Career in Law – Which Specialisation?

by Syamsuriatina Ishak

 

You finally got through law school (phew!) and can’t wait to enter the workforce. “Imma lawyer now, Ma!” You exclaimed, after you received your graduation confirmation. 

But, wait! As soon as you start contemplating which firm is going to have the honour of having you onboard their team, you realise that there are so many types of firms (with numerous specialised practice areas), so many different types of lawyers, so many varied practices. I’ll be posting about choosing sizes of firms and location next, but for this post, let’s discuss the burning question: which specialisation of law should you choose upon embarking in a career in law?

Before I go through the common types of law practices/specialisations below, I urge you to first take a moment to consider your personal characteristics, strengths, talents and ask yourself where your career goals lie

And I’m not talking about whether you’re a hard worker, a person with good work ethic, careful, responsible, reliable and meticulous. Whether or not you’re naturally that type of person prior to entering the workforce, you will have to bring it right off the bat as you enter into the legal profession. The legal profession is not a place for slackers. Clients are paying their hard-earned money to put their livelihoods (and sometimes lives) into your hands, for you to solve their problems where possible, so you cannot afford to have a lackadaisical approach to your practice. IMHO, if you’re not prepared to give it your all, then a professional career is not for you. 

I’m talking about the inclinations that are a part of your personality. Never mind what happened in college – I get how college politics and peer interaction has a way of derailing the true you – but think about the way you’ve performed some tasks better than others. Do you express yourself in writing well? Are you a good orator? Were you particularly good at organising events? Are you a good leader who does well at getting the best out of your team member? Do you like to travel? Are you more of a ‘doer’, going out to get your work done physically, or do you prefer a regulated job situated in an office? 

And you also need to think about your goals in legal practice and life in general. Is your goal to open your own small practice one day? Are you merely concerned to remain employed for the rest of your working life? Do you intend to eventually leave private practice to join the workforce as a corporate legal advisor? Or, do you see yourself branching off into other careers – politics or business or media perhaps? 

I ask you these two very soul-searching questions because these are the most important considerations you need to make upon the commencement of a legal career. Once you are in the workforce, you will realise that time flies by extremely fast. It is very easy to get swept up in an area of legal specialisation based on who you’ve worked with and which area of law you embarked into at the beginning of your career, that this starts becoming an integral part of ‘who’ you are. Don’t forget, the next place you apply to work for would probably want to hire you based on your previous experience. Thus, it would be quite imperative that you make your choice of stream or ‘experience’ from the very beginning. That is not to say that a switch mid-stream is impossible. But I will be posting more about that later.



The Legal Profession in Malaysia

As a Commonwealth country, the procedure and practice of law in Malaysia is developed from the Common Law practice in England and Wales. The practice of law in Malaysia, however (as it is in Singapore and the nine common law provinces of Canada, Tasmania, Victoria, South Australia and Western Australia, and unlike the practice in England and Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Hong Kong), is one where the legal profession is fused, i.e. where there is no division between barristers and solicitors in the legal profession.

Just to brush up on your practical knowhow: barristers specialise in courtroom advocacy, drafting legal pleadings, and giving expert legal opinions, whereas solicitors undertake the general aspects of giving legal advice and assist in the conduct of legal disputes (without acting as counsel for the court/arbitration proceedings), including drafting of commercial agreements and attending to documentation with authorities such as the land office, company registration authorities, Intellectual Property offices etc. which require  representation to be done by way of a procedurally and legally trained Agent.

This means that a legal professional in Malaysia can choose to be either or both. As is the tradition, a newly called-to-the-Bar legal professional in Malaysia is conferred the title “Advocate & Solicitor of the High Court of Malaya”.

An Advocate & Solicitor in Malaysia also has the option of carrying on a ‘boutique’ practice in one specific area of legal specialisation or a combination of a few types of specialisations. You will find most large law firms have different departments to cater for each of the main legal practices, so that they are able to offer a variety of services to their clients, who are often businessmen or corporations involved in various fields of work. Smaller firms cater for a basic combination of the main areas of legal specialisation. Some senior lawyers who have achieved a certain level of experience and have built-up their reputation in specific areas of law, choose to offer an individual and specialised “Counsel” practice, which is also permitted by the Legal Profession Act.

