Toxic Workplace Culture: Confessions of a Toxic Person

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One Financial Times article titled “High pay in law jobs fails to compensate for toxic culture” was all it took to ruffle a few feathers and open up old wounds for some of us. Well, some of us were more triggered by others’ misplaced comments on such a thought-provoking and much-needed article. So much so, some of us are inspired to write again after a long hiatus. A lot has been said by employees about the “toxic culture” at law firms in less than 24 hours after Lee Shih first shared that article on his social media platforms. Most of which are from employees who have had their fair share of experiences of a toxic culture.

We haven’t seen much from people who’d admit that they are toxic, save of course for those butt hurt persons who felt the need to associate themselves with social media posts that did not name them and make their “I’d be the first to admit I’m not perfect BUT…..” statements. Somewhat like a Streisand Effect scenario, or quite close.

Enough has been said about toxic workplaces in the Malaysian legal profession from the perspective of employees who suffered at the hands of a toxic boss or superior. So, let me do the honour and outrightly confess to being a toxic person who validated and perpetuated a toxic culture.

I regard myself as lucky enough to have realised how toxic I was. At the point of realisation, I genuinely believed it was me and my character flaw. I believed something was fundamentally wrong with me and I still feel this way from time to time. Yet, I felt like I could not help it. In my humble view, my toxicity was in the form of my rage. I say humble view in case others may experience my toxicity in other ways which I’ve yet to discover. I was nothing but a ball of anger and for so very long. Two of my former colleagues who I met earlier this week candidly told me that I was akin to a raging bull, every day for the last 5 years. They were not wrong. The daily meltdowns and temper tantrums took a toll on me emotionally, physically and they were soon ruining my life – both professional and personal. Things came crashing down during the lockdown last year. It was really meltdowns after meltdowns. At one point, I called a partner “nothing but a factory manager” to them personally. It’s a miracle how I was never fired and how long I survived. But, herein lies the problem. I was part of that toxic culture. I was toxic. My own inability to control my emotions, to deal with my burnout and to manage my own work stress meant people around me, particularly those who had to work with me, continued to suffer because of me.

People closest to me, who knew me from then and who I believe have nothing but my best interests at heart, would often remind me of how scary I was and how difficult it must have been for people to work and live with me. I was insufferable and eventually, I knew I was and I hated the person I was becoming. I was, however, validated by many people around me, including superiors and partners. “This is who you are. We’ve accepted it.” they would say. I was supposed to be grateful to them for accepting me as I am. No other place would have tolerated me. I was indeed grateful.

But why? I started to wonder. With hindsight now, I wish someone had pulled me aside and told me that I needed to get help, to speak to a mental health professional and sort myself out. Perhaps, being told to leave the firm would have been a kinder thing for me and for everyone who had to suffer through my personal issues. It took a huge meltdown during the last lockdown in 2020 for me to realise that I was not well. Clinical depression and unresolved PTSD (for some past event earlier in my life) were the eventual diagnosis.

The journey towards recovery has been long, frustrating yet very enlightening. I’ve learnt along the way that this is a painful journey. Painful when you realise the hurt that you’ve inflicted on so many because you cannot make sense of your own circumstances. Plenty of flashbacks of how I may have single-handedly, needlessly ended friendships and relationships. But what truly hurts the most is realising that the people who you thought had your best interests at heart, who you thought you owed eternal gratitude towards, were part of the problem and you, you have contributed to a culture they enabled. Make no mistakes about toxic cultures and toxic persons climbing up the career ladder. They are there and they survived so long because they were enabled. And, I speak as someone who has been enabled for far too long.

A lot of times we only choose to acknowledge how “imperfect” we are when we are called out publicly or we fear an impending backlash for the image we portray on social media. As someone said today, “social media pressures can have a significant impact on people”. Perhaps, it can sometimes. When we sell a version of ourselves on social media that is not quite who we are in real life. That is where I think the impact can be felt most.

The biggest and most self-loving lesson I learnt from my own situation and after more than 1 year of consistent therapy is that toxic cultures are not perpetuated by just 1 person. It may be enabled by 1 person who dictates and sets the tone of the culture. Most of the time, people who are so deeply rooted in that toxic culture can never see themselves as toxic. I needed a personal life crisis to wake up. I needed months and months of therapy to accept this, to call myself out and to work on managing my issues better.

What is certain is that I am no longer the same person as I was in 2020. I learnt things along the way once I removed myself from certain situations, environments and people. I made unhappy, uncomfortable discoveries which I was so blinded to for so long. I realised that everything I defended so ferociously was nothing but layers of toxic manipulation and I began to wonder, what was I so grateful for again? I changed and I know I will continue to change as I see more of the things which I was once blinded to. It is always easy to judge from the outside without knowing what goes on inside. Ah, but I am grateful for how things eventually turned out. I am grateful for the experiences I had. I am grateful for the good times and friends I made along the way, at a time when I was my ugliest self. Am I a recovered toxic person? Perhaps, not. Not quite there yet, looking at my triggers and my need to call certain people out.

I am thankful for the people around me now with whom I share this journey of growth, self-discovery, and enlightenment. I write this not so much for any of my readers. I am writing this for myself as part of my healing process and a reminder of the person I never want to be again and a place I never want to be in ever again.

As a very wise man said to me today, “Only dumb people will have their worldview set in stone.”

Why did I stop writing?

I’m back and I can’t think of a more lawyerly thing to do than to write a post about why I haven’t been writing!

Well, the honest truth is that life as a sole proprietor caught up with me. Since March, work has been rather hectic and I was really trying to get a grasp of my new life as a sole proprietor/law firm owner. I am grateful to have been kept busy throughout despite the “full lockdown” which started on 1st June 2021.

Being busy aside, admittedly the Covid-19 situation in this country has affected me in many ways.

This sums up how I am in lockdown! (Image credit:

I have somehow succeeded in working mostly from home although I now have a physical office space. Working from home for an extended period has taken its toll on me. A lot of talk about pandemic burnout, burnout from prolonged working from home arrangements, and productivity have gone around. To me, the most contentious ones often seem to come from more senior lawyers i.e. employers who demand more productivity from their employees throughout this period. LinkedIn quickly became a far more toxic space than Twitter for me! It seemed like every other day, there will be some content on LinkedIn calling out or questioning the lack of productivity from employees due to work-from-home arrangements.

I personally do not do well with lockdowns. I came out of the 1st lockdown last year (as we call it the Movement Control Order (MCO) 1.0 in Malaysia) in the most dramatic fashion. I did 3 things that day: met the managing partner to tender my resignation, had my first therapy session and took a phone interview for an in-house position in Singapore. Naturally, when the government announced another “full lockdown” which started on 1st June this year, I was nervous. I was worried that I’d have another meltdown and God knows what big life decisions I might make again! Living not too far from a designated Covid hospital certainly does not help either. Since 1st June, ambulance sirens have since become my daily companion. It is hard to maintain continuous high levels of productivity in these circumstances. However, I suspect that we’re far more productive than what most of us (or some of our employers think). We often don’t realise that we are probably working a lot more and far longer hours, with no boundaries between work and personal life, during lockdown. I am pretty sure most of us can relate to the daily routine of getting out of bed, turning on our laptops/computers, eating all our meals that day in front of the same laptop/computer until we have completely lost track of time. How do we not suffer from burnout if this is daily life for most of us and most worryingly, with no real end in sight?!

