

By the way, I once saw the late Karpal open the boot of his old Mercedes.

It had a box in there, like a shelf laid on its back: had many books there.

It was a ‘car boot library’.

Don’t bother with the rest of the books.

Too big.

Too expensive.

Takes a long time to make a simple point.

Who has the time?


Get the absolute nugget called ‘Goldrein: Commercial Litigation: Pre-Emptive Remedies’.

The latest edition is OK, but I prefer the 1997 third edition.

It has a ‘checklist ‘ for everything you need: for Anton Pillar Applications, Marevas, ordinary restraining injunctions, striking out, and Judgements in Default.

With it, get the 1979 version of the UK ‘Supreme Court Rules’ (the White Book).

Our Rules of the High Court (RHC) came out in 1980.

It had in it all the procedural law in the UK up to 1979.

Although now repealed, it is almost identical to 1980 RHC, and almost similar to the Rules of Court, 2012.

The 2012 Rules of Court preserve almost 90% of the old RHC.

So the White Book is still very useful. Reprints of the 1979 White Book are still available.

These two books are with me in the house.

Two other nuggets are Bennion’s ‘Statutory Interpretation’ and Bower, Turner and Sutton’s, ‘Actionable Non-Disclosure.’

Indices and Annual Reports

Buy some ‘Indices’ and ‘Annual Reports’ of the All England reports.

By Indices, I mean the indices for MLJ, CLJ, AMR, the Law Reports, Case citators, Indices for the Law Reports, and the Digest.

These list cases in terms of subject matter and case name and give alternative citations.

They narrow down your queries much quicker than online journals.

The indices think of everything.

Online journals make poor reference material. You only get the answer to the question you ask. If you ask the wrong question, you miss the mark.

Even if you do not have the reports, the Indices will help you out.

The All England ‘Annual Report’ is worth its weight in gold.

It tells you, in one volume, what were the most important cases in the UK for the last year.

It explains what the law was, what it is, and what it should be.

One in a year. Covering all areas of the law. Would you have that or buy a textbook every four years?

There are only three practitioners I know who read it: Datuk Seri Gopal Sri Ram, T. Gunaseelan (where do you think he gets his Preliminary Objections [“P.Os”] from?), and Shahul Hamid Amiruddin of Zul Rafique (who has another equivalent version, ‘the ‘Quarterly Law Review’).

By reading one volume, it is as if you have read all the cases for the whole year.

This is an old practitioner’s trick!

Unless you wish to do what the intrepid and industrious Gana Naidu of Kelantan did when he was a pupil: he read, every night, every page in every volume of MLJ reports, all the way up to 1965!

If not, all you need to do is to read one book a year to understand almost all the important cases for that year.

Which route would you rather choose?

Keep, and Index your old Notes and ‘A’ Level Law Books

Finally, keep all your university law notes; even your old textbooks. Eventually, they will come in useful.

I still have my university notes: yellowed out, curling, musty papers.

In 1999,  I needed an authority on an important point.

Was a man’s estate liable to make good on a guarantee, if the guarantee had been triggered after his death?

The contract had an ‘assigns and executors’ clause.

That meant all obligations and liabilities passed into the estate.

The liability was RM75.0 Million.

I could find nothing.

The guarantee had been triggered.

The client asked me to stave off the bank.

He wanted 6 months to sort himself out.

All hope seemed lost.

I was casting about in dismay.

Then I remembered reading one case in the 1986 ‘A’ Levels Law of Contract by FR Davies.

I found one of Lord Denning’s cases. I cited it.

I recall arguing that if the guarantee had not been triggered before his death, for no ‘liability’ had crystallised; and none could pass into his assets.

Only his assets and liabilities pass into a dead person’s assets.

My opponent, a famous banking lawyer, sniggered.

The SAR, who heard the O.14 application, thought I was off my head.

We lost the O.14.

But we bought time.

In the end, we settled for a tiny sum.

A tidy sum was paid as fee.

In Tamil, there is a saying: ‘To the intrepid, even a blade of grass is a weapon’. 

Reports and Journals

As for reading reports, don’t bother reading anything before 1950 (that’s when our Contracts Act and Evidence Act came into being); and don’t bother looking at pre-1965 decisions for company law (our Act came into force in 1965). Then there are the 2017 amendments. They re-codified the Act.