To clarify, in laying out the types of legal specialisations below, the explanations are concerned with a private legal practice, and not the public practice as a legal professional working with the Attorney General’s Chambers or as legal advisors for Government agencies.


Here are some of the common areas of legal specialisation practiced in Malaysia (these are mere categorisations for ease of reference, although many lawyers/firms practice and offer a combination of these practices, depending on their area of expertise and the clients’ needs):


LITIGATION, ARBITRATION & DISPUTE RESOLUTION

This type of practice is concerned with the resolution of legal disputes leading to an eventual reference to the Court or to commercial Arbitration. These Legal Actions – called ‘Litigation’ or ‘Court/Arbitration Actions’; or if you prefer terminology used in American movies, ‘Legal Suits’ – hence the term “I will sue you!” – would be brought for determination by a Judge (we have no longer have a jury system in Malaysia) or by an Arbitrator respectively.

This practice requires an in-depth knowledge of court and/or arbitration procedure (within specific areas of law concerned), and a meticulous knowledge and experience in drafting of pleadings, reliance on case law and legal precedents, ability to perform well under pressure, and ultimately, a Court ‘presence’ and oratory skills. Personality attributes include an outgoing personality, someone who enjoys a challenge, communicates well with people of all levels, a good strategist, someone who doesn’t mind moving about a lot. 

Within a litigation itself, there are various types of litigation practices:

A. Civil Litigation where the lawyer/law firm acts for the Plaintiff or Defendant in private legal actions (between two parties), and within this are sub-specialisations in areas of law:-

  • General commercial disputes – Contract Law and commercial concerns;
  • Banking/Finance law, Capital Markets and Corporate Finance;
  • Construction Law – building, infrastructure and construction disputes;
  • Company/Corporate, Law & Shareholder Disputes and Insolvency;
  • Intellectual Property Law – trade/service marks, copyright, patent and other IP instrument and passing-off disputes;
  • Employment & Industrial Law Practice – employment and Human Resource disputes;
  • Family law – Marital disputes, Adoption, Custody;
  • Probate & Administration of Estates;
  • Medical & other professional negligence actions – acting for the insurance companies or individual/corporation;
  • Defamation Law – actions for libel and slander;
  • Road Traffic Accident Practice (sometimes referred to as “Runners”);
  • And other ‘niche’ specialisations including Immigration, Shipping (Maritime), Aviation, Oil & Gas, Energy, Environmental & Energy compliance, Technology, Telecommunications & Media, Competition and Taxation law.

B. Criminal & Public Interest Litigation – defending persons in public legal actions (between an individual or company and the Government or Government authority), against a charge or criminal action brought by the Police/Attorney General or branch of the Government for Statutory non-compliance, or acting for a ‘victim’ in relation to a criminal action against an accused person.

Under Public Interest litigation, you would be representing parties in actions with the view of law reform (quasi Civil/Criminal practice), challenging the applicability of statutory and administrative provisions.


CORPORATE ADVISORY

Advising on the requirements of and compliance to the law, drafting legal documentation (agreements, contracts and other types of promissory notes) ensuring the clients’ legal interests now and in the future are adequately catered for; dealing with the appropriate regulatory authorities to ensure the clients’ commercial intentions are properly provided for and carried out including preparation of documents and forms in compliance with statutory regulations and requirements.

This practice requires an a strong grasp of language and excellent drafting skills, a careful and meticulous nature, ability to work well under pressure of deadlines. Personality attributes suited to this practice include being a good strategist and possessing a naturally perfectionist attitude, combined with a professional appearance and presence since you will be dealing high-level corporate and business clients. 


REAL ESTATE AND CONVEYANCING PRACTICE

Advising and preparing documentation for sale & purchase of immovable properties; dealing with the appropriate land authorities to undertake the conveyance of real estate property.

This practice requires a careful and meticulous nature, ability to work well under pressure, since you will be handling the careful preparation and filing of documents within deadlines (otherwise risk exposing your clients to penalties if deadlines not met), which will entrench the registration of the clients’ legal interest in their real estate. The attributes required for this area of practice are the same as required under Corporate Advisory above.


