5 lessons I learnt from pupillage

Editor’s Note: A revised version of this article was first published on The Malaysian Lawyer , where I wrote about the key lessons that I’ve learnt from my pupillage, which may be of interest for those embarking on a legal career. I hope that these pointers would prove useful for those undertaking pupillage and beyond. Special thanks to Marcus van Geyzel and Lee Shih for providing the opportunity to put up my first article and for being extremely wonderful editors.

Pupillage can be a testing period for law graduates. Most lawyers would agree that the transition from law student to fully-qualified lawyer during that pupillage period can be challenging and stressful. As I approach the end of my own pupillage, here are five lessons that I have learnt.

1. Be organised — keep a diary and backup your work

Always begin your day with a to-do list, and categorise your tasks in order of priority. Keep a diary during your pupillage, be it physical or online (or better yet, have both). I highly recommend Google Calendar for its accessibility — handy for times when you don’t have your physical diary at hand.

Whenever you are assigned a task, write down what needs to be done and list down the due dates of each deliverable. Keep your diary up to date, work out which tasks you need to complete, and keep the relevant clients or lawyers informed on the latest updates. Having these things down in writing will help you to stay on track without missing your deadlines.

I also recommend having a backup of your work on online platforms like Google Docs (especially useful when you’re working in a team) or Dropbox. Over time, this will become your reservoir of knowledge which you be able to tap into from time to time.

2. Sharpen your legal research skills

Be systematic and efficient in your legal research. Don’t be afraid to ask your colleagues for research tips. During my pupillage, I discovered that different databases work better for particular practice areas. For example, Westlaw Asia is a good place to start if you’re looking up the quantum for different types of injury in a personal injury case.

Be creative. Use diverse search phrases to increase your chances of finding what you want when faced with a dead end. The subject index in Mallal’s Digest is a useful feature since it is arranged alphabetically by keywords. I found it useful to refer to the subject index in Mallal’s to get a rough idea of the examples of keywords I could use in my legal research.

It’s crucial to deliver high quality research. Your legal research is the foundation for the work you will produce. Comprehensive research will give you the best possible legal basis for the crux of your submissions and justification for adopting the views in your legal opinions. No research is ever wasted, and you will always learn something from it.

3. Mistakes are inevitable, but you can minimise them

You will make mistakes during your pupillage, and it will feel like the end of the world (it isn’t). Mistakes and constructive criticism are opportunities to improve.

That being said, the last thing you want to do is to keep making mistakes and create the impression that you are not a reliable person.

You can reduce the chances of making mistakes by being meticulous in your work and to develop attention to detail. Always double check your work, and stay on top of your files. I keep a record of the mistakes that I have made, and reflect on how the mistake could have been be avoided, or how I could have done better.

But don’t dwell on your mistakes. Don’t beat yourself up if your path is still unclear, or if you’re not where you want to be. It gets easier over time, with practice and experience.

4. Be proactive and connect with others

Take the initiative to approach your bosses and colleagues. Follow up on the cases you have previously worked on together, and ask for an update, or whether they need further assistance. Demonstrating a genuine interest on the cases that you’ve worked on will leave an impression that you are eager to take on work and learn. This will lead to further work opportunities.

Establish a rapport with your bosses and colleagues by getting to know them as a person and finding out what makes them tick. I know this will seem pretty daunting at first, but trust me, it will be worth it. I’ve enjoyed learning about the people that I work with — about their life, career trajectory and the lessons that they have learnt along the way.

Don’t be afraid to ask your peers for help whenever you are stuck or need a second opinion. Discussing it with someone not only helps you to sort out your train of thought, but also often allows you to pick up nuggets of wisdom on how to proceed which you may not have come up with on your own.

5. Do not limit yourself

It’s important to maintain an open mind, especially if you are unsure about which areas you would like to practice in. Be brave enough to try out unfamiliar areas of law, including those which you did not study in law school. Make the most your pupillage by exploring as much as possible — the opportunity to do so lessens significantly once you are a fully-qualified lawyer.

Do not be afraid to speak up and let your bosses know the kind of work you would like to be exposed to. As a pupil, you of course need to be receptive to whatever work is assigned to you, but this shouldn’t stop you from communicating your own preferences.

My final advice is to embrace the challenge. Pupillage is a steep learning curve, but with the right mindset and dedication, it can be an extremely rewarding experience.

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