The Possibilities of a Law Degree

I had the privilege of being invited to give a talk at the University of Malaya on the last day of orientation week held for new undergraduates. The theme was ‘The Endless Possibilities After Law School – Various Career Options of a Law Graduate’. I have edited the text slightly to reflect more closely the actual talk given that day.

Good morning everyone,

At the outset, I would like to thank the organizing committee for inviting me to speak on the topic today.

In preparation of today’s talk, I managed to speak to some students currently studying law at private colleges. I asked them what careers they thought they could achieve with a degree in law. To my complete surprise they said that it was only a lawyer or law lecturer. That’s apparently what some of their lecturers told them.

In truth, I am surprised at today’s topic. The notion of the endless possibilities after law school, to me at least, was always a given. When I was considering what to study for my undergraduate degree, I often heard from my elders that the study of law would provide me with a host of career options aside from being a lawyer. And this was borne out throughout my studies. I encountered so many studying law who professed they had no idea what they want to do as a career. My experience has led me to speculate that essentially two kinds of people choose the study of law – those that know what they want to do and those that don’t.

This morning I intend to speak about two things. The first is about the “endless”, or as I prefer “numerous”, possibilities available to a law graduate. The second is a suggestion about how you could approach your course.

So why are numerous career options available to a law graduate? I like to think it lies in the skills that a law graduate should acquire after their undergraduate studies.

What are they? I shall speak of four that I think most important.

First, is the ability to research. By this I do not mean simply looking for a case or a proposition of law. The word “ability” implies a method or a technique. It is this that you should develop. To research, in the truest sense of the word, is to draw together the various disparate threads of learning and ideas from your studies, your thinking and weave them into something coherent and meaningful. When you are able to do this, no learning is out of your reach. Only time and your own effort stand in your way. This is an area that lawyers must excel at. It is for this powerful ability that lawyers are also known as an “expert’s expert.”

The second is thinking critically. A critical mind is an active one. It is constantly tests any proposition against recognized or personal standards. It does not accept dogma. It relentlessly looks for ways to do things better, more efficiently or elegantly. It disdains attitudes like “If it ain’t broke don’t fix it.” A critical mind is also a flexible and confident one that is ready to admit error and change itself when circumstances warrant. Thinking critically is integral to being adaptive. In our modern fast moving and changing environment, you must learn to adapt or be left behind.

The third is the ability to apply your learning. This is what you will be doing a lot throughout your undergraduate studies – applying the law to real, although very static situations. To learn how the law is applied when a situation is not covered by it, or where there is great difficulty in applying it due to the ambiguous nature of the situation. But the techniques that I hope you draw most from this is the ability to apply a given set of principles or instructions to a situation, and how to cope in a situation where you cannot draw upon them to resolve your situation. Constant application heightens and hones your evaluative capabilities and expressions. It allows you to learn how to exercise discretion in a principled, reasonable and logical manner.

The fourth is the ability of clear expression. It is no use to just know the law. You must be able to explain it clearly. To yourself. To others. That is what all those examinations, tests, essay questions and tutorials are for. All these are opportunities to demonstrate not just your knowledge but how well you communicate what you know. The necessity to express yourself will force you to develop other important skills such as structuring your thoughts, improving your delivery whether in writing or verbally, having a feel of your audience and mere courage in doing so.

You may not possess all these skills. If you do, perhaps not all of them. And even if you did have all of them, each of them would be at various stages of development. If you possess none of them now, don’t worry. You have a whole life ahead of you to constantly and relentlessly hone them. Not all of us are early bloomers.

Having said that, I would urge you to avail yourself thoroughly of the opportunity during your undergraduate years; never again will you have such a full and unhindered opportunity to develop your abilities in the comfort of your own pace. When you are actually paid for it next time, you will have to do so at the pace of your employer or client.

Armed with these formidable skills, what really is out of your reach? If you need to learn something completely different area your research and critical skills assist you. If you need to apply your knowledge to a problem, your skill in application and evaluation will come into play and guide you. If you need to explain something to yourself or others, the eloquence you cultivate will aid you.

It is these skills that allow you to spread your wings and fly away from the area of law to other areas. Many who studied law often go on to business consultancies, journalism, teaching, think tanks, to becoming politicians, members of parliament, and even Prime Minister – Tunku Abdul Rahman and Tun Abdul Razak were both trained in law. You will find them in the field of acting, arts, or starting their own non-legal (as opposed to illegal) businesses. Sudirman and Julio Iglesias were lawyers first until their talent carried them further into the entertainment industry. I know many successful lawyers who are also successful restaurateurs too. There are lawyers in literature – two Malaysian lawyers have become well known international authors – Tash Aw (The Harmony Silk Factory) and Tan Twang Eng, formerly from Shearn Delamore (The Gift of Rain), and a good friend of mine was an editor with MPH for a while.

