Dear Friends at the Bar,
I am writing to let you know that after a break I am running in the upcoming Council elections, and to share with you some thoughts on the issues facing us at the Bar.
I hope you could take some time to vote, after familiarising yourself with this year’s candidates.
Please vote, even if not for me.
More importantly, whatever the results, join me in this important conversation on what the Bar must collectively do to meet the challenges and opportunities facing us all today.
Statement of Ideation
1. I am standing for election to the Bar Council (2016-17), because I see a need to strengthen the legal profession, through a more focused and united effort among members of the Bar.
2. We are facing challenging economic conditions of slow growth, poor business confidence, and rising costs. At the same time, we need to prepare for a radically different legal landscape – one with shrinking profit margins and where firms that fail to harness new technology are priced out, amidst fierce competition among local and foreign players for global and regional business. Aspects of this are already evident in jurisdictions like the UK, Australia, Hong Kong, and Singapore.
3. By shackling ourselves with archaic rules that consume money and time, and forestalling a better use of information and technology, we can forget about contending with others for international business, and non-legal professionals offering services we traditionally provide. Or hope to satisfy a local clientele that is increasingly demanding 24/7 personalised and quality services at lower costs. These changes will come, and firms of whatever size will have difficulty adjusting in time – if we do not educate ourselves and plan ahead now.
4. The Council should therefore move beyond its regulatory function to respond more to the needs of firms and lawyers, and proactively advance our interests. It should (i) help firms of all sizes expand work domestically, and also regionally and globally; (ii) amend or remove rules that stifle innovation and hobble our competitiveness; (iii) mandate higher standards for new entrants to the profession; and (iv) encourage a greater sense of shared purpose among members of the Bar. Achieving this will in turn enhance the Bar’s relevance and standing, and enable the Bar to better fulfil our duty of promoting the rule of law and access to justice.
5. Here are some ideas to explore:
- Reduce the costs of lawyering by leading collective bargaining with third party vendors and service providers, for example, for information technology packages, photocopiers, and other office supplies.
- Avail shared facilities at the Council or State Bars’ premises at affordable prices to firms and lawyers in need of meeting spaces and support, and to refine the Council’s position on virtual offices and group practices to keep up with new business practices.
- Allow an expanded use of technology by firms to increase productivity and lower operating costs, and to seek Government assistance to make such transitions more affordable.
- Review and update our profession and publicity rules that currently impede firms’ operations and ability to raise public awareness of legal services, thereby limiting our ability to compete with foreign rivals on an equal footing.
- Lobby the Government to simplify conveyancing contracts and practices by using a combination of technology and law-making, for example, streamlining processes at Land Offices, and legislating standard terms for sale and purchase, and loan agreements.
- Incorporate limited liability partnerships pursuant to the Limited Liability Partnership Act 2012 in the context of the legal profession.
- Introduce a “chambers model” (akin to barristers’ chambers in the UK) as a third form of legal practice in addition to the sole proprietorship and partnership models.
- Study “alternative business structures” in other jurisdictions that have allowed a fusion of legal and financial services work.
- Partner with government agencies, such as MATRADE, PEMANDU and other federal and state economic promotion agencies, to raise awareness among Malaysian businesses on legal services, and to join their overseas roadshows and business-matching events to promote Malaysian legal expertise.
- Gain a greater foothold and access for all law firms to Government work and conveyancing projects by a fair procurement system.
6. This exploration should take place within a Council-led “Future of Law and Legal Services Task Force” engaging the relevant stakeholders such as government departments and regulatory authorities. The Task Force is to be entrusted to elicit views from the Bar membership, and to review developments in other jurisdictions with a view of publishing a blueprint on what needs to be done, so that the legal profession can be a driver and beneficiary of Malaysia’s Vision 2020. We know it is going to take higher productivity and efficiency, innovation, education, and infrastructure to lift us out of this middle-income trap, and while there are serious macroeconomic factors at play, the legal profession is able to do our part.
7. Many of us will traverse through large, medium, and small firms at different points in our career. We may practise in KL or in the smaller cities and towns. Each business model has a role in the justice system. The Council must adopt an enabling approach, and work with members to build an environment for each to flourish and build sustainable practices. If we fail in this most basic of tasks, we should not be surprised at some members who hold the view that Council is barely relevant, and that these members continue to feel alienated from the Bar.
8. I hope, by energising a dialogue on the problems of firms and lawyers, and taking concrete actions to help all members, the Bar would find a firmer footing for the challenging times ahead. Members must play our part. Vote, give feedback, get involved. In particular, young lawyers with a longer runway have a bigger stake in shaping our shared future. A stronger legal sector is essential for Malaysia’s advance towards developed nation status, and we should position ourselves now to take advantage of opportunities arising from a more liberalised economy. This will take courage, patient pragmatism, and imagination on our part.
As my friend, Shanmuga Kanesalingam, in an eloquent exhortation some years ago on the Council’s election, once wrote:
The legal world is changing radically, and we need a group of Bar Council members that will have both people to anchor us with their experience, but also with people who will look forward and look differently at the world as it will be in the future.