How to respond to a Statement of Claim, a Defence, or a Petition?

As for those techniques, that is a long lecture. Next time perhaps. But I will give you a few hints.

Every senior lawyer knows these things.

When you are reading the Statement of Claim, read the Prayers first (I do not mean you should carry your pleadings to the temple, to ask the priest to pray for divine intervention. Some people will take things literally).

Ask yourself: Since the Plaintiff prays for this relief, what must he have shown in his pleadings? If he has not pleaded essential elements, apply to strike out.

Again, if it is a tort, or a breach of contract, is there a ‘connection’ between the alleged ‘breach’ and the alleged ‘damage’? I am talking about ‘causation’. It is this sentence – ‘but for the Defendant’s breach as aforesaid the Plaintiff would not have suffered any such loss’.

Three short stories

We once forced a senior into a settlement because we applied to strike out his pleadings (O.18 r.19). We argued that his Statement of Claim ‘did not disclose causation’ etc.

The judge bought the idea.

He threw us out to negotiate.

That made life a lot easier.

At another time, we faced a Sec. 181 petition.

The petition looked a little odd.

It had the signature of the Registrar.

But not the Court stamp.

It was filed and served on us.

The petitioner was demanding receivers and managers, control of management – the works.

Things got pretty tough.

We did not know what to do.

We argued, ‘Sec. 7 of the Courts of Judicature Act requires a court to seal its documents.”

“This petition does not have a court seal.”

“So this is not a ‘court’ document, we cannot reply, we are legally embarrassed’: or arguments to that effect.

Again, the judge threw us out, and we talked and settled.

There was a time when the other side applied to strike out our client’s pleadings.

The Judge was about to hand us the hangman’s rope.

We said: ‘But the power to strike out also gives you, the judge, a discretion to allow us to amend, under O. 18. r. 19(1).

You cannot strike us out even if you thought our case was weak’.

He huffed and puffed, but he allowed us to amend.

We escaped by the skin of our teeth.

Little things like that.

Where do you go for tips like that?

These are not written anywhere.

But your Primary Bundle would have told you that!

It was there for the taking, if only you had looked.

Seeing the ‘pattern’

Legal practice is easy.

It is mostly about replicating other people’s work.

There is a common pattern to most legal problems.

And there usually is a workable solution.

Someone else would have done it in the past.

There is a necessity to see how others have approached a similar problem before.

To discover how they succeeded.

If they failed, analyse why.

There is a need to get to the ‘core’ of the problem quickly.

It is a skill.

It comes only with practice.

The more senior you get, or the better you get at it (and these two circumstances are not synonymous), then you might be able to depart from the common pattern.

But you must know the foundation of your case well.

So also the other side’s position. After that, you can either take down the house or fend off attacks against it by exploiting ‘foundational points’.

You must then repeat all these ‘precedents’ before a judge.

Make him believe he has discovered much of this fantastic stuff all by himself!

It works all the time.

Seniors are like Shao Lin Masters – they will not teach if you don’t take the trouble

It is not that seniors will not teach.

The seniors have no time; mostly, no inclination.

I can’t say I blame them.

Sometimes the seniors feel it is all wasted on the juniors.

The seniors often complain that:-

‘The juniors will not put in the hours.’

‘They are indolent’.

‘They lack initiative’.   

‘They want everything served up on a platter.’

‘They want to own big cars: BMWs; Benzs, by next year – by hook or by crook.’

‘Don Armani suits.’

‘Boast in the canteen how many months’ bonus they got’.

One senior told me:

‘Ask them, how many books they have bought? And how many have they read? Then ask them to talk’.

But seniors must take the trouble

I don’t know. I am moderately successful because many of my own seniors didn‘t grudge me either their time or wisdom.

They did not make it easy.

But they took the trouble.

So I must take some trouble as well.

[And this is only Part-1. Click on the number and you can see Parts-2, 3 and 4.]

You May Also Like

Is the King’s power to grant a pardon, ‘personal’ and ‘absolute’?


The Gopal Sri Ram I knew

Why do Malaysian Ministers refuse to go on leave, or better still, resign, when their character in public office is called into question?