So, I tend to think that the alleged “lack of productivity” or as some employers put it, the alleged “laziness” is merely a perception arising from the assumption that since we have no other place to be in lockdown, we should all be doing more and that there is a lot more that we can do!

Throughout this period, I have had a lot of guilt for not doing enough or more. Of course, I had big plans and ambitions for my new little firm at the start of this year. I had great plans for this space, my blog on my law firm website, and a book that I am contractually bound to write! I have spent a great deal of the 1st half of this year feeling guilty that I could never seem to find the motivation to do everything as planned. So much so, I started reading a book on ADHD and was slowly convinced that I have undiagnosed ADHD that’s preventing me from staying focused and keeping to my daily plans or to-do lists. It’s like going down a rabbit hole of seeking solutions for my perceived lack of productivity and motivation.

It is then that I realised that I should probably cut myself some slack. This is more of a time to re-prioritise and accept that this year is probably going to be another year of survival for most of us. Survival can mean very different things to different people, as news of how some barely have food on the table due to this extended lockdown become a recent daily fixture. For some of us, it is about remaining sane. And, this is where I hope employers realise that lockdowns are really harder on some of us. I also don’t deny that it is equally hard on many employers/business owners. Being a law firm owner comes with its own set of worries and having even 1 person on your payroll adds to this stress in such uncertain times.

What we can all benefit from is a little bit of compassion and empathy towards each other. This shouldn’t be an employer vs employee situation. This should be a time to reflect on how we can support each other and help each other stay alive and sane during this period of time. And, the answer is NOT to micro-manage your employees and have multiple Zoom meetings with them throughout the day. Some may think it is their way of checking in on each other but as many of us know, a lot of times these multiple meetings a day with the boss take a toll on our mental health. Again, I do not deny that employers have their own anxieties. But hopefully, they’ll understand that work-from-home arrangements are not a free pass to disrespect and overstep each other’s boundaries.

On this note, though I have struggled with being motivated and keeping up with my plans for 2021, I must say that being on my own has been better for my mental health. The answer to those early snide questions/remarks about how I could write my own website content, maintain 2 blogs, social media accounts, create social media content, and have paying clients at the same time is simply this: I can do it all because to a very large extent, I own my time and have full autonomy over how I run my practice. (Ok, fine. Truthfully, when you’re trying to keep costs low and only have a small start-up capital, you will find the time and motivation!)

I have digressed much from the title of this post and I should end this post here. While many of us continue to debate whether law firms/lawyers are an essential service during the lockdown, I really hope that we can all be kinder to ourselves and realise this is probably not the year to fulfill grand ambitions and it is ok. We’re not really lagging behind our peers because if people were honest enough, they’re more likely than not to be in the same boat as us.

Stay afloat, peeps.

The Rise of the Young: Enlightened or Entitled?

Are we witnessing a revolution? Can I call it a revolution of the Malaysian legal profession?

I’m very much still reeling from yesterday’s Malaysian Bar AGM. I’ve tweeted one too many tweets on the proceedings that I think my followers would probably appreciate a break from my rants. But truth be told, I think there’s still so much to be said about how things went yesterday.

Firstly, it was an amazing feat to see all motions proposed for the day, save for 1 which was withdrawn, in particular the motions for minimum wage for pupils and the motion to clarify the validity of the Bar Council’s Sexual Harassment Mechanism, being passed despite the heated discussions. I do wonder if the fact that the AGM was held virtually helped in getting these motions passed.

The significance of these motions, I believe, lies in the fact that they were proposed and pushed forward by young lawyers i.e. lawyers practising for less than 7 years, whether they are aligned with the Young Lawyers Movement (YLM) or not.

Much has been said about the manner in which these young lawyers were treated at the AGM and unfortunately, such treatment only validates the cries and complaints of young lawyers to be treated better. The young lawyers were undeterred and each of the speakers held their ground despite having been shut out, spoken over, interrupted, cut-off mid-speech and in the case of one young lawyer, he pretty much got yelled at! I still think many of them were not only very eloquent, far more eloquent than some more senior lawyers, but extremely brave.

Whatever my feelings or views about YLM, which I have tweeted publicly and spoke of privately to at least one member of the YLM, I view these young lawyers with much admiration. For one, the issues which they are raising are not new issues within the legal profession. Much has also been said by more senior lawyers, including my contemporaries, about how we all used to just suck it up and didn’t “whine” as much.

I’ve had this debate, both with friends and in my head, as to whether the young ones are dealing with it better than we did. If we were completely honest with ourselves, we complained just as much but just not as directly and publicly as the young ones do now on social media. Did we not have indirect social media posts about the less than acceptable working conditions back in the day? Think of those Facebook “check-ins” at the office on weekends, cryptic Facebook statuses which your closest friends and colleagues know exactly who and what you were referring to, etc.

Enlightened or Entitled?

I’m sure it’s no secret that many more senior lawyers are quick to dismiss this new generation of young lawyers as entitled or calling them the “Snowflake generation”. At the risk of repeating myself far too much, I simply cannot get over the fact of how this dismissive attitude was so obviously seen at yesterday’s AGM and how I still find it to be absolutely shocking.

But are these young lawyers really “entitled”?

Dare I suggest that they may be far more “enlightened” than we were when we were in their shoes. Of course, I never appreciate the blatant rudeness or misplaced anger demonstrated by some of these lawyers and I’m in no way condoning such behaviour. I maintain my views about certain people in terms of their engagement with other more senior lawyers and the manner in which they handle criticism on social media.

When I say this group of young lawyers may be “enlightened” as opposed to “entitled”, I am very much referring to the fact that, quite unlike us, they are not as willing to accept oppressive and predatory behaviour within the profession. To that, I say, what is so wrong about that? It is about damn time for this profession to be held accountable for bullying, exploitation and harassment. I say this with some self-awareness that despite having real experiences of toxic workplaces, at some point in my career, I was myself perpetuating the same toxic culture which eventually broke me. This is something I hope to speak more about because it was something I had to learn to undo in therapy.

More senior lawyers need to now accept that younger lawyers today will no longer buy the old tune they’ve been singing for far too long. And, as uncomfortable as it may be for them, this is probably exactly what the Malaysian legal profession needs. Maybe, finally, some kind of revolution will happen. When the fear-mongering of fewer jobs, fewer pupillage places as a response to what may be blatantly exploitative and oppressive conduct by some employers no longer hold water, when victims of sexual harassment no longer wish to suffer in silence, when lawyers will no longer suffer bullying in silence then maybe not as many of us will end up leaving the profession or end up in therapy just to get through life. Maybe it is about damn time we hold each other accountable for our poor behaviours.

The young lawyers are causing much discomfort to the old guards and quite frankly, I am more than delighted to live to see this day. Whilst I’m not quite sure if we will see anything life-changing from the newly elected Bar Council office bearers, I do expect and hope to see the YLM and other young lawyers continue to put pressure on the old guards and hold them accountable for taking steps to address and reflect the motions which were passed yesterday. I still maintain my views that more change can happen outside the Bar Council and without interference from the Bar Council but I’d be happy to be proven wrong.

In true keyboard warrior fashion, I will continue to hide behind my Twitter account & this blog and quietly support the efforts of young lawyers forcing the Bar Council and senior members of the Bar to accept change. I believe we are witnessing the rise of the young and it is a great time to be alive to see this happen. I hope they can keep on fighting the good fight and I expect them to be riding high from their victory yesterday.

