22 May CB7. My personal history and Comasters Law Firm
Eight out of 10 ‘start ups’ fail in the first five years. The two who succeed would be because of perseverance, know-how, hard work, being nice to clients and suppliers, and advent of some good luck. The sharp ‘ups and downs’ in business would lessen as the years go by. Capitalism works, not communism or socialism, because the business owner is thoroughly invested in their undertaking, and the harder you work, the more you reap.
- I have always wanted to be a lawyer. I considered scientist and even teacher, but reverted back to lawyer. My backup profession has been accountant. Working as a lawyer or as an accountant gives one the ability to have your own business one day.
- When I was small, I watched lawyer TV shows and cinema movies, and liked the hero (or heroine) in them. I realised, at a young age, that knowing the law gives one some authority when talking to other people. I also knew then that many politicians were lawyers first before they became lawmakers. In Australia, two thirds of politicians have a law background (legal training). Awkwardly, Australian politicians are not held in high regard unlike in other countries. This is probably due to the criticisms they make on one another (left vs right) especially on the Parliament floor that is widely reported in the press – like two children fighting.
- One noted joy in my life was knowing that I ‘got into law school’. The entrance mark for law, as for medicine, is high (the same in many other countries). Once I got in, I knew I could finish the course. Getting into law school was 75% of the effort. Only 25% of the effort is needed to finish the undergraduate course of five years.
- The next hurdle was of course to get a job in the private practice of law – to be trained in a law firm and ultimately obtain an ‘unrestricted practising certificate’.
- I managed to arrive ‘there’ in the early 1990s. On the way, I became a registered migration agent. Immigration law is second nature to me since I am a migrant myself. I know how it feels to apply and then wait anxiously for the grant of Permanent Residence Visa to live happily ever after in the “Lucky Country”.
- Comasters Law Firm had its beginnings in a serviced office on Level 21 of the World Trade Centre (the building has a new name now) on George Street, Sydney.
- I hired staff from day one. Part-time ones. I had staff working under me in the law firm I was employed in and liked it too much to let go.
- My working hours were 9:00 am to 12:00 midnight for the first two years.
- Not long after I started the law firm, I was elected president of the Australian Malaysian Singaporean Association (www.amsa.com.au) – I had served as secretary before that – all voluntary work for the community. I gave a lot to Amsa and received some back. Half of one of my staff’s time was doing Amsa community work (no emails in those days; we used faxes and snail post instead). I gave my time, and I received recognition in the wider community – this was helpful for my bourgeoning law firm. People trust me quickly.
- Why the long hours at work? It was my new business and undertaking, and it required ‘perseverance, know-how, hard work, being nice to clients and suppliers, and some advent of good luck’.
- Working on client matters took one third of my time. The next one third was reading and more reading on the law. I read the ‘Contract for the sale and purchase of land’ from page 1 to page 12 many times. I read as much as I could to get myself up to date on the law. I also read the news. I wanted to ensure that I knew what I was talking about when communicating with clients, and future clients. Luckily, after five years of university, I actually like reading. Before university (or more accurately, before preparing for the Higher School Certificate), I liked the outdoors much more than reading – ie going out and socialising (no drinking of alcohol though). I don’t drink, unlike so many of my friends. Going out a lot and not reading enough at home, made my English not as good as my classmates in the first few years of university. I compensated by reading more and studying harder than my peers. More than half my university life was spent in the library of Macquarie University!
- The one third of the time in ‘learning the law’ got me into a Masters of Law program at the University of Sydney. I did it for one semester and decided that I don’t need an LLM behind my name (since I already have my own law firm and there would be no more corporate ladder to climb) and what the lecturer taught me were things that I could learn myself, and my time would be better spent not being a ‘professional student’.
- The last one third of my time was spent on marketing. Like it or not, there needs to be marketing in whatever business you do. But marketing has to be done appropriately – law firm marketing has to be nuanced – not ‘in your face’ TV advertising type. Hence, began Comasters Newsletters. I sent by post to the people I met. These days I send by email (not post) to 1,700 recipients. I really only send to the people that I have actually met (not spamming). Of course, I would get ‘unsubscribes’ along the way, but I have begun to have a ‘thick skin’ for small ‘let downs’ like this.
- In the first two years of operating my law firm of Comasters, I was doing better than ‘breaking even’. There was adequate food on my dinner table. There were both ‘very busy periods’ and ‘very quiet periods’. I did some criminal law work and I began not to like this area of law – my clients would refer other ‘criminals’ to me (we are really only defendants’ lawyers, the ‘opposing party’ would always be the police or the public prosecutor). I like doing commercial law work much better. My clients would refer other successful business people to me, where their sharpness and aptitude would rub off onto me.
- Between 1994 and 1997, I was principal lawyer of Comasters, president of Amsa and doing LLM for a stint of six months. I literally had no weekends for myself.
- Nevertheless, in hindsight, although I worked hard, I thoroughly enjoyed it. I told myself then, and now, that I am living in the “Lucky Country” and savouring all the opportunities given to me. The harder you work (and work smart), the more returns you would get.