To practice, or not to practice, that is the question

Not entirely like “Suits” or “Legally Blonde”, a career in law is high-pressured, competitive and demanding, and often only those who genuinely love the work stand a chance at success.

At least 40 percent of law graduates don’t end up in a legal career, but rather work across a multitude of fields ranging from business, PR and marketing, to even scientific and technical activities sectors. Many law graduates have gotten jobs in teaching and administration; in public service settings; for corporations and businesses; and for nonprofit organisations. Even though the theoretical aspects may not be utilised, your law degree is not wasted because it gives you skills employable in all kinds of profession.

Graduates should realise that law and the legal profession is, in fact, alive. The “practice” of law is a verb for a reason; it is about putting into practice and applying concepts and theories to real problems. Lawyers are akin to doctors, as Qin Ru points out. Just as there are different doctors in different specialities – cardiologists, ophthalmologists and gastroenterologist – lawyers have various expertise too, such as family law, intellectual property and corporate practice. For those who are at crossroads whether to embark or remain in a legal career, our mentors shared their insights on some questions young lawyers should reflect on and what it takes to excel.

Here are 5 checklists to help you in your decision:



1. Have you discovered the drive behind your work?

Kelvin, a trainee solicitor at Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP in London, gets excited when he speaks of the stimulating nature of the job. His favourite part is the feeling of satisfaction when he participates in large international corporate acquisitions and subsequently sees the impact he has made on companies, employees and people’s lives. He finds the legal practice intellectually rewarding, and loves problem-solving to find the best solutions for his clients.

As a tangent but nonetheless equally important, Qin Ru also thinks that lawyers should ask themselves: “what is my co-interest?” 

She draws an example from herself to illustrate. As a 7th year corporate and commercial lawyer currently in Teh & Lee, Qin Ru is in the capital markets practice which focuses on advising public listed companies with listings on Bursa Malaysia. She advises these companies on issues such as share issuance, initial public offers and listing, acquisition of companies and fund-raising. It is a relatively niche area and few lawyers in the country have the same profile as hers.

“I love how my job is project based (6 to 9 months) and how much commercial skills are involved. It’s all about how you marry the two of your interests together because law doesn’t exist on its own. You have to peg it against some other real life skill. My area of legal practice is pegged against corporate and commercial growth of companies,” Qin Ru says. “Lawyers should figure out what their own self-interests are besides law, as this will open up career options and help them figure out their personal niche areas.”

Izwan, a corporate lawyer at Widuri Capital Management, explains that it is hard to appreciate what you do if there is a lack of understanding. Your superior may not explain to you which adds to the confusion. “And so, you should be naturally curious about your job, and how it relates to the real world,” he says.

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2. Do you have a high sense of self-awareness about your strengths and qualities? 

Have a heightened sense of self-awareness about what your interests are. Knowing your strengths and qualities are also necessary to excel, leading to a higher sense of commitment.

Kelvin thinks that some of the most important qualities a good lawyer should have are analytical skills, determination, communication skills and being commercially aware. As a whole, a good lawyer should have the ability to pick up issues and understand how they affect your clients, and consequently coming up with a framework, solution or method.

“Admittedly, determination is not always an easy thing. Lawyers have to persevere – they have very tight deadlines and it’s a high pressure environment as clients want things done easily with high standards to push through,” Kelvin says. “Commercial awareness is hard to define so experience is key; the more you experience, the more you will know how business and commerce operates. It will give you a more holistic thinking.”

Izwan also talks about the ability to “always anticipate, not react”. A client who gives you a contract and asks for a review will expect you to propose or advice his next cause of action, and to go the extra mile if necessary.

However, Kelvin also mused that it is very important to be open. “I have seen so many lawyers who went into law thinking it’s just one thing, but they get an entirely different experience from what they intend it to be… so don’t set a strict benchmark for yourself!”