Lessons from setting up a law firm

I wonder if there are people who are already sick and tired of me talking about setting up a law firm when my law firm is literally barely 2 months old. On the same note, I wonder if people who follow me on Twitter are also sick of me talking about Clubhouse. Truth is, elitism arguments aside, I do enjoy the content I find on Clubhouse. This post is inspired by the last chat I had on Clubhouse with Marcus van Geyzel and Lee Shih on why I started my own law firm.

My “Why” was a little more personal and I think I’ve said all I wanted to say about this. I’ll give this a break for a while and come back to this subject soon but from the perspective of mental health and the legal profession.

I wanted to write this post for my own reflections of the lessons I’ve learnt thus far.

1. Have plans but be prepared to adapt

I didn’t really have a real, concrete plan because of the circumstances of how I ended up with this decision. Setting up a law firm was the last thing I wanted to do. I didn’t commit to the idea of setting up a law firm until almost the end of last year. I didn’t write to the Bar Council to have the name of my firm approved until close to Christmas. It was no wonder that some of my friends didn’t think I would go through with this.

A lot of what I eventually did seemed like things which I decided on as I went through the motions. In a lot of ways, it can be quite haphazard to be jumping into something without proper planning. I have been blessed to have friends in the profession who have gone beyond what they needed to in order to help me get on my feet. For this, I’m eternally grateful.

But setting up a law firm in the middle of a pandemic, a Movement Control Order and an emergency order certainly comes with its own set of challenges on top of the usual administrative hassle which comes with setting up a law firm. One of it is of course delays in getting all the administrative matters sorted which will then set you back on your best laid plans to start operations.

The greatest lesson the pandemic has taught me is that I need to adapt quickly or probably risk being very miserable. For example, I didn’t plan to so quickly have a website and Linkedin page simply because initially they weren’t priorities which I wanted to spend time and also money on developing and maintaining. This was part of my strategy in keeping my costs lean and what I picked up on from speaking to other friends who have set up their law firms earlier than me. But given the situation and circumstances we’re in, I quickly changed my mind and decided that a website and a Linkedin page needed to be a priority at this present time. There’s really no hard and fast rule, I believe. Everyone’s practice is going to be different. Our respective target audience as well as business development strategies may also differ.

It is just important to decide what is best for you and your practice even if it was not part of your plan. Adapting and having some degree of flexibility comes in handy.

2. Not all advice are good advice

One of the things which I had to condition myself to getting used to was to be cautious with the kind of unsolicited comments and advice I was getting from many people. Some are obviously very helpful advice and some are clearly not.

One of the most unhelpful advice / comment which I like to believe came from a place of good intentions was that as a woman, I would struggle with securing clients more than men would struggle. Why? Apparently this person believes that people trust women less and will be less likely to engage a woman lawyer. I’m glad for the research I’ve done on business development for women and I know that there are papers out there written based on studies which show that such a belief is far from the truth. In fact, quite the opposite, trustworthiness can be a woman’s greatest selling point. The good intention of the person giving this advice / comment, I think, was to help me manage my expectations for when I find things in the first couple of years to be challenging.

The point in me sharing this is that whilst I understood the good intentions of many people, I had to learn early on to differentiate good advice from what I now call, noise. A lot of what people project on you are more of a reflection of their beliefs and experiences. Some are good, some are less helpful and some are really just noise. I learnt that I have absolute power in deciding what I choose to listen to and what I choose to take on board.

3. To do or not to do

The reality is that setting up a law firm in Malaysia is easy. Many of my peers would agree with this. The expenses to set up a law firm do not have to be high, depending on the kind of practice or set up you want. Despite my complaints over the administrative hiccups and hassle which I was not accustomed to dealing with during my 8 years of practice, I do think that setting up shop was the easiest part of it all.

It is what comes after setting up which is harder and takes a lot more time and effort to figure. What do I know really know about the challenges which lie ahead when it’s barely been 2 months? But I think some aspects of it are already pretty obvious. For instance, one of the best advice I think I got was (also validated by Paul Jarvis in Company of One) an advice telling me to decide early on what type of work I will NOT do. Initially, I thought it seemed arrogant for me to even say it out loud let alone saying “no” to enquiries on work which I’ve decided I will NOT do. On the other side of the argument is that as a new and young law firm, you should take on whatever work that comes your way because once you turn people away, they might never come back to you or take whatever because you need the money to survive!!

This to me is quite a delicate matter because I never want to come across as arrogant or overly confident or to even send out such a message to fellow lawyers and clients. In fact, writing about this is a risk I choose to take knowing full well how this can be construed quite negatively. But having a more focused and specialised practice is something I aspire to have. Pretending to know about specific practice areas which I have no experience in would, in my opinion, do more harm to the brand and reputation I am trying to build.

I choose to see myself as a great referral source to other lawyers when certain enquiries for work which I choose to not do come my way and I agree with the saying that sometimes our purpose in some people’s lives is to bring other people together.

4. There is a great community within the legal profession

In the sea of frustration and bitterness we often hear about the legal profession, I came to learn that beyond the frustration and bitterness, there is a great community within the legal profession. I once wrote that it’s nice to have friends in the profession and it truly is. I appreciate this more now that I am on my own. The kind of help which I have received from this profession was something I didn’t expect, especially from people out of my previous firm.

One of the best things we can do is to pay-it-forward and make this profession one which is one that is enjoyable and one which we can stay in for a very long time. I talked about this in my last Clubhouse chat and quite quickly, I had fellow female lawyers telling me personally that it is usually the men offering them help. I beg to differ. My experiences have been different. There are many great women out there who want to help other women succeed. Anyway, without undermining other women’s experiences, I’d say if you can’t find a woman who supports another woman in her practice, then let’s be that woman for someone else. As clichéd as this may be.

By now, I think you all know I love clichés. I will always be clichéd because I think a lot of clichés are true.

Final thoughts…

I do feel anxious from time to time but a lot of the anxiety are probably more ego driven than based on reality of my present circumstances. Truth be told, I am pretty excited about this journey at the moment but I’m also conscious and mindful about keeping an open mind about things. After all, I never imagined I would end up here and that experience will forever remind me that it is ok to change my mind about things if they no longer serve my interests and well-being. Some things may turn out to not be for me, afterall. Like law firm partnerships. For now, at least.

Wish me luck!

2020: A Farewell

Author’s Note: This post was written as of 31.12.2020 and the author has since evolved and came to fresh realizations as she emerged from the fog of the last 7.5 years of her life. As such, much of the contents of this post are no longer applicable in the present circumstances.

It’s the last day of 2020. It is also my official last day at Thomas Philip, the firm where I have spent the last 7.5 years of my life at. I joined the firm back in June 2013 as a first year Associate and I leave today after 2 years of (junior) partnership.

Over the last few days, a couple of my younger colleagues asked me how does it feel to be leaving. My answer to them was that it is exciting for me to see what 2021 has in store for me and I am in fact excited about what I will be doing after I leave. The truth is, I have had 6 months to grieve this decision and to get to where I am today, fully at peace with this decision.

Back in May when I first communicated my intention to leave, my personal circumstances were such that I was convinced that practice was not for me, that I needed a break from legal practice and that this was not a life I wanted to continue living. I was asking myself if the money was worth it, if the hours and demands of the job were worth it? Who and what was I burning for that I am all burnt out? Maybe there is something akin to the “7 year itch” in legal practice too!

Up until that point in my life, I never had doubts that legal practice was my calling. In fact, the thought of ever leaving the firm was never truly a thought I seriously entertained despite the last 2 years becoming increasingly clear that I was struggling, emotionally and physically.

