10 Tips On Building An Awesome Legal Career

18 February, 2016



There is a vast number of lawyers in Malaysia (at last count, there are 16,104 of us), with an ever-increasing number of law graduates coming into the market every year.


I’m often asked for insights on how pupils and young lawyers can set themselves apart in this crowd. These 10 tips are a condensed version of what I usually share — if you want the extended version, buy me a coffee and we’ll talk.

First off, I should make clear that these tips obviously aren’t magic beans that will instantly convert a mediocre lawyer into a good one. There are so many career possibilities open to law graduates, so it’s impossible to have a fixed formula.


There isn’t even an agreed definition of what a ‘lawyer’ is. The basic categories used in Malaysia are ‘corporate lawyer’ and ‘litigation lawyer’ (as all lawyers here are ‘advocates and solicitors’) — but countless nuances exist within these broad, clumsy categorisations. What one lawyer does on a daily basis can be extremely different from what another lawyer does, so these tips will have to be adapted accordingly.


Why do some lawyers seem to excel — at work and in life — while others struggle to make sense of the profession?


How come some seem to have boundless enthusiasm for their work even after a decade, while others are burnt out and disillusioned within five years?


I don’t pretend to have a magic formula to building an awesome legal career. But I guarantee that anyone who practises these 10 tips will have a better chance at staying ahead of the disillusioned and unmotivated crowd who see lawyering as ‘just a job’.

(1) Improve your English, including commercial and legal language skills.


Proficiency in the English language is one of the basic building blocks of a successful career in the law. There is always room for improvement. Even those who write and speak without grammatical errors can benefit from honing their commercial and legal language craft.


Ask for an independent opinion when assessing your language skills — any employer will tell you that they have received countless applications riddled with basic grammatical errors despite the applicants rating their written language skills as ‘excellent’ or ’10/10′.


(2) Be thorough, and triple-check everything.


If you are in a firm with more than 10 pupils and junior lawyers, chances are that (outlier superstars aside) most of you have the same general level of legal knowledge. To set yourself apart and ensure you get repeat assignments, always be thorough with every piece of work you get.


When, as a pupil, I was handing in a piece of work to a senior lawyer, she said — ‘Thanks. Have you checked this properly?‘ I said, confidently — ‘Yes, I double-checked!‘ Her response — ‘Please go and triple-check before handing it to me. Everyone double-checks. To be better, as a minimum, always triple-check.‘


This is good advice which is often regarded as common sense, but in the real world of legal practice where lawyers often rush to get things done as quickly as possible, a lawyer who is consistently thorough with his work easily sets himself apart.


(3) Always deliver the best possible work product, which you are representing is ‘client-ready’.


This tip follows on from the previous one about being thorough, and will be familiar to any junior lawyer who has worked with me.


It is common for juniors to email their research findings (or draft opinion, or revised contract) with lots of holes — bits with no answers, or sections of contracts which were untouched because they didn’t know what to change, or how to change them.


No senior lawyer expects a junior to have all the answers. Teaching and learning are part of the work process. However, this should not be an excuse for handing in shoddy work — for example, emailing lots of cases with no apparent conclusion or advice for the client, responding to a list of 10 questions posed by the client with a written opinion which only addresses 7 of the questions, or returning a 50-page contract with only two minor revisions made and no further comments.


What I tell lawyers who work with me is this — when they hand in a piece of work, they are representing to me that they have done the best that they can, and it can be sent to the client immediately, without being checked. Obviously I would never do that, but I expect them to always deliver the best, most complete work product which they are capable of.


If you can only properly answer 7 out of the 10 queries, don’t leave the rest unanswered — it may be assumed that you didn’t put in the effort. Set out what research you’ve done, what your views are, and the reasons why you cannot come to a clear conclusion.


When delivering research results, have a clear and concise summary of your findings (be confident enough to come to some sort of justifiable conclusion).


If a clause in a contract doesn’t seem right to you but you aren’t sure how to amend it (or whether it even needs to be amended), leave a comment explaining your concerns.


(4) Be organised — task and time management.


Depending on the type of firm you work in, you may have a clerk or secretary exclusively assisting you with administrative tasks, or you may be left to sort things out on your own.


Whichever scenario you find yourself in, it is always crucial to be organised in terms of task management (prioritising which work assignments to attend to first), and time management (managing your work schedule well enough so that you don’t frequently have to rush tasks, which would affect your ability to stick to Tip 2 and Tip 3 above).


There are many organisational methods which you can research about and apply selectively based on your personal needs and preferences. The basics include organising your documents and files (both physical and digital) systematically in folders, and also creating labels, folders, and rules for your emails. Many lawyers struggle to find documents on their messy desks.


Making it a habit to be organised creates a good foundation for you to do your best work.


(5) Make the most of technology.


Technology is an undeniable part of the modern workplace. The best lawyers will make the most of the technological tools and services available (often for free) to not only help in being organised (Tip 4 above), but also when it comes to engaging with colleagues and clients.


I use Gmail for my emails across all devices (desktop, laptop, smartphone), all my contacts are synced using Google Contacts, my appointments are all on Google Calendar, and all my files are on the cloud with Dropbox Pro.


