Sunday, September 11, 2016

Surviving Law School

Last week, I was invited to speak to the new freshies of my former law school, University of Malaya (UM), in a forum entitled "Surviving Law School 101". I'll try to recapture the gist of what I had shared here for the benefit for everyone.

(This is not a word-by-word transcript. Age is catching up, and my memory's not what it used to be - not that it used to be much, anyway. So some of the answers have been embellished for clarity.)

Hello, I'm not a top student, but listen up!
 
* * *

1. Tell us a bit about yourself.

Hello! I’m not sure if I’m the best person to talk about school. My grades were not great. I’m not the study type. And I’m bad with following rules – they told me the dress-code was formal, but I’m like whatever, I really don’t feel like suiting up today.

We’re here to offer you different perspectives. Yes, perspectives. Not answers, not solutions – that’s for you to figure out, using whichever perspective suits you best.

I, too, once sat where you’re sitting now, a long time ago. I learnt a lot about law. I learnt a lot about life. Love? Not so much, I never found a girlfriend in all my four years. Law, love and life – well, 2 out of 3 isn’t that bad, right?

But seriously, when I say ‘love’, I don’t mean ‘romance’. I don’t mean love as in ‘Pride and Prejudice’, ‘Twilight’ and Korean dramas. I’m talking about love in a wider sense. Love for music, love for law. When I say ‘love’, I mean ‘passion’.

Do what you love. Law school is more than just about lectures, exams, and assignments. You’re going to spend the next 4 years of your life here. So spend them wisely, on things that you love, not just things that you’re required and expected to do.

So how was I as a student? For half of the lectures, either I was sleeping in class or skipping totally. I chose, instead, to focus my time and energy on activities that I found more productive, like mooting. Exams? I hate exams. Studying for exams makes us stupid, I feel. I hate studying. But I enjoy learning. There is a difference. I spent a lot of time in the library actually, reading up random stuff that had nothing to do with the syllabus at all – oh, and trying to chat up chicks too (with little success, sadly).

So when you’re in law school, don’t just study law. Explore. Experiment. Do what you love. Live your own life.

2. Why did you choose to study law?

Unlike some of you, being a lawyer was never my childhood ambition. I wanted to be an astronaut, an archaeologist – only to find out that’s not very realistic in Malaysia. So I struck out things that I didn’t want to become – accountant, doctor, etc. And through this process of elimination, I ended up with law.

But why law? The beauty about law, I realised, is its diversity and flexibility. Law covers all aspects of life – politics, economics, technology, etc. The skills you learn in law are universally useful – analytical thinking, communication, language, etc. Law is a solid foundational degree. Law is a rocket that can launch you to many different planets. You don’t have to be a lawyer, after you graduate. You could be a banker, a businessmen. You could be a great leader like Obama – and be loved by millions. Or you could be a humble teacher like me – struggling to even get 100 likes on Facebook.

And that’s the beauty of law. Law gives you options. Law opens up doors.

3. What should students prepare for?

Reading. You must enjoy reading. Law is a textual subject. The sources of law - statutes, case reports - they're all in words. If you don't enjoy reading, it's very difficult to do law, and you should seriously reconsider studying something else.

The other challenge is balancing learning and studying. Studying for exams can hurt one's learning curve. You focus on memorising names, rather than mastering concepts. Your breadth of knowledge is limited to the scope of the syllabus. You take a very practical approach to acquiring knowledge, and thus miss out on the joys of learning what you love. So really, don't chase for high marks at the expense of your understanding. Trust me, it's not worth it in the long run. Trust me, the best lawyers are often not the 'brightest' students.

(Note: I have previously written on how studying hard for exams can be bad for you - yes, I'm serious!)

Me, at the peak of my academic excellence

4. People have high expectations on UM graduates. How do you cope with such expectations?

I'm not good with meeting expectations at all.

The thing is, people form expectations based on stereotypes. UM graduates are known to be good at research and fluent in Bahasa Melayu. That seems complimentary, right? But what's left unsaid is what people don't think we are good at - speaking, drafting, and so on. So when a firm takes in UM graduates, the seniors pass them work like research, translation and transcribing, instead of substantial work like drafting and interfacing with clients. When I was a pupil, that's exactly what I faced. I felt miserable. So what did I do? I pushed back. I stopped working for seniors who took me for granted, who saw me just as any UM graduate. I manoeuvred my way to work for bosses I respected and enjoyed working for.

Don't fall into the trap of expectations - whether from your parents, boss or friends. Don't let expectations stifle your personal ambitions. Don't let others dictate what you can and should do. Do what you love.

(Note: I have previously written on my brave manoeuvrings through pupillage - it takes some skills and balls to execute, and not without a price to pay)

5. How do you manage your time?

Explore, experiment. Try out as many things as you can. But here's the catch - you need to focus. Don't juggle 101 things at the same time. Zoom in on a few things, plan ahead.

Every year, I would focus on different things. First year, I was all over the place, but that's fine, as I was testing the waters. Second year, I did two moots and dabbled in debates. Third year, I got more active in debates (and consequently, achieved better results) and founded the Vox magazine. Final year, I returned to moots briefly and devoted my two semesters on a thesis-writing competition organised by NUS (and finished in 3rd place above Team Singapore - yay!).

Whatever you do, you have to pour your heart into it. You need to focus. And that means making sacrifices, and giving up on other things. Life's fair. No one can be good at everything. And that's the common mistake we make - trying to fix all our flaws. Firstly, that's not quite possible - no one is perfect. And secondly, time is better spent on maximising our strengths. No one hires a lawyer because "he's good in everything". People look for experts in a particular field.

Life is too short to be wasting time on things that others expect us to do but which we personally don't care about. So do what you love. Follow your heart. Live your own life.


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