Growth can be messy and uncomfortable

Law firm departures are generally viewed negatively and often, in the day and age of social media, many are waiting for people leaving to “spill the tea”, so to speak. In my case, the only “tea” I’ll be spilling is that my departure is to me nothing more than a result of my own personal growth. The realisation that I am no longer the same person as I was 2 years ago wanting the same things as I had wanted 2 years ago was not easy to fathom. But with time, I began to embrace that what we want in life, including in our professional lives, may change with time and age. The question I repeatedly asked myself in the abundance of time I had during the MCO was if I wanted this same life at 35 and 40. Haha!

Surprisingly, all the voices in my own head answered that question with a resounding and unanimous “No”. Growth can be messy and uncomfortable but as the cliche saying goes, the comfort zone is a dangerous place to be in. So, this is how I ended up where I am now. Taking a leap of faith, getting out of my comfort zone with nothing but hope that it will all work out well for me.

Eternally grateful

I am eternally grateful for what the firm has given me and taught me over the last 7.5 years. It is undoubtedly one of the most unconventional firms out there. I do not know any other place which would embrace individuality the same way Thomas Philip, particularly the Managing Partner, has embraced. It was a place where I didn’t feel I needed to hide who I truly was (though, with hindsight, it may not always be great for the unfortunate souls who had to work with me). In fact, I dare say that I would not have become the person I am today with the confidence I have today (although, as I have previously written, I do struggle very much with impostor syndrome) but for the training and opportunities the firm has given me.

Today, I dare say that I leave behind some of the best colleagues anyone could ever ask for. I wish them and the firm nothing but the best. 2020 has been a terrible year for many but I believe we’ve all witnessed great leadership (controversial social media posts aside!) in steering the firm through a pandemic with no pay-cuts and job cuts. It is a remarkable feat, in my opinion.

The point of this is…?

Up until this point, I’m still not quite sure of the point in me penning this post. I’m not sure I am saying anything at all, really. But this post is really not for anyone. It is for me. It is my way of dealing with my sadness despite my excitement. It will be a lie to say that I wasn’t emotional while writing this piece. But goodbyes are merely new hellos, right?

So, what will I be doing next?

It is most scary to be making this leap of faith in times of a pandemic which I do not think will miraculously be over in 2021. My plans and aspirations for myself in 2021 will revolve more around passion projects which I may have procrastinated or been too fearful to even think of doing before this.

I hope to be spending more time on this space and maybe, I can finally write a belated post on the controversial issue of “Minimum Remuneration for Pupils” from the perspective of a law firm owner. Maybe.

All in all, I am glad 2020 is now behind us but I am also glad that 2020 happened in the way it did. Those of you who helped me through my turbulent 2020, thank you from the bottom of my heart. I could not have gotten out of this year alive, but for you peeps.

If you’ve read till this far, thank you. I wish you a happy new year and nothing but the best in 2021.

Adios for now!

“Am I just not cut out to be a lawyer?”

I am not sure which tweet of mine triggered an influx of messages over one weekend a couple of weeks ago from anonymous young lawyers seeking career advice. It did not take long for me to realise that the common theme of these messages is extremely unhappy young lawyers. These unhappy young lawyers pretty much asked the same question in different forms: “Am I just not cut out to be a lawyer?”.

How many of you can relate to this?

I’ve always had a thing against lawyers who tell aspiring or young lawyers that “you’re just not cut out to be a lawyer” and I hope such words have never escaped my lips. The plain reason is that I am a firm believer that different people thrive under different circumstances. Just because you do not fit in at a particular firm, it does not necessarily mean you’re not going to find job satisfaction and happiness in a different firm.

Whilst I do not intend on defending employers, supervising partners and myself as team leader / law firm partner, I wondered if the unhappiness of many young lawyers (including my own at some point in my career) stems solely from harsh criticism, demanding bosses and what is seen by them to be unreasonable expectations from their bosses or is it in fact due largely to their misplaced expectations or perceptions of what legal practice is like.

More recently, I am also thrown into a situation where I wondered if in fact, telling someone that they’re just not cut out to be a litigation lawyer may be the kindest thing I can do for them. I have not said it but I think it and have held myself back because in the same line of thinking, I also ask if I am the problem that someone cannot thrive. Could things have been very different for them had I made better decisions, behaved better, taught better? The internal debate is a never-ending one.

I cannot answer everyone’s question as to whether they are cut out to be lawyers. But reading the messages I received made me come up this list of questions which I feel we can ask ourselves if and when we have doubts if this profession is our calling:

1. Are you pursuing a career in legal practice for the right reasons?

I must admit that going through some of the messages I received made me wonder if some of these young lawyers had pursued a career in legal practice for the right reasons. We all have our very own reasons why we decided to be lawyers. I’ve said this before: Hopefully the reason why you’ve decided to pursue a career in legal practice is not because you want to make a lot of money. I think if money is the motivation, then there are other better and easier ways to make money than being a lawyer.

To me, legal practice is a calling and above all, a service. In most, if not all practice areas, you will deal with real people with real life problems. You need to recognise that your work may have serious consequences on these people’s lives even if it may not always seem so. I can understand why this is a little difficult for many young lawyers to see, especially when you’re just starting out. As a pupil-in-chambers or a 1st year lawyer, chances are you will be given a lot document management and research tasks before you see any real action or even be given any context to the work you’re working on (depending on who you work for, of course).

The truth of the matter is that, more often than not, you might never get your Suits moment (whatever that is to you) until later in practice. Most of legal practice is tedious, repetitious, hard-work at the start. If you are not prepared for this and if you are in this for the big bucks and the glamour, you will end up very jaded very early on.

The talk about money is somewhat of a sensitive topic in the current climate but it is a very much needed discussion. In almost every jurisdiction, lawyers complain of being underpaid and overworked. The truth of the matter is, given how demanding the profession is of your time and energy, I sometimes wonder how much will be enough? What is the ideal, optimum salary which will compensate a lawyer for their time, mental health, physical health, blood and sweat so to speak? Would it also not be the case that the more you’re paid, the more is demanded and expected of you? I don’t have the answers.

But I find that there is truth to the saying that if you do not love the law, you will always feel underpaid and overworked.

2. Do you require a lot of guidance?

Guidance. Lack of guidance. Words which are the bane of every law firm partner’s existence. Or so I think. At least in my experience, “lack of guidance” complaints and feedback are one of the most-hated complaint / feedback amongst more senior lawyers I know. I remember an incident where a senior lawyer commented out of frustration: “You young lawyers don’t just expect to be spoon-fed. You expect to be breast-fed!” It was a callous comment and not to mention, highly inappropriate but I can assure you that many senior practitioners share the sentiments albeit not in those exact terms or words.

I often ask interviewees for pupillage and associate positions what are their expectations of guidance from their supervising partner. I may be more upfront than other interviewers in the firm (and please know that this is just me) but I often tell interviewees that if you are someone who requires a lot of guidance or spoon-feeding, this place is not for you. In fact, I’ve found at least one article out there which quoted a lawyer who went as far as saying: “attorneys who require lots of guidance are equally unsuited to the job.” He was quoted in an article titled: 4 Signs You’re Poorly Suited to be an Attorney.