COMPANY SECRETARIAL PRACTICE

Advising and preparing documentation on the requirements of and compliance of company and business registration with Companies Commission of Malaysia and Registrar of Business; drafting legal documentation (agreements, contracts and other types of promissory notes) for the sale and purchase of businesses and corporations in compliance with statutory regulations and requirements.

This practice requires an a careful and meticulous nature, good organisational skills, ability to work well under deadlines. The attributes required for this area of practice are the same as required under Corporate Advisory above.


INTELLECTUAL PROPERTY AGENT

Advising and preparing documentation for dealings with Intellectual Property, including registration, licensing, assignment, sale & purchase; dealing with the Malaysian Intellectual Property Office (MyIPO) including preparation of documents and forms in compliance with statutory regulations and requirements. 

This practice requires an a careful and meticulous nature, good organisational skills, ability to work well under deadlines. The attributes required for this area of practice are the same as required under Corporate Advisory above.

[Note: there are also IP Firms/Agents who are not actively practicing Advocates & Solicitors]

 

Which legal specialisation is the one for you?

You can see that there are many specific areas a lawyer can go into, right? Which is why, if you would like the option of learning various aspects of the law, you should frown on being pigeon-holed too early, as you are starting out in practice. If you apply to a pupillage position within a large lawfirm, you should always ask  which Department you would be assigned to, which senior lawyer you will be reporting to or who your Pupil-Master will be (since it is likely you will be ‘parked’ within a specific Senior Lawyer or your Master’s practice), and what exposure you will have to other types of practices. Many law firms would be happy to ask you what your area of preferences are, and will tell you straight out whether they can provide such exposure to you. These type of intelligent questions are always advisable to ensure you make an informed choice of which firm to join as a young lawyer, whether you are seeking a pupillage position or in your first few years of legal practice.

Remember the questions I invited you to ask yourself in the introduction?

You need to determine what suits your personality, talents and goals. Research online what each area of practice is like and, for your goals, what type of experience it requires (there are too many permutations to list here).

It is always a good idea to work in a field in which you would excel, thus ensuring professional development, growth and, not to forget, professional, personal (and mental) happiness all around. Choosing the wrong specialisation or area of practice (and staying in it) is the one way to ensure you will be miserable and perform poorly. Poor career choices will lead you to either becoming professionally stressed, develop mental illness or worse, cause mistakes in your work, which may lead to a Professional Negligence suit to be slapped against you and your work! 

If you intend, one day, to open up a general practice firm of your own, you should know that most small firms offer a combination of litigation, corporate and conveyancing practice. Therefore, you should work towards obtaining general knowledge and experience in these fields.

If you hope to move towards a niche or boutique practice in a specialised area of law (as listed above), then it would be advisable for you to stick towards that area of law (and a firm and senior mentors who practice it regularly) so that you can obtain the most experience possible in that area before you can offer it to clients yourself. 

If you intend to leave practice and go into private legal advisory one day – i.e. being employed as a legal advisor in a corporation – then some litigation experience and more corporate advisory experience may be preferable, since this is the experience a corporation would require of a legal advisor.

“But, Tina,” you exclaim, “I’m so green at this. What if I don’t know what area I would grow to like or what practice suits me?” 

My personal suggestion to you then: go into Litigation first. A Litigation practice allows you to have a basic understanding of legal disputes that can arise between parties, the types of legal avenues available when resolving a dispute. Even if you intend to go into a general practice of corporate advisory and drafting later on, a basic understanding and experience in litigation assists you to better draft your corporate agreements and contract because you can envision all the commercial and factual problems that could possibly arise for your client. If you are intending to go into a niche or boutique practice, then a general understanding of a litigation practice is the first necessary building block.

It is for this same reason that I always advise law students to undertake short stints as “attachment students” or “interns” in law firms during their college semester breaks or while waiting for their exam results, so that they have some understanding of what is available out there, prior to entering the workforce. Even if it’s not ‘your thing’, try out a short 2-week or 1-month or 2-month period (if necessary ‘for free’ just to get the experience) in different practices – a large corporate firm, a small boutique firm, in different areas of practice. That’s the only way you can actually make a clear and informed choice once you are ready to start work.

 

NEXT POST: Environment – Choosing Law Firm According to Size and Location.

 

C