5 things I learned from pupillage that law school didn’t teach me

Guest writer Janice Tan Ying has recently completed her pupillage, and has been retained as an Associate in one of the most well-regarded tax teams in Malaysia.

Call to the bar
An exuberant and fresh-faced Janice on the day of her Call to the Bar of England & Wales, before commencing pupillage in Malaysia. Post-pupillage photo not supplied for comparison of exuberance or freshness of face.

Pupillage. The budding legal eaglet’s nine-month rite of passage (read: baptism of fire) into a career at the Bar.

These nine months will shape and mould your career and personal development. Your pupillage period may be the springboard towards a flourishing legal career, or one that will (gasp shock horror!) turn you off practice permanently.

These are the five key takeaways that I have gleaned from my pupillage journey. They are by no means hard and fast rules, but are my personal take on some of the usual ‘how to’ advice dished out by lawyers.

(1) Know your ‘Why’

Why did you choose to do your pupilage in firm xyz? Why choose to do all nine months of your pupillage in an area that is so niche? Why even choose to do law in the first place?

As new age-y as it may sound, think about your ‘Why’. Visualise the person that you want to be in nine months (and beyond!). What are the attributes, skills sets, or personality traits that this person possesses? As this vision evolves over time, recalibrate and reflect upon it every now and then.

Once you understand your ‘Why’, your perspective on work will become attuned to that vision. The reason you would push through the long PMs that seem to stretch on for days and ungodly AMs isn’t because your boss told you to do so — you willingly do it because it brings you closer to the goals that you have set out to attain for yourself.

The picturesque view from the top of the mountain doesn’t come without the arduous hike, but the journey to the top is made clearer through the lens of your ambition.

(2) A list a day keeps the calamities at bay

When you’re given a file, make it your priority to understand every document and correspondence before you charge full steam ahead on the task at hand. Try to understand the full picture, so that you can anticipate what the next course of action is.

Be meticulous, and develop attention to detail.

If something seems amiss while you are going through the file, make a note of it and follow up on that.

There will be days where it feels like you are drowning in a sea of submissions, affidavits and legal opinions that all happen to be URGENT(!). Before you have a complete headless-chicken meltdown and reach for your fifth espresso shot of the day, make it a point to list down all the tasks that you need to do in order of importance.

I find it helpful to make a checklist before starting work every day, categorising my ‘to-do’ list according to urgency/importance (read this on the Eisenhower Decision Matrix).

Get yourself a diary, or download a planner app (see this for suggested tools) and pencil in all important dates —court submission deadlines, client meetings, case management dates etc.

Lists come in handy in the courtroom too. The counsel you are assisting may find it helpful when preparing for a hearing to have in his/her possession a list containing an overview of the chronology of events with reference to the relevant documents.

(3) (Do) sweat the small stuff

So you got your first file, congratulations! Once the initial excitement comes to pass, you will feel a certain lightheadedness — that is the feeling of being thrown into the deep end.

Hold yourself accountable for the tasks that you are entrusted with, as menial as they may seem. Take pride in the fact that you have been entrusted with such responsibility and do your very best.

There will be days you will have to plead with the photocopy machine to cooperate with you (for the last time, why does it still show paper jam?!?!) as you prepare yet another bundle for the 34724238th time. Instead of complaining about it, focus on the attributes that you stand to gain in the long run, not just on the task at hand.

Execute the smaller tasks to the best of your abilities so that you will naturally be entrusted with the bigger tasks.

(4) Curiosity doesn’t always kill the cat

Sometimes, the most invaluable lessons do not have to be learnt the hard way.

Get to know members of the Bar who have spent years navigating through the highs and lows of practice and pick their brains. There are nuggets of wisdom to be picked up from the people that you cross paths with.

Be brave enough to try out unfamiliar areas of law. Don’t impose a limit on your own learning experience. If you’ve always wondered about the law behind passing off counterfeit goods, give your firm’s Intellectual Property department a go. If the mechanisms of GST has always intrigued you, try out the tax team!

Have a curious mind. Expand beyond your ‘required legal reading’ list.

(5) Enjoy the grind

Reflect carefully upon your pupillage experience. Have the battle scars (aka papercuts, sweat and tears) contributed to your growth and brought you closer to the goals that you have set for yourself? If they haven’t, you may want to think about exploring an alternative career route.

Having said that, don’t beat yourself up if it’s still one hazy blur — no one has all the answers right away. Ultimately, there really isn’t a ‘one size fits all’ approach to pupillage, or even life as a whole.

Right now, you may feel utterly overwhelmed by the steep learning curve and that you’re nowhere ready to be a ‘real lawyer’. The only way to conquer the fear is to just do it. Competency and familiarity will come with time.

A good friend and mentor once told me this: “You can only hope that the pain you go through is worth it and will translate into something. Many of the people I admire have one thing in common: Grit. They aren’t masochists, but they acknowledge that they have to go through a crucible if they want to achieve something.”

Don’t limit your challenges, challenge your limits.

Hold on tight and enjoy the ride!

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