The plain reason is that most, if not all, law firms expect and require their lawyers to work in highly autonomous environments. It is debatable what sort of guidance is sufficient and what expectations of guidance would be unreasonable. The balancing act is not an easy one. I can only speak from a litigation practice point of view and in my view, it is fair to expect as a pupil-in-chambers, for example, guidance on the following:

  • Drafting structure be it in pleadings, interlocutory applications, submissions, letters to opponents and Court;
  • Research angles;
  • File management;
  • Client management;
  • Trials & hearings management;
  • Idiosyncrasies of senior counsel you may be working with;
  • Courtroom etiquette.

This list may be different from practitioner to practitioner but for me personally, I think it is fair for a pupil to expect guidance on the above from me. But of course, if such guidance is needed for every single file you work on, it raises the question if you’ve actually learnt or remembered anything.

This brings me to examples of the kind of person who I think requires too much guidance:

  • You need to be repeatedly told what sources to look at for research;
  • Your drafting often involves massive amendments to language, accuracy of the facts and law;
  • You need very specific instructions on every piece of task / file you work on;
  • You need to be told very specifically that you need to do your research before you start drafting a particular application every other time;
  • You need to be told repeatedly very basic things including all of the above.

As junior lawyers, the reality is that you will be expected to think and find answers on your own. Unfortunately, as most of us will learn, most law firms operate in high-pressured, fast-paced environments which leave little time for hand-holding and spoon-feeding. For example, I can’t be telling a 1st year lawyer to do the necessary formal checks for every single file he works on, assuming it is a new file. I may tell him the first time and I think it would certainly be fair to expect that he remembers what he has to do without being told for subsequent, similar situations. You shouldn’t also need to be told on each file to remember the time-frames for filing of things like a Notice of Appeal or Motion for Leave to appeal to the Federal Court & on compliance with case management directions.

Some things ought to be your second nature if you are in legal practice and if you think you require guidance on such things even after completion of your pupillage, then I am afraid legal practice may not be for you.

3. Do you care about the interests you’re serving?

I picked this up from this article which explores why legal practice in America is the only job with an industry devoted to helping people quit practice:

I think this ties in with my No. 1 question “Are you pursuing a career in legal practice for the right reasons?” but very well deserve some consideration on its own. Firstly, I think that even if you decide that you actually “love the law” (whatever that means to you), if you have no empathy towards the people whose interests you serve or you are unable to see value in the work you do for them, then legal practice is not going to spark much joy for you. I would say academicians appear to love the law too. If not, it would be hard for them to devote their careers to writing, studying, teaching and researching the law.

In other words, if you don’t give two sh*ts about the clients and their problems, then it is less likely that you will enjoy legal practice.

A subset of this question would be whether you are someone who likes problems. The reality of legal practice is that you are paid to be a problem solver. Clients pay lawyers to solve their legal problems. Your bosses pay you to solve their problems and do the work they do not want to do. So, if you are someone who finds other people’s problems to be burdensome or troublesome, then maybe legal practice is not your calling.

Similarly, it’s hard to see how one can be a litigation lawyer if you dislike furthering and convincing people on a particular stand. Unlike Tinder guys who jump to conclusions that I must like to argue a lot since I’m a litigation lawyer, I think litigation is not just about arguing. We make calculated concessions from time to time to further our client’s cases. I view litigating as an more of an art of persuasion than merely arguing. If you are not someone who enjoys discourse, able to see different arguments objectively with the aim of responding logically and coherently to such arguments, then litigation may also be challenging for you.

But I also don’t think that if you answered “No” to Question No.3, then you are doomed and should quit practice immediately. Sometimes, like in my case, it is a case of finding that 1 practice area that you not only enjoy but adds value to your practice. It can be that you find that you need to explore a different practice area first before deciding that you’re simply not cut out to be a lawyer.

Final Thoughts

I leave you with these 3 questions to think about if you’re that pupil or young lawyer out there wondering if you’re just not cut out to be a lawyer. The reality is, legal practice is tough and demanding. If you read enough, it is the same in every other jurisdiction.

I was left reflecting on my own behaviour this morning as someone in a more senior position within a firm’s hierarchy when I had an early morning chat with a good friend over a new trend I see of aspiring / young lawyers taking to social media to expose, what is in their view, to be toxic work places. I said that we would never think of doing such things in our days. At most, we whined about it to each other, hit the bar, knock back on a couple of drinks and went right back to work.

There is little doubt that many are driven away from legal practice because of such work environments. In fact, a few of the messages I received were from pupils / young lawyers with complaints of their bosses / work place environments which led them to question if they’re just not cut out to be lawyers. These messages are helping me reflect on my own behaviour as someone in a more senior position.

My good friend made these observations during our chat this morning:

“Now we are in senior positions, we lack the same empathy. Sometimes I wonder if we dealt with sh*t correctly or is the current generation getting it right by calling out toxic behaviour in the work place?”.

“We are all now in a position of power, to certain extents. We need to be held accountable. Walk the talk. Every action has repercussions. We touch lives every day.”

I hope to explore these topics in my next few posts. God willing, I find the diligence and motivation to keep writing.

In the meantime, these are a few of the articles I came across when Googling for inspiration (read: validation) for this piece and I hope you’ll find them helpful:


The Sabah State Election: Voting during the pandemic

It’s Election Day today!

I got inked!

Credit must be given to our Election Commission (SPR) for all their efforts in preparing us for voting day. I am of course disappointed that postal voting was not made available for Sabahans living in West Malaysia but I accept that this is an unprecedented situation for us. Covid-19 itself was unprecedented for us, what more a snap election during the pandemic. Overall, I am satisfied with the social distancing measures which were in place for this election. A big thank you to the SPR staff and volunteers who made my experience a relatively pleasant one.

I attempted to head to my voting place at around 10:00am and as I was approaching the school where I was supposed to vote at, there was heavy traffic, lots of cars parked by the road side and it seemed to be very crowded. Lucky for me, a friend of mine was already there and told me that there is a huge crowd at that time and that his mom had been queuing for 1 hour 15 mins. He told me I should bring a bottle of water, a fan, a book, a phone charger, a power bank, sunscreen and an umbrella! Much like going to the beach!

Traffic congestion around the voting station

I decided to turn around, head home and headed out again at around noon. This time, I packed my “beach bag” with everything my friend told me to bring with me in anticipation of a long waiting time. I headed out at around 11:35am and reached the polling station at around 11:45am.

Upon reaching the main entrance of the school, the first stop was the temperature checks station. I was told to sanitise my hands with the hand sanitiser made available at the 1st stop. My temperature was taken and I was cleared to proceed to the main school hall where I went to check where my exact voting room was.

Spotted at the voting station!

I was given a slip indicating where I was to head to next. There are SPR (Election Commission) staff around who will guide people to the designated places for voting. I headed to my designated voting room which was on the 2nd floor. There was a queue when I got there all the way down the stairs. There were not too many people in the queue so the “long queue” was more due to social distancing measures. The queue moved quite quickly. I only stood in the queue for a total of 12 minutes! (Yes, I watched the time)

I am to vote at Block D…

There was an SPR officer who came out to check on people queueing at the bottom of the stairs, to ask if anyone is pregnant or not feeling too well. They would give priority to these groups of people. As I moved closer up the queue, the SPR officer proceeded to check my identification card and this is the only time I was asked to remove my face mask for the officer to make sure I look like my photo in my identity card (“IC”). She would go on to tell me to put my mask back on and that I do not need to take it off again when I reach the voting room.

My view from the 1st flight of stairs. I was at Saluran 10 which was another flight of stairs away…

Only 2 voters will be allowed in the voting room at any given time. There are markings on the floor to ensure we kept a distance away from the 3 SPR officers who we have to go before. The 1st officer will check your IC and tick you off her list. You will then move on to the next officer beside her to dip your left index finger in the indelible ink. The 3rd officer will be the officer who hands you your ballot paper and will tell you to sanitize your hands before you proceed to cast your vote.