All these examples lead me to my second point – a suggestion how you could approach your undergraduate course. I confess that I had approached the study of law during my undergraduate years poorly. My regret lay in my attitude of treating my studies as a chore or a burden; it lay in failing to take as much pleasure I could have if I had applied myself more fully; in not seeing my studies as an opportunity; in seeing my undergraduate course as merely a training school for the practise of law.

With such an attitude, how can you meaningfully enjoy your studies? It is poison and toxic, take it from me. So I want to suggest to you another way to look at your undergraduate studies.

Think of it as an opportunity, but not to study. Think of and treat this as an opportunity to develop yourself as a person, to fully realize yourself as a human being. In truth, you are not here to study, you are here to educate yourself. What is the different you may rightly ask? A great deal.

To study is simply to read a book and understand it. To educate encompasses that and is not restricted to institutionalized knowledge. Education is about learning about and from life – understanding others, building or ending relationships, learning social boundaries, experiencing betrayal, learning about loyalty and trust, discovering whom you are, what you mean to others, etc. Education is not just what lies in the books, but most of it is what lies outside; in your interactions with others. It is gained from a constant application of yourself to learning of which studying books is just one small component.

Be alive to life. Be alive to others. Make many friends indiscriminately. Listen to those with different life experiences. Learn other cultures. Do something you never did before. Join a society. Pick up a new hobby. See as much as the world as you can; you don’t have to go overseas – just go to places you never think you would go. Most importantly, dare to think. Nobody can hear you think, so do it often. Don’t be afraid of it.

All that and more is part of education. And it is not “useless” because you will come to find that it will come to inform your studies. The study of law is about regulating and preserving life and you cannot be good at it if you know nothing about life.

While it is good to aim for a good grade, it is not the be all and end all of your future. Good grades do not make you a responsible or mature person. It just means you know what answer to give the examiner. So focus on using this time and honing these techniques as part of your self-development to work towards becoming a responsible person. Maturity will come with time if you are on this path. Your undergraduate period is a gestation period where you form yourself and allow for an opportunity to bloom.

When I was in university, I thought grades were everything. After the second year of my undergraduate kicked off; I made a pact with my good friend that we would aim to graduate with first class honours. Though we had fun, we studied a fair bit until about third year when I just lost steam and thought there was more to life than just summarizing a stack of legal articles and churning out legal essays. I thought I could live with an upper second and so limped to the finals. I made it a point to finish with a strong upper second in case anybody asked.

But you know what? 10 years into practise, nobody really gives a damn where I’m from or what I scored. After struggling to get into Bristol University, supposedly a top 10 law faculty in England during my time, nobody asked me where I was from. Most of the time queries were limited to whether I did my law in England and that’s it. No client has ever asked what I scored for my upper second. They don’t care. Nobody is keen to hear how hard studied, your hardship, what options you took, how well you did for them. Because when you get into the real world, it’s more about what can you really do – not about the paper.

And it is at this point that your education becomes very important. The real world is more about people than paper. Relate your learning to your arc of self-development. It is education that will help you navigate your way through life, not your legal knowledge although that would be helpful. The easiest way to educate yourself is to be curious. You need only one question to start the process, and it is very simple. Start by asking the question “Why?” more often then go about seeking the answer every and anywhere. Do this with an open heart and open mind and I am certain you will find much more pleasure with your studies and education.

Thank you for your time and attention.

LB: We recommend “Legal Aid as a Place for Development of Legal Skills and Learning” that Fahri Azzat gave for the IBA in 2008 that complements this talk.

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Fahri Azzat practices the dark arts of the law. Although he enjoys writing and reading, he doesn't enjoy writing his own little biographies of himself. Like this one. He wished somebody else would do it for him. He has little taste in writing about himself in third person. He feels weird doing it. But the part he finds most tedious is having to pad up the lack of his accomplishments, or share some interesting facts about his rather uneventful life, as if there were some who found that oh-so-interesting; as if he were some famous person, like Michael Jackson. When he writes these biographies, the thought, 'Wei, Jangan Perasaan- ah!' lights up in his head. So he usually just lists what he got involved with, positions he held and blah, blah. But this time. Right here. Right this very moment. Uhuh. This one. This one right here. He's finally telling it like it is.

Posted on 2 August 2010. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0.

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