Secrets They Never Taught Me At Law School – Reflections of a Retiring Lawyer

Every single person makes law affecting himself all the time.

Every moment when you relate to another person is a unique law-making situation. If he thinks you were wrong, he sues you. And vice versa.

If you like to have business relations with him, the two of you have an agreement which makes rules on how you will carry out your business together. Obeying these rules is upholding the law.

Nobody knows every single law all the time.

Laws change all the time according to what our society mostly thinks is right and wrong.

For instance, men with long hair were “outlawed” in Singapore 25 years ago. Now, we have laws on killer litter which did not exist before. Nobody knew before 1997 that it would be illegal to sell or distribute chewing gum. Now it is.

In summary: not even a judge knows every single law. Not all the time he doesn’t.

A big part of lawyers’ bills covers time wasted unnecessarily finding out facts which you should know better.

Lawyers spend more time knowing what the facts of your case are than in working out the best plan to complete your case. This is true regardless of the type of case you have, be it for preparing a contract or fighting in court. This is made worse by clients who tell them “I leave it all to the lawyer” because they cannot be bothered to pay attention to their own cases.

It really is about justice and fairness.

When relations are affected by disagreements, at least two opposing sides are formed. There are basically 2 choices: (a) let the strongest (by strength with money or muscles or by numbers) party win; or (b) let the party in the right be the winner, who gets the support of the whole society.

Most people probably want laws to reflect “justice” and “fairness”. Rules that seem unfair or unreasonable will usually be disobeyed somehow. Often, such disobedience is hidden at the start; later on, they become more outrightly rebellious.

Skipping some history and a lot of jargon, the rules of getting justice and fairness come down to:

  1. getting a neutral 3rd party (like a judge) to say whether your side is in the right – if you’re the one in a fight, you’ll naturally say you’re right; and
  2. giving you and your opponent a fair chance to show who’s “right”.

Doing the “lawful” thing is like taking part in a contest where the fairest side wins. The lawyers are your image consultants. Regardless of whether you are negotiating a contract, making an application to a government body, or fighting in court, their job is to make your side’s proposal appear the fairest.

It is often more unrealistic and idealistic to believe that you can “do-it-yourself” because the “truth” will be on your side when you are in the right.

Don’t believe me? Try asking six of your closest friends who is more “wrong” : the person who threw the first punch, or the person who reacted by kicking twice. This is the reality of what happens when people have disputes. One side does something stupid and the other side over-reacts.

The best and brightest people in government have spent hundreds of years, made hundreds of thousands of decisions in court working out what is most reasonable. Most lawyers spend at least four years studying these cases, learning the nicest arguments and presentation techniques etc.

The richest and most powerful people, whose “might” can “make right” almost anything, usually ask for their lawyers’ “okay” before doing anything. How far can the less well off and powerful progress in this contest to look fair and reasonable without the specialists.

It costs more for lawyers to betray you than to do their best for you.

Lawyers must have obtain a confirmation from their professional association that they have not been suspended from practising law because of misconduct before they receive their licences (called “practising certificates”) each year. Losing their licence to practice would mean losing their livelihood.

What if someone offered them a lot of money to deliberately lose a case? This can be answered in many ways: First of all, lawyers, like award winning actors, must win their contests often to get good paying work. So, it does not make sense for them to lose unless it is a lot of money. Secondly, even if a lot of money is offered, the severe punishment (it is cheating, which is a criminal offence) and loss of reputation if the lawyer is discovered makes the risks and rewards very hard to compare. To be realistic about this scenario, the lawyer must have fought very hard and won often enough to get to the point where someone would consider bribing him to “throw away” a fight. In my 10 years as a practising lawyer, I have heard hundreds more rumours of sportsmen deliberately losing a contest than any relating to lawyers.

Last but not least, every lawyer swears to do his best to win the case for his client (short of lying and cheating) on the day he receives the licence to practise law. He would therefore do so, for his pride if nothing else.

Lawyering is not about drafting documents or having a big library of “standard” forms and precedents. It’s about presentation skills and confidence.

Every case and every person is different. It is unrealistic to expect that somebody would accept a draft form or contract or argument just like that. Unless there is something else you should watch out for. It’s not about filling up the blank forms. It’s knowing what will happen if it is filled out wrongly and how to put in details which works in your favour.

I must readily admit that I, too, have spent too much time slavishly copying forms and precedents as a student and as a lawyer. I did not realise until much later that the forms and precedents are just tools to give me confidence. More time should be spent thinking about whether any particular phrase or clause is suitable for my purpose.

Learn from my mistakes.

A client who knows what is going on forms a better partnership with his lawyer, which can outdo a partnership of a very good lawyer with a client who does not care about what is happening.

In ten years of practice, I have not seen a lawyer change something from black to white, although I have often witnessed bad lawyers win good cases and good lawyers lose bad cases. In other words, sometimes a client wins despite the lawyer. Thankfully, it does not happen very often.

The most common situation of the winning combination is one where the lawyer manages to explains what is required for the client to win his contest in a simple and sensible way. The client then makes the effort to understand the facts and provide the lawyer with sensible details which relate to the case and not simply leaving everything with the lawyer without even thinking if the client can handle anything himself so that legal fees and expenses can be lessened.

The winning team of lawyer and client works together to produce the best results.