There is only 1 way into the school and 1 way out, unlike the previous election 2 years ago where we entered and exited through the main entrance. This time around, we had to exit through the back exit, which I believe is for social distancing purposes.

All in all, it was an easy and swift process for me. The only thing I needed from my “beach bag” was my fan because it was rather hot when I was queueing at the stair to get to my voting room.

All in all, I was done in under 20 minutes.

My “beach bag”, umbrella & I!

And, now…we wait.

I hope SPR will not make us wait till past 4:00am to announce the full results this time round.

The Sabah State Election: Of Frogs and an Election in the Pandemic

I have John Grimley to thank for the idea to write this post. I am at the moment preoccupied with the Malaysian state of Sabah’s election as John had noticed from all my tweets in the past couple of weeks.

This post is intended to be my personal observations of the Sabah state election and I write from my perspective as a fellow Sabahan. Although I now live and work in Kuala Lumpur, Sabah is still home to me. As the saying goes, you can take me out of Sabah but you can’t take the Sabahan out of me.

The state of Sabah: My home state

For those of you reading from outside Malaysia, Sabah is one Malaysia’s 13 states located in North Borneo. Together with another Malaysian state, Sarawak, these states are often referred to as East Malaysia. Kota Kinabalu is the capital city of Sabah and is a 2.5 hours flight from Kuala Lumpur. Sabah’s main population is made up of Sabah’s indigenous people with the largest indigenous groups being the Kadazandusun, Bajau and Murut. The Chinese make up the main non-indigenous group in Sabah. Sabah is home to about 4 million people (based on my Google search!).

I personally think that given the racial or ethnic diversity of Sabah, the political scene in Sabah differs greatly from that of West Malaysia. This is why I think Sabahans generally get worked up or upset when we see West Malaysian commentators commenting on the political issues in Sabah as often times, we feel that West Malaysians cannot necessarily relate to our issues.

Why is there a state election during the pandemic?

So, as many of you already know, Sabah is heading for a state election on 26th September 2020. Here’s a brief background of why we’re heading to the polls (from my perspective).

Following the 2018 General Elections, a brief constitutional crisis, political drama with party hopping by several elected MPs, the Sabah Heritage Party (WARISAN) formed the state government with its allies from the Democratic Action Party (DAP) and People’s Justice Party (PKR) of the Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition. Shafie Apdal became Chief Minister of Sabah replacing Musa Aman of Barisan Nasional (BN) (who was Sabah’s 14th Chief Minister for 15 years!).

On 29.07.2020, it was reported that Musa Aman claimed that he had the numbers to form a new state government. Some news quarters reported that this the result of weeks of “political maneuvering”. It’s just a sexy way of saying “party hopping”.

In response, Shafie Apdal sought an audience with the state Governor to advise him on the dissolution of the State Assembly. Consequently, the state Governor exercised his discretion to dissolve the State Assembly and that is in short, why we’re headed for an election during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Well, that’s me trying to give a neutral & factual answer to why we’re headed for an election at the worst time possible. Here’s my less than neutral view in under 280 characters:

I’m still flattered that I got a response from Musa Aman! Whoever that is managing his Twitter account, thank you!

Musa Aman then challenged the state Governor’s decision to dissolve the State Assembly through legal channels and tried to obtain a court order to suspend the state election. He went all the way to the Federal Court with but failed to stop the state election from proceeding.

The state election is going ahead and in the biggest plot twist in Musa Aman’s bid to return as Chief Minister, his own party dropped him as a candidate!! I like to think I saw it coming when I tweeted this:

An Election and a Tale of Frogs

It’s almost impossible to talk or read about the Sabah election and Sabah politics without seeing references to “frogs” which are what party hoppers are widely referred to in Sabah. Party hopping is not illegal in Malaysia and whilst there had been talks about anti-party hopping laws, party hopping is still very much legal in Malaysia. Even before I can finish this post, it seemed like there is going to be more party hopping at the Federal Government level when Anwar Ibrahim announced that he had enough numbers to form the Federal Government (and of course, be Prime Minister).

Photo credit: Malaysia Kini

I think this election is particularly important because it is also an opportunity for Shafie Apdal to “legitimise” his government and obtain a clear mandate for his party (and its allies) to govern the State. Back in the 2018 elections, neither Musa Aman nor Shafie Apdal had a clear majority to govern the state. As much as Shafie’s party is denouncing the party hoppers who hopped over to Musa Aman’s side, his government was also formed by virtue of party hopping by 6 BN MPs. It is only fair that Shafie and his supporters acknowledge how his government was formed: through party hopping.

In my opinion, this election is absolutely necessary to return the mandate to the people to decide who should be the rightful Chief Minister and who should govern the state. Very simply put, party hoppers betray the people who voted for them. These politicians cannot possibly believe that voters vote for them as individuals as opposed to the party which they represent.

I do believe that Covid-19 aside, heading for the election is the best way to determine who should legitimately govern the state. Power grabs during the pandemic are nothing but selfish and opportunistic moves by people with self-serving interests. I therefore cannot accept the opposition’s cries that no election should be held during the pandemic. Well, in the first place, they should not try to get into power through party hopping during the pandemic!

At least this BN politician calls a spade, a spade

Why is the Sabah state election a big deal?

If I may say so myself, the Sabah state election is a pretty big deal. We just need to look at the stream of Federal ministers who are in Sabah campaigning against Shafie Apdal, his party and his PH allies.

Well, this brings us to another government which is formed through party hopping: Malaysia’s current Federal government!!

It is a no brainer that our Prime Minister is looking to the Sabah state election for a glimmer of hope that should he calls for snap polls, he and his allies will be able to garner a majority victory.

This is precisely why I think the Sabah state election is so important to the Prime Minister and his allies. Just look at the number of times they have been in Sabah over the last 2 weeks. I do think that a win in Sabah for BN (and its allies) would be very much comforting for the Prime Minister. He needs that validation too, given the manner in which his government was formed.

However, in recent days, I believe that there is only 1 certainty in Malaysian politics: Uncertainty. Even before I can finish this post, Anwar Ibrahim had made an announcement claiming (again!) to have the numbers to form the government presumably (again) through party hopping. This puts the current Prime Minister’s position in much of a limbo. He may be carrying on business as usual but one can only ask, for how long more?

Some thoughts…

I am a little wary about commenting on the local issues for this election since I live outside Kota Kinabalu most of the year and have pretty much called Kuala Lumpur home. Having been home and being around locals for the last couple of days, I think what I read in the news is just a small part of what this election is to the locals.

As an urban voter, I am also conscious of the fact that the urban voters’ issues are always going to differ from those living in the interior parts of Sabah. So, I can only speak from my own personal experiences and views, albeit currently somewhat limited in terms of current issues in Sabah.

One thing that is for sure is that there are strong sentiments against party hoppers amongst the urban voters. Just look at the barrage of “Frogs” related posts, commentaries and over-the-top campaign activities (like roasting frogs!). Warisan is playing up these sentiments well and they seem to have support on this issue.

The irony is always going to be that it is also a little rich for Warisan to be harping on the issue of party hopping when Shafie Apdal’s government was formed through party hopping as well.

That said, I hope this election will give someone a strong and clear mandate to govern the state so much so that it is almost impossible to change the government again by way of more party hopping.