For engaging with colleagues and clients wherever they are in the world, emails are already seen as an ancient mode of communication which have been replaced by WhatsApp, and Skype frequently replaces phone calls.


There are so many technological innovations which can help you be a better lawyer. Explore and embrace them, and use the ones which work best for you.


(6) Dress the part.


This is self-explanatory, and is often mistakenly derided as vanity.


When I was a pupil, I wrote a short 500-word piece which was published in The Edge about the importance of dressing well, which attracted some good (and not-so-good) hearted teasing, including from some senior partners.


Dressing well is important. I don’t mean that you have to wear a three-piece suit with a fancy pocket square (though please feel free to do so if that’s your style). Even the most basic black-bottom and white-top outfit can look smart.


The key is to take pride in your appearance, as this not just affects the confidence that others have in you, but also gives yourself a subconscious boost.


(7) Give careful thought to branding and marketing yourself.


The legal industry has been traditionally resistant to branding and marketing, relying on the belief that good legal work will speak for itself. However, most big firms now hire people specifically to work on business development, branding, and marketing. It is definitely an important part of modern legal practice.


As an individual lawyer, you should also be aware of the importance of creating your own brand and marketing yourself.


You don’t have to go overboard with it, but you must at least be aware of your online footprint and try to be in control of the information about yourself on the Internet.


It is almost a given among European and US lawyers to have an individual LinkedIn profile, but it is not yet common among Malaysian lawyers — I expect this to change quite rapidly in the coming year (I of course have an account).


Expand and nurture your professional network as an individual. This may not be encouraged (or possible) in bigger firms which still block access to many social media website and apps. Many firms would prefer that lawyers market themselves under the umbrella of the firm brand instead of becoming too independent. Decide what you want and figure out ways to make it happen.


A senior partner gave me some very good advice as a young lawyer in relation to networking — you don’t have to aim to connect with the upper-level decision-makers in a company. Network with your peers. In years to come, they will be the decision-makers, and if you’ve kept in touch then your careers would have progressed side-by-side and you’d have a valuable professional contact.


Make the most of the accepted marketing methods which even traditional law firms now use — publish articles, give talks, and conduct legal workshops.


Think bigger and don’t make excuses. When I was a pupil at the beginning of my career, I started publishing articles in print media (initially on non-legal matters, then on legal matters). There was some resistance among the partners — was this allowed, would the firm be breaking any rules, should they ask me to stop (this was a time where Malaysian law firms didn’t have websites — yes I’m showing my age)?


It was decided that I could continue, but could not mention the name of the firm, so I kept writing. After a few months, they requested that I include the name of the firm in the column.


Now, lawyers publishing articles in the media is commonplace.


Nurture your own professional reputation.


(8) Be an independent and lifelong learner.


Be a self-starter. Volunteer to do things beyond the office. Invest time, energy, and money in equipping yourself. Read books and blogs.


Be active on social media not to gossip or keep in touch with frivolous ‘news’, but to connect with and learn from others.


Expand your circles. Constantly grow and stretch yourself.


Plan ahead. Be intentional. You don’t have to announce your goals, but you have to be consciously disciplined, or risk slipping into the rhythm of mediocrity and moving along in cruise-control.


Have real, solid goals with measurable outcomes.


Adopt the posture of an independent and lifelong learner.


(9) Find a mentor. Or several mentors.


I was fortunate enough to have had several good mentors through the different stages of my career. It’s important for young lawyers to have mentors.


Many young lawyers tell me that they don’t know how to choose and approach a mentor — and some are unfortunate enough to be pupils who only get to speak to their supposed pupil-masters less than five times throughout the pupillage period.


Again, there’s no magic formula to this. Some of my mentors happened to be seniors in my team, others were senior partners in the firm, some were lawyers from other firms, and some were not even lawyers.


My advice is to find a mentor who has what you want in business and in life. Your boss may be a very good lawyer, but perhaps he is in his 40s and still works until 10pm every single day and never gets to see his kids. If that’s not what you aspire to be in your 40s, then perhaps he’s not the best mentor for you (though this is over-simplifying things, as he may be a good professional mentor).


I’ve had many mentors and they’ve all had an impact on my career and life in their own ways.


As for how to approach a mentor, all you have to do is ask. You’ll be surprised how many are happy to be a mentor, and the worst that could happen is you get rejected (hopefully politely).


(10) Draw your own map.


Ultimately, the most important thing is to give thought to your career and not just allow yourself to be pushed along by the current of completing more work tasks and working long hours.


If you just do what everyone else is doing (which is what everyone else has always done), you will most likely end up just like everyone else.


As I’ve written before, you get to draw your own map. Use your own compass — calibrated based on your passions, ideas, values, character, intellect, experiences — and chart your own course.


Have fun.


Marcus van Geyzel is a corporate lawyer with 13 years’ experience, and is the co-founder of Peter Ling & van Geyzel (PLVG is an OPen Employer on OfficeParrots.com). He writes at themalaysianlawyer.com and is part of the team that runs LoyarBurok.com.


This post was originally published on Office Parrots.


Written by Marcus van Geyzel