Opinion

Newsflash: Law firms want to make more money

Lord Bobo

Ask Lord Bobo is a weekly column by LoyarBurok where all your profound, abstruse, erudite, hermetic, recondite, sagacious, and other thesaurus-described queries are answered. Free Your Mind!

Dear Lord Bobo, does a law firm have the right to request a lawyer who is leaving the firm to refund the annual Practising Certificate fee which has been paid for the remainder of the year? (EE, via email.)

It has been said that god created the devil so that men wouldn’t blame Her (yes, god is female –– that’s common knowledge, no?) for everything, and that the devil created lawyers so that men wouldn’t blame Him for everything. That is true.

Dear EE, if it’s not already blatantly obvious, law firms are not charities. Most law firms are partnerships, and as made clear by the Partnership Act 1961, a partnership is a relationship which subsists between persons carrying on business in common with a view of profit.

Newsflash –– lawyers are greedy. That’s right, and the big-shot partners in law firms ultimately care only about the moolah. It’s all about the money, money, money.

There is a figure to everything, including your annual Practicing Certificate (“PC”). Your annual PC costs around RM1,000.00 to renew. This is a cost which law firms normally bear every year in exchange for your loyalty for the rest of the year. Whether you have to pay back this cost if you decide to leave (or are made to leave) during the year are dictated by the terms of your employment contract (oh, did you not read your employment contract? That’s bad, being a lawyer and all).

Assuming your employment contract is silent (shame on the firm!) and you leave during the year, the law firm which paid for the renewal of your annual PC would normally demand that you reimburse them for the cost incurred, prorated according to the number of months you worked for them.

To be honest, this makes perfect sense, and seems fair. Why would a law firm bear the cost for the period you are not working for them? This is particularly logical if you move on to work for another law firm.

Come on EE, don’t be naïve. There is a cold, oppressive beast that lies at the heart of every law firm, and it stirs at scent of money. You’re only useful to the law firm if you remained loyal. It’s nothing personal, just good business.

Lord Bobo hopes that you are not fooled by that benevolent image law firms paint for themselves, celebrating the false empowerment of their employees or the self-proclaimed good work they have done for the community. These are for the purposes of branding –– it is bait for unsuspecting victims. You would rather engage St Peter for business rather than Judas Iscariot, wouldn’t you?

If law firms are truly about empowerment, then as a lawyer ask yourself –– why are you getting a fixed salary instead of a share of the fees? Find out the total value of brief you are working on, and compare it with the remuneration you receive in return. How come you don’t get paid more if the firm receives a multi-million dollar brief? Why is there such an enormous gap between the amount the law firm earns, and the amount you earn.

The law firm structure is a scam. Even the partnership structure is a joke. “Salaried partners” or “non-equity partners” are still just employees and not true partners –– whatever complicated remuneration model the equity partners put in place to appease these junior partners will still result in them taking home only a small fraction of the fees they earn for the firm. Why is that?

Pause for a moment and think about flexi-hours, bonuses, medical benefits, and professional development –– are these merely sweeteners to mask the oppression, the undeniable truth that you are not being remunerated equitably? Think about it.

The next time you meet a senior or equity partner of a medium or big law firm (hey, you young lawyers working in medium or big law firms should try this), ask him about career paths, fixed-scale salaries, or the partnership remuneration formula. Then watch him squirm and wiggle and answer in code and half-truths.

Once you have answered all these questions, you will find out the main reason why 90% of the law firms in Malaysia are small firms. Many lawyers inevitably leave and set up shop on their own.

Sadly though, most of the partners in these small firms, having been oppressed by the equity partners from their previous firms, adopt the very same model of oppression they were subjected to once their small firm grows. The oppressed becomes the oppressors, perpetuating the cycle of oppression.

Feeling disillusioned yet? Aren’t law firms about helping those in need, defending the downtrodden and marginalised? Surely it cannot be all about profit? Sadly,no.

Section 42 (1) (a) of the Legal Profession Act 1976 states that the purpose of the Malaysian Bar shall be to uphold the cause of justice without regard to its own interests or that of its members, uninfluenced by fear or favour. But what Section 42 does not state is that lawyers should do it for free. And they don’t. More often than not, Section 42 is merely treated as a nice adornment to the false pomp and prestige of the legal profession. Lord Bobo is appalled at such sorry state of affairs, and you should be too.

The legal profession is oppressive and ruthless. Whether you want to perpetuate the cycle of oppression or embark on a path of liberation depends entirely on you. If you decide on the latter, then begin by accepting that no one owes you a living, nor do you to others.

Recognise that everyone should be equitably remunerated and there should not be too big an earnings gap between the firm and you –– or if the firm is yours, then between you and your lawyers.

Understand that you have a duty to society as a lawyer, because you are in a better position than most others to help the downtrodden and marginalised.

Law firms may think that they control you simply because they pay your wages or the cost of renewing your annual PC. Prove them wrong, go forth and start liberating yourself.

Start by paying for your own annual PC and be your own person! Oh, you don’t want to? You want the firm to pay? Then stop complaining about having to reimburse the firm. 

If you’re not willing to pay the price for a little bit of freedom, then get comfortable in those chains and continue living as a slave to the wage. Free your mind!

Although Lord Bobo already knows your question before you even knew you had a question, as a practical display of your true desire to have your query answered, His Supreme Eminenceness has graciously allowed you to communicate your questions by either emailing asklordbobo@loyarburok.com or tweeting your question, mentioning @LoyarBurok and using the hashtag #AskLordBobo. Now, what the hell are you waiting for? Hear This and Tremblingly Obey (although trembling is optional if you are somewhere very warm)! – March 6, 2014.

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