I never felt comfortable as a lawyer although I had somewhat of a natural ability to be one. I received a scholarship from Messrs Skrine to pursue my legal studies at University of Malaya, but I decided to pay back the scholarship when I completed my studies. I then undertook youth work for a year instead.
However, newspaper reports about how the Government was intending to change the pupillage period from 9 months to 2 years prompted me to return to law in order to complete my pupillage. I did so at Messrs Allen & Gledhill (now Messrs Lee Hishammuddin Allen & Gledhill). After my pupillage, I worked with Messrs Allen & Gledhill for approximately a year before I ventured out on my own.
When I first started my own practice, I went from being ultra-busy to having absolutely nothing to do. I did not have any client or work. An old school friend approached me and invited me to join him in partnership. In his words, he was good at “marketing” and I could do the legal work. It sounded good to me.
Alas, it turned out to be too good to be true. My friend was more interested in his side catering business. I ended up putting out fires and dealing with client complaints most of the time. Eventually, one client invited me to his house, and told me frankly, “Kheng Hoe, if this is how your practice is run, I don’t think we can support you any longer”. I knew there and then what I had to do. I broke off the partnership with my then-partner and started all over again.
I am very appreciative of the client who was point-blank honest with me. He is still a client until today. I went back to each and every client, offering to make amends for how we handled their files, and asking for another chance to prove myself. Thankfully, most of them supported me.
That is why I strongly value supporting my clients no matter what. I appreciate their helping hand when I was down, and I intend to be theirs during their down days.
I was handling construction disputes quite early on in my career. Like any other lawyer, I did my work, and then rendered what I considered to be a reasonable invoice. To my surprise, my clients were not very happy.
One day, I had a chat with a specialist contractor who is a client of mine. I asked him, “My invoices are really quite reasonably, so why are you not happy with them sometimes?” His reply changed the way I practise law until today.
He told me, as a contractor, he has to go through the specifications, define his scope of works, cost the works, negotiate any uncertain points, before he is even awarded the job. Once the work starts, if there is any change, there must be a proper variation order issued.
He then said to me, “Lawyers are all the same. You do the work and throw us an invoice and expect us to pay. How do you expect us to be happy with such a practice? You are holding us at ransom with your invoice just because the works are already done.”
I saw the logic in his argument. And since then, I made it a point to work based on agreed fees only. I adopted a simple, fixed-fee structure, whereby I agree with clients beforehand the exact amount I will charge. In this way, clients know exactly how much they have to pay for and when. That simplifies our relationship so much.
The strange thing about being a lawyer is that clients do not actually want legal solutions. They want business solutions, only that these business solutions have to be crafted within the legal sphere.
I was fortunate to have a clear understanding of this distinction from the very start of my career. I understood that whilst clients appreciate and expect me to have legal knowledge, they also would prefer that I understood their business concerns and practices. After all, a legal solution is worth nothing if it does not jive with clients’ commercial realities. At the end of the day, formulating a strictly legal solution may well lead to clients winning the battle and losing the war.
As the years went by, I started doing more and more construction dispute work. And I realised that I was quite good in it (if I may say so myself). I understood engineering concepts. I could grasp technical jargon quite easily. And most importantly, I somewhat enjoyed doing the work.
Admittedly, it is sad to imagine someone going through piles of documents, technical specifications and construction drawings. But somehow I get it. More importantly, it gets me. And so here I am, at this point in my career, focused on construction disputes, and doing the best I can to help raise the younger lawyers in my firm.
Who knows what the future will bring? The Kheng Hoe story has yet to reach its final chapter…