Recently, I received an email from one Yii Zhu, a Law / Commerce student from Australia asking me for guidance about the legal profession in Malaysia. Yii Zhu wants to return home to practice but do not know where to start. After advising him, I thought it would be useful to share this with other law students or those who wants to practice law in Malaysia.
My legal life started off as an attachment student in a small firm in Kuala Lumpur. After my attachment, I joined a large firm and stayed on until now. I am currently a Senior Associate in one of the largest law firms in Malaysia.
When a student is qualified to start his chambering, he has 3 choices namely a large, medium or small law firm. There is no exact definition on what amounts to a large, medium or small law firm. But based on my own view, a large firm has around 20 lawyers, medium sized firm has less than 20 lawyers whereas small law firm has 5 or less lawyers.
The allowance a student gets would range from RM800 to RM2500. A large firm generally pays higher allowance. In respect of attachment students, this would depend on the firm. Some do not pay allowance to attachment students as they take the position that they are doing a favour for the student. Some firms do pay but not a lot – probably less than a RM1000 per month.
Generally, large and medium firms (let’s call them larger firm) can expose a student to various types of work. Most of the larger firms have separate departments where a student will be expose to matters relating to corporate, conveyancing, litigation, intellectual property, employment etc. Some larger firms have a rotation system where a student will be rotated to different departments. Also, larger firms pay more. When I was chambering, my allowance was RM1500. My friends in the small firms were getting RM800 – RM1000.
A small firm may not expose a student to many types of work. However, some small firms are boutique firms which specialize in certain types of law. For example, there are some law firms in Kuala Lumpur who specialise in Intellectual Property. They are very reputable and highly recognised in the Intellectual Property industry. They also have the best clients and the best work. With this, joining a smaller firm does not mean a student will learn less things.
Also, in a small firm, a student may be able to handle files on their own (most of the time under a partner’s supervision). A student may also get to shadow the partner.
In larger firms, it will take time for a student to be able to handle files of their own. A student usually starts off with menial work (e.g research, translation). Substantive work will probably come at a later stage. A student in a large firm may find themselves doing less important work than their counterparts in a small firm.
Also, in a smaller firm, a student may be given more opportunity. When I was an attachment student in a small firm, the bosses decided to send me to Japan for an assignment. This may not happen if I had been attached in a large firm.
When I wanted to look for a place to chamber, I couldn’t decide whether to join a larger firm or go back to the small firm to chamber. I emailed a family friend and asked him where to go.
He advised me to join a larger firm to take advantage of the networking opportunities. Initially I did not understand what he meant by “networking opportunities” but after a few years, I began to understand.
In larger firm, a student will get to know many people. In the legal profession and as a basic business principle, to make money, it is not “what you know”, it is “who you know”. Of course, legal knowledge is very important but if you do not have the necessary connections, the legal knowledge will be not utilized. There will be no food on your table if you do not have the necessary connection to bring in business.
A student’s friends and colleagues may eventually become legal advisers in companies, businessmen, directors and even politicians. They may become your source of referral for businesses in the future.
But this doesn’t mean that a small firm would lose out in business. There are of course many ways to get business. For example, give talks, join associations etc and recently, through social media networking.
If a student finds that chambering in a larger firm / small firm is not his cup of tea, he may always switch.
Once a student finishes chambering, he may or may not be retained in his firm as a legal assistant/associate (different title but same position). A first-year legal assistant/associate’s pay in Kuala Lumpur firms may range from RM2000 to RM4000.
Lastly, if you aim to have lifetime career as a lawyer, you should always aim for partnership (in a larger firm) or alternatively, set up your own firm (as a sole proprietor or a partnership). A partnership in a larger firm may take a longer time as most of the time, there are many people ahead of you. Even if you are made partner, it will take time to be an equity partner (a partner with shares in a firm thus gets a share of the profits). Most of the time, young partners in a larger firm are only salaried partners. It will take time to be an equity partner. However, such situation in a small firm may vary. Some small firms are known not to take new partners.
I hope the above is of assistance. If you have any comments that are helpful, please share.