 (Image source: Demetri Martin)


3. Do you enjoy summarising complex information and expressing them clearly?

Upon asking Gregory Das from Shook Lin & Bok what he loved about his job most, he summarised it into two main parts. One, presenting cases in court; and two, reducing an argument into a simple form that caters to the person addressed in the best way possible. This could be anyone, from a judge in court to a client.

For example, how you present legal arguments to your superiors in contrast with how you present to clients will differ greatly, although it should be thorough yet precise in both situations. Essentially, it is about explaining things in a clear and succinct manner best suited to your audience. 

Being able to express your client’s point of view clearly is immensely important, and the best way of doing so is to have a strong command of language. Lawyers often deal with large chunks of information and will be expected to present them to a variety of audiences. 

Presenting information is what you will do daily – be it to the courts, your clients, your superiors or colleagues. Lawyers should know which relevant parts of the information to take out and to express them very clearly. This is indispensable and is a skill those who are interested should work on. I cannot emphasise this more,” Greg says firmly.


4. Are you a people person?

“There are very few other professions that exposes you to so many varying aspects of society and industries, as law is so pervasive. A legal problem could arise in any field — from medical, technology to employment,” Qin Ru says. “Naturally, this means that you will be dealing with people from all walks of life. Law is a service based skill, after all.” Qin Ru also illustrates how learning to understand people will help you manage your expectations. For instance, a difficult client could be acting that way because he is concerned about an issue which he feels that you have not addressed or addressed it to his expectation. 

Kelvin conjectures that legal problems are essentially stories. It is easy to be focused on the principle, but if you delve deeper into the facts, each case is essentially a personal problem and revolves around people and relationships. That said, a good lawyer, or litigator specifically, may not necessarily be an extrovert or outspoken in terms of personality.

“It’s like putting on a show, a performance,” Greg says. “When lawyers stand on the podium, they could be embodying their on-stage personality, a different side of them. Some of the best litigators could be introverts.”

Jane* also thinks that good emotional quotient (EQ) is necessary to handle any politics that may potentially arise in some notorious law firms. “I cannot overemphasise the importance of this, and the first few years will be especially hard. In my first two years, I was at the bottom of the food chain. Even though I am a 7th year associate now, handling relationships at my firm becomes tricky in a different aspect as financial rewards, partnerships and promotions come into play. There will be some not-so-nice people out there, and having good social skills will be important.”

It is not all doom and gloom though, as not every superior will be unreasonably tough,” Greg says. “There are many nice lawyers, believe it or not!”


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5. Have you gained experience through a wide exposure of practice?


“Experience is key. It counts a lot, especially in law,” Kelvin says. “Trainee programs are great in that sense because some of them offer a few different placements to find your field. Try everything at least, unless you are really determined to only do corporate, much like me,” he says.

However, joining a small boutique firm is not always a bad idea either, because there are some amazing ones who truly shine in their expertise. Kelvin advises to apply to as many places as a person can.

Qin Ru have also mused that one regret they had was not doing more clerkships or internships when they were younger. Having more experience in different areas will definitely help with making wiser and more informed decisions about your interests. This should certainly be a key takeaway to all young lawyers and graduates who are reading this!


(Image source: Onsizzle)



Advice from the Family Ferret

The business of lawyering is very much dependant on the growth of other fields from technology, business to a country’s political state and international relations. This is crucial as it determines the landscape of legal practice in the future, which will continue to evolve over time.

If legal practice does not appeal to you, there are still many other legal-related or alternative career avenues which you can venture into. However, for those who are still undecided, our mentors advised that, perhaps, it is wise to first dip your toes into private legal practice before joining a company.

In addition, doing a pupillage in a large law firm would also expose you to a lot of commercial and civil matters. With these new perspectives gained, you will eventually find yourself on a path suited to your interest, be it law-related or otherwise. Having that extra qualification will also make you more employable in any field of interest you choose to venture.

*Name changed for privacy purposes.



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