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Monday, 18 April 2016

How I Came To IP, Part 1

Dear Reader

After thinking for a long time about what I want to post, I think I would like to tell you my story. Sure, I had thoughts about posts about the drafting process and the expedited application process. But those can wait for another day. I realise that until today, I have not shared much about myself on this blog. Perhaps it is timely then, that I write this piece.

The Early Days

It was the 1980s. The economy was in a slump and many people were out of work. The radios were playing songs like Bobby McFerrin's Don't Worry Be Happy, Phil Collins' A Groovy Kind of Love, and Milli Vanilli's Girl You Know It's True. I was a kid in primary school not knowing anything better, and we all thought that Milli Vanilli was the coolest singing duo that a little kid could imagine.

Against that background, my father had just started his firm, Koo Chin Nam & Co. He was a poor young man who had come from a small town to the bustling capital of our country, Kuala Lumpur. He chambered at Messrs. P.G. Lim & Co., one of the most prestigious law firms in town at the time. And he had gone around seeking for a place to take him in, but as an "experienced hire", many senior lawyers were wary about the scruffy, somewhat hungry-looking lawyer who came knocking on their doors for a place, or a partnership. They were worried, he would tell me later, that he would take their clients away.

In the 1980's, this was hot fashion.
These guys look rather tame in comparison with today's heavily tattooed hip-hop artistes.

Tuan Haji Razak Ibrahim

Yet one kindly old man gave him a chance. Tuan Haji Razak Ibrahim was operating a boutique law firm in downtown Kuala Lumpur, when my father went to his office to ask about working together. The older man took pity on my father and took my father under his wing. The arrangement was this: Tuan Haji rented a room in his office to my father, and my father ran Koo Chin Nam & Co. out of the office of Tuan Haji Razak Ibrahim's rather large office. Office overheads had to be split. Staff salaries were borne by whichever lawyer hired the staff.

A Daring Proposition

My father did not know it then, but Tuan Haji had been considering retirement when my father came knocking. As my father was the founder of a new law firm, he took the opportunity to offer his services to Tuan Haji. He was, after all, in need of work. "Let me look at your stuck files, and see if I can solve them. Let me try and if I succeed, I will split the profits with you." Tuan Haji looked at him thoughtfully, and could see my father's eagerness to succeed. He took a chance and gave my father a few files to try out.

With nothing to lose, and everything to gain, my father gave it his all. He won those cases that came his way, no matter how tough or bleak the situation was. In time, more and more senior lawyers gave him work. They split the profits with him, and their clients were always under the impression that they had conduct of the matter at court, although the actual person doing the work was my father.

My father's source of strength in those years were prayer, and the faces of his family. He knew that failure was not an option. He just had to plough on.

Moving Out

In time, my father became his own man. His name was known in Kuala Lumpur as a litigator of some substance. He briefly considered Tuan Haji's offer to enter Tuan Haji's firm as a partner, but Tuan Haji had a brother-in-law who wanted to enter into the partnership as well. In the end, the three men parted ways as friends. My father brought his firm to a new office, while Tuan Haji and his brother-in-law stayed on.

In those days, my father's legal practice was mostly litigation, with a good dose of conveyancing. Those in legal practice will know that this is simply "general practice" or "general litigation". In the 1980s and 1990s, not many Chinese lawyers took up litigation. Those who did could make a living. The majority of Chinese lawyers wanted corporate work or conveyancing work, which was relatively peaceful and predictable. Those daring Chinese lawyers could partner up with other lawyers to handle the big and complicated court cases, to make a name for themselves.

And that was what my father did. He took up cases, of every description you could imagine. Drug cases. Murder cases. Copyright infringements. Every case was a winner, and he was often in the newspapers. (A big thing in those days when there were no Internet news portals.) Then the day came when he was invited by the mob to take up all their cases for a monthly retainer with no limits. He very politely declined the invitation, and started focusing on other areas of work. Less criminal work, and more civil litigation work, including land disputes, debt collections, shareholders disputes. It was by then the 1990s and there was a booming economy, emerging from the ashes of the 1980's recession.

Uncle Cheong

Uncle Cheong was an old man with a Form 5 education, stout and a little short. But he was gifted with a keen sense of street smarts. (He told me that he had been a footballer for the state.) One day he was introduced to my father, for a job. His boss had migrated overseas, closing the practice, and leaving Uncle Cheong without any employment. "What can you do?" my father asked him. He could bring some old clients over, Uncle Cheong said. After all, they would need a lawyer now that their regular guy was gone. 

And that was where it really started. Uncle Cheong came in with a batch of clients who were trademark owners. He convinced them to pass some work to us. No experience, no problem. He knew how to do things. That was how my firm came to start our trademark practice and got our first IP clients. (This statement does not include the earlier court cases where my father had defended copyright infringement cases. Those cases had a quasi-criminal element to them.)

That's the end of Part 1.

I'm getting nostalgic. I remember those days in the 1990s, when I got to know Uncle Cheong at my father's office. I remember the times I followed him around town, to the land office, and the trademark office, and the courts. (He couldn't do paperwork, but he could make sure that your documents were processed in time.) I was then a shy teenager who felt out of place, trying to get through those turbulent years in school.

Here is another song, an ode to those days, from the masters of lip-syncing, Milli Vanilli:

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