May the best alliance wins!

(Lie: May the alliance I’ll be voting for wins!)

Business Development – Part 2: Some tips

Having written about the struggles and lessons I learnt on business development as a young lawyer, I now move on to sharing some tips which helped me through my early years of practice.

These are of course tips I see as helping you get into the mindset of getting used to the idea of business development as a young lawyer. I believe that your strategies and the activities which you decide to undertake will come easier once you have the right mindset. I do not discuss business development activities like whether your should write or speak on your particular area of practice because I think these are activities you will be able to decide on easily once you have the right mindset.

1. Find your own style or approach

I find business development to be something quite subjective and nothing is really set in stone when it comes to your style or approach. The difficulty I had early on was in identifying what my style or approach would be. It can be a little difficult in the early years when the firm you work for dictates what you do. But with time and confidence, you may (God willing) be able to dictate and determine your own style and approach.

I believe that the starting point for an effective business development approach as a young lawyer is one which incorporates your interests, hobbies and things you are comfortable with doing. But to be successful, I also believe that I have to be prepared to be uncomfortable. Business development is not always easy for everyone. For example, giving talks / seminars did not come easily to me. I grapple with impostor syndrome on a daily basis. This makes putting myself out there professionally a huge challenge on most days. With time and consistency, the things you fear doing the most will almost feel like second nature to you.

For employers who want to encourage their young lawyers to learn and start business development initiatives, perhaps it is wiser to understand that each young lawyer is different. What works for one person, might not work for another. Having every single lawyer in the firm do the exact same things may set you back more than you think.

2. Make it a learning experience

One way I learnt to deal with my discomfort with the idea of business development was to see most of the things I do for business development as a learning experience. Giving a talk or seminar for example, can help you learn even more about the area you are speaking on. It serves as a motivation to go deeper into a particular subject matter. It is also an opportunity for you to learn about your own presentation style, how do you read the audience, etc. It can be somewhat of a self-discovery process and eventually, you’ll get the hang of things.

The same goes with meeting new people at conferences or networking events. The difficulty an over-thinker like me face in such situations is that I tend to think “How do I sell myself here?”. There’s a considerable amount of pressure I put on myself when I was thinking along those lines simply because as a young lawyer, it was hard for me not to think that I don’t have much to sell to begin with.

Things changed significantly for me in these settings when I made a mental shift to simply just be curious about others. You will find people who enjoy talking about themselves and tt some point, they’d know that it’s common courtesy to also ask you about yourself. And, this worked particularly well when meeting people from other industries. I always think with this mindset, I don’t just walk away with a new contact. I walk away a little more enlightened than before.

3. Start with people you already know

It is my view that as a young lawyer starting out, there is no expectation that you can or should be bringing in your own clients for the firm. The whole point about thinking of business development early on in your career is to set you up for success in the later years of your practice.

So, who can you market to or build a continuing working relationship with as a young lawyer? I started with this list:

  • The firm’s existing clients (especially satisfied clients);
  • The firm’s existing referral sources;
  • Fellow lawyers practising in different areas;
  • Former colleagues (e.g. those who have gone in-house);
  • Non-lawyer friends.

A little caveat on marketing or building a continuing working relationship with the firm’s existing clients and existing referral sources. I have been fortunate to be in a firm where the partners have taken the initiative to cultivate business development habits and practices early on in my practice (although, my gratitude came much later in practice). The firm was never too afraid of allowing us to have direct contact with existing or former clients. If you are at a place which gives you such opportunities, be sure to make full use of it.

4. Specialise or be a generalist with a niche area of specialisation

There is much debate about whether it is better to be a generalist or a specialist. At the “Business Development for Young Lawyers” talk last year, my tip #3 was “Specialise as early as possible”. I took this view because “specialising early”was an expectation the firm had of me.

With much reading and reflection, I think this requires a little clarification on my part. Despite holding the firm’s Contentious Probate portfolio, I am still very much a general litigator in the firm’s Corporate and Commercial litigation team and essentially, corporate and commercial disputes are my main “bread and butter”. Quite frankly, despite the firm’s tune that we should all specialise early, I like to think that we now agree that being a 100% Contentious Probate specialist in a dispute resolution only firm in the early years of practice is not going to help me hit those Billings & Collections targets (this topic needs a post of its own too!).

So, I generally like to say that Contentious Probate is my “niche area of specialisation” on top of being a Corporate and Commercial litigator.

I stumbled upon my “niche area of specialisation” by chance. I did not know what I wanted to specialise in going into practice. I chose to be in the firm’s Corporate and Commercial Litigation team based on the subjects I took in law school and during the Bar. I was initially assigned the Insolvency portfolio in my first year of practice with the expectation that I will one day be a specialist in this area. It was a practice area I did alright in but it was not something I personally enjoyed. I was fortunate that the Managing Partner and my supervising partner recognised this.

It was simply by chance that I was assigned the Contentious Probate portfolio when a colleague left the firm. Even then, I did not really start out with doing actual contentious matters. I started off with very mundane, simple non-contentious probate work. This paid off because you can’t really say you’re a specialist if you don’t know your basics well. It takes a good number of years to build those skills and hopefully, when you make partner, you will be able to generate a good amount of work in your particular areas of practice.

5. Develop commercial awareness

I think this is one of the stumbling blocks for young lawyers in the first few years of practice. We tend to see things in a very legal sense and we lack understanding of what clients truly want. Most clients are not concerned with the nitty gritty details of the law or the processes. They are mostly concerned with the end game that they’re trying to achieve.

Why do I think being commercially aware is tied to developing the right mindset for business development? Simply because you can’t appeal to your lay clients without understanding their wants and needs beyond just obtaining a paper judgment. At some point in our careers, we will be advising businesses or private individuals who are business owners.

Commercial awareness is said to be a skill. It takes time to build and it takes dedication to not only read extensively but to develop a genuine interest in learning about the world your clients and future clients operate in. It is not something that happens overnight. So, it is wise to start cultivating the habit from the early day of practice.

I am in agreement with the view that “awareness” should not be confused with “knowledge”. You can have knowledge of a lot of trends or events in the industries your client operates in. But having knowledge does not necessarily mean that you know or understand the effects of such trends or events to their businesses (or even lives). Nothing beats reading and learning with the intention to form your own views and understanding of things from the perspective of a client.


These are some of the lessons I have learnt in the early days of practice which helped me through business development as a young lawyer. I hope it will be useful to some of you.

Reflections: Lessons from the last 7 years

So, my first proper piece on this site is going to be on my reflections of my 7 years in practice. I officially completed 7 years of legal practice in June. I’m now in my 8th year. How time flies! The Movement Control Order (“MCO”) has allowed me a lot of time to think and reflect on this journey I have been on.

My litigation practice has not always been a smooth sailing experience. There were very challenging days and there were rewarding days. I don’t know who needs this but I found it therapeutic to reflect on the last 7 years and this serves as a reminder to myself of how far I’ve come.

So, here’s my attempt to summarise a few lessons I learnt from the last 7 years.

#1 Pick your battles wisely

There is something about being a young, overly eager and fiery litigator when we’re starting out. When I started out, I had this somewhat misplaced drive and passion where I just wanted to win every little thing there is to win. Often, this translates to being a difficult opponent. Other times, I have treated every other lawyer on the other side as a foe.

To rise above your clients’ battles and not turn your clients’ battles into personal battles with opposing lawyers is something I learnt over time. Real life legal practice is nothing like Suits. We don’t really have to hate everyone on the other side.

