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Life As A Pupil In Chambers by Ooi Keng Liang

‘Chambering’ instantly conjectures an image of servants scurrying about carrying pails of water to their masters’ feet in the deep dusty chambers of the dark ages, enslaved by destiny. A lawyer friend of mine in Singapore told me to replace the term ‘chambering’ with the more accurate term ‘pupilage’ but I told him the latter sounded like a bad case of eye infection. By whatever name it is called, chambering is no picnic and I am here to reveal why.

While still in recovery mode from the dire aftermath of CLP exam, which had punched us in the face and left us for dead, we are to begin work under a Master’s chambers at a wage which makes an African blood diamond child laborer seem rich. We are known as trainee lawyers to the public, not unlike the trainee surgeon who might leave his scalpel in your abdomen after surgery. Perhaps because pupil-in-chambers is a term too long for busy lawyers, we are too often referred to as ‘chambies’; a term I suspect is a combination of ‘chambering’ and ‘babies’. I like it better if we are called Levir, short for legal virgins.

And then there is the inferiority complex. We are immediately ushered into a world where seasoned lawyers walk by very quickly with their big black briefcase in one hand and flowing robe in the other who had little time for lesser creatures with lesser tasks. They also have no time for full sentences and often resort to abbreviations. I remember my very first day in court for case management. The counsel for the opposing party rushed to me and said ‘Mr Ooi, I will file the SDK tomorrow, can u please MOB for me then we meet up later in MJU or 32* ?’ I tried to forge a confident reply with matching abbreviations but the only ones flashing in my mind at that time was ‘OMG WTH I don’t know what you are talking about SOS! SOS!’ Sometimes, the inferiority complex is so bad that I dare not breathe in the lift filled with lawyers galore.
Contrary to popular belief that chambering pupils can make whatever mistakes without causing much uproar (apparently because you are just a legal lowlife who cannot be held responsible), you can’t. The last time I made a mistake, I was thrown head-first into hot water with the legal Trinity; the Judiciary, the Bar Committee and the Person who signed my paycheque. I cannot divulge any further about the problem, lest I will not be hired by any firm for the next 15 years or so; suffice to say it involved me and a female member of the Judiciary in a small private lift. No, it is not what you think.

There is much ruckus about attire and grooming; no bright-coloured ties for men, skirt for women must cover the knees (dismay to not only the female lawyers), fancy hairstyles are frowned upon, jewelries on men are not allowed but religious ornaments are bearable. ‘Keng Liang your pants are too skinny’, ‘Keng Liang your shoes are too pointy’, ‘Keng Liang your hair is too high’. My hair itself has been subject of so many comments and feedbacks that I believe it should have its own Facebook account. Or Twitter. I suspect this has got to do with the standard of perfect hairstyle set by the Penang Bar Chairman himself by example and we mere mortals fail shamelessly by far. (Mr. Gnana please don’t object to my long call!)

Oh and how do I start on the duties galore we owe to LAC? We give out flyers in malls. We sell books and t-shirts in concerts. We visit prisons. We conduct dock briefs before the feistiest of judges. We endure endless hours of dialogue with an Ah Mah client who wants to sue her dead husband and the entire town. We gather our guts and tears to tell a poor man we cannot help him sue a hospital which killed his teenage daughter because Legal Aid lacks jurisdiction. And just when it's the time to pull down the shutters at LAC, the Ang Mah has to return with an intricate plan on how to sue his dead husband. Apart from the wonderful people who run LAC (Shini and Anne, you owe me big time), the countless hours spent at the LAC makes me want to staple things to the clients’ head. Above all, we are made to relive the resurrected horror of yet another exam called Ethics allegedly aimed to bolster our professional and ethical conduct. Certainly such exam was not designed to make our lives difficult but if you don’t pass, your long call is screwed, I’m sorry the more ethical word is ‘postponed’.

Certainly I must say to be fair, the lessons learnt in these nine months eclipse the inherent pains. I am taught that fellow lawyers are better made friends than enemies. Judges are imperfect individuals with worldly temperaments. Court interpreters can save your asses. Have a spare tie in your car. Do not give your cellphone number to clients. Be nice to nice people. Feign confidence when you have none. Bahasa Melayu is very important. Pretend to be busy always. Know thy judges. Go to court early. Trust your instincts. Prepare your case well. Be graceful in victory. Leave quickly if you lose. Love the law. Be optimistic. And above all, let senior lawyers fetch the bill.

Last week marked the last week of chambering for me and I must say the transition has been most bittersweet. I have had the privilege of chambering in a firm which I have grown rather fond of. I am most eager to live that very moment of transcendence; from the lower-case legal infant fit for the second row Bar table to Glory but I am made aware of the responsibilities too. The cacophony of courtroom buzz, morning rush, interpreters’ drone and vibrating cell-phones on Bar tables is slowly accepted as a large part of the inherent nature of a honourable profession as we join ranks of lawyers whose single mistake could mean millions in loss or spell death to our clients. It is also not very motivating to know that we finish chambering just in time to greet year 2012, the year doom is rumoured to come. Should doom ever come, I want the world (especially the Legal Trinity) to know that it is not brought about by the cut of my pants, the height of my hair or the choice of my footwear.

*32 is a cosy cafe strategic to the Penang courts, near enough for quickie meals or drinks or lepaking with fellow lawyers, also a place I suspect bosses don’t like as much.

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