Something I learnt along the way from being called out and observing more senior practitioners is that I don’t have to win every single battle. It is a delicate balance when you’re young and passionate. The balance between advancing your client’s interest and your own personal interest of wanting a long, happy career at the Bar.

I’ve come to learn that what makes practice at the Bar enjoyable is the camaraderie with members of the Bar. It is being able to fight tooth and nail in court against each other (of course, within the bounds of the law & ethical rules) and no matter what the outcome, we can still remain friendly with each other, which makes practice enjoyable. At the end of the day, there is so much that we can learn from each other.

Your clients – many of them come and go. They’ll move on and so will you once the case is over. But your peers, they may be around for a much longer time. Hopefully, for as long as you are around. As Taylor Swift sings it, it’s nice to have a friend. (I would add “at the Bar”).

#2 Business development: Start as early as possible

I genuinely think this requires a whole post on its own and I hope to, at some point, dedicate a post to this topic particularly from the standpoint of a young female lawyer. More on this another day!

Business development was something I resented a lot at the start of my legal practice because it was something our managing partner made us do even as associates.

When you’re starting out, it’s easy to fall into the trap of the employee mindset. The employee mindset will have you feeling like the partners are making you do their jobs and you think you’re not paid enough to be taking on the roles of a law firm partner, in so far as business development is concerned. At least this was how I felt initially. I don’t think this is a surprising reaction for any young lawyer made to take business development seriously at the early stages of their careers. After all, when I was starting out, it was almost unheard of for a law firm to encourage their associates to take on business development seriously.

You might also think that you’re too young to be able to bring in any work so what good will it be for you to be doing any form of business development. The truth is, at least for the firm I am with, there was little expectation that you will be bringing in work for the firm. The idea is that you learn while you’re young so you do not struggle when you become partners and feel that you are suddenly expected to generate work overnight. Of course, the firm does benefit along the way if all 20 lawyers at the firm are visible and are doing some form of business development for the firm.

When I spoke at the Selangor Bar alongside more established practitioners, Lee Shih and Foong Cheng Leong on “Business Development for Young Lawyers”, I had on my 1st slide “Start as early as possible” as my number 1 advice to young lawyers on business development. Trust me when I say that I say this with a little regret and a lot of hindsight.

With superstars Foong Cheng Leong and Lee Shih (L-R) last year

In another slide, I set out the following questions. They are questions I wished someone had asked me to ask myself early on in practice.

(a) Do I want to be a partner at this firm?

(b) Do I intend to stay in practice for long?

(c) What area(s) of law do I want to specialise in?

(d) Who are my “ideal” clients?

(e) What type of legal work do I want to do or see myself doing? (e.g. counsel work vs. solicitor work as a litigation lawyer in Malaysia)

Your answers may change over the years as you see more of practice but I feel that the answers to these questions (in hindsight) may help you identify what your business development goals and strategy would be. For example, if you intend to make partner at the firm you’re currently working for, your business development goals and strategy may be different from if you intend to some day set up your own practice.

The point is, it’s almost silly to not think about building your own professional brand as early as possible, especially if you can leverage on your firm’s reputation. In short, by embracing business development early on and developing such skills early, you give yourself options and the confidence to act on these options later on in practice. I learnt this a little later in my career and wished I did so much earlier.

#3 Drop ego-driven goals

What I’ve found, after 7 years, is that ego-driven goals can only take you so far and keep you fulfilled only for so long. Ego-driven goals to me do more harm to your self-esteem than you realise, especially when through no fault of yours, you do not reach them. Ego-driven goals have also left me feeling unfulfilled and unsatisfied even as I reached them because they are simply not good indicators of success.

I am very sure I read this somewhere and this is definitely not an original idea of mine.

A good example of what I deem to be ego-driven goals is the cliche job interview answers you would give to cliche job interview questions like “Where do you see yourself in 5 years from now?” etc. In recent times, I have come to loathe these sort of questions so much so that I have made it a point to not ask such questions as an interviewer.

Why do I feel so strongly about ego-driven goals?

I’ll take one ego-driven goal as an example: “Make partner in X years”. Admission to partnership at a law firm is usually determined by a number of factors and traditionally, the bigger the firm, the harder it may be to make partner. Most firms have a lockstep system anyway and while there have been outliers, generally, your career trajectory in terms of promotion within a law firm is pretty much set in stone. Generally, my peers and I have achieved this milestone in our 6th – 7th year of practice.

So, when a young pupil or lawyer comes to an interview and says he hopes to make partner in 5 years, I can’t help but think that he is already setting himself up for failure. He thinks he’s demonstrating ambition. I think he merely has an ego-driven goal. Why so? Simply because I think the fewer number of years you take to make partner at a firm does not necessarily make you a better lawyer than your peer at another firm who may take longer to reach that career milestone.

When I made partner in January 2019, the excitement and sense of fulfillment were short-lived. Quite quickly, I found myself asking, “So, what? What now? Does this make me a well-respected lawyer within the profession? Do people regard me as anything other than just a partner at this law firm?”.

I’ve learnt that it is more useful and meaningful to take stock of how well you have improved your “tools of trade” i.e. your skills, expertise and the experience you gained through the work you do. I have come to accept that as long as I feel I’m still growing and learning, I am making progress. As long as I am challenging my status quo, I am better than I was yesterday and that is a far more realistic “success indicator” for me.

My influences for this line of thinking (and I encourage you to read them if you have not) are:
Cal Newport, So Good They Can’t Ignore You and Malcolm Gladwell, Outliers.

#4 Impostor syndrome is real but you can get over it

I first learnt of the term “impostor syndrome” and what it really is when I read Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In. As Sandberg wrote, “The phenomenon of capable people being plagued by self-doubt has a name – the impostor syndrome. Both men and women are susceptible to the impostor syndrome, but women tend to experience it more intensely and be more limited by it.”

I am a chronic sufferer of this syndrome, if I may say so myself. I often feel my confidence is fake and I often seek external validation to feel good about myself professionally. The problem with seeking external validation is that you don’t always get it from the people you expect it from and when you don’t get it, you tend to dive into a phase of serious self-doubt.

I have come to realise that I am definitely not alone in this. If you pay attention to the cringe-worthy, humble bragging social media posts of many lawyers, both men and women, you will come to realise that everyone is seeking some form of external validation. (And, don’t pretend. You thought the same when you saw those posts. I just said what’s on your mind!)

What I have also come to realise is that most of us are faking it anyway. Even Sheryl Sandberg admits to faking it when she doesn’t feel confident (see page 33 of Lean In).

The only effective way for me to get over my “impostor syndrome” is to continuously do the things I fear doing the most (because I think I’d be outed as a fraudster). A very good example is how I feel about conducting talks (or in recent times due to the MCO, Webinars). I’m often terrified that someone is going to ask a question I cannot answer and I’d be deemed to be incompetent and a fraud. But as experience has shown me, my worst fears never really came true. The more I did them, the more confident I got and I learnt ways to handle the difficult questions. Bottom line: it wasn’t the end of the world.

So, yes, “impostor syndrome” is real. It can hold you back in one way or another but only if you allow it to. It’s not easy to shake off the feelings of self-doubt and perhaps, I will never be like the confident people I so admire. But with self-awareness and experience, I know I am getting over my “impostor syndrome” one day at a time.

I hope this is of use to some of you younger folks out there. Stay safe, everyone!

Do let me know if you have any other topics you’d like me to touch on.