Pallavi obtained her B.A., LL.B from the National Law School of India University. She is currently principal in the Finance and Projects Practice Group at Baker McKenzie Wong & Leow, and specialises in capital markets. She has been based in Singapore for over eleven years and works with clients in a number of jurisdictions, including Singapore, India, Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia and The Philippines.
This Letter is addressed to her 27-year-old self, who had been practising in capital markets for four years.
Apologies in advance, but this is going to be slightly long (you are still pretty clueless though, so it can’t really be helped).
You have been a lawyer for four years. When you left law school, you were going to go save the world. Corporate law was meant to be a stepping stone to something bigger – human rights, saving the environment, helping refugees. A way to save some money, maybe get another degree. Then (somewhat to your embarrassment), you realised you enjoyed it. And you decided to stay (as so many before you have) and pursue the thrill of the deal, the high of a closing.
But I can see that the novelty is fading. You are getting reasonably good at doing the deals (not as good as you think you are though). But you aren’t learning something new every hour of the day. And you are wondering what comes next. You feel like you should be doing something more, but you are not quite sure what that something is.
You will ultimately end up where you are meant to be (karma and all that), but here are a few thoughts for you.
1) Don’t be a passive observer, standing at the fringes of your career.
If you continue to love practicing the law, it will likely be a long career. There are few things as boring as working very hard at something that you have no say in shaping. You will enjoy your work so much more if you are an active participant in your career (look up the difference between ‘career’ and ‘job’, by the way – you don’t need to pick one or the other; jobs can become careers and vice versa – but it’s worth knowing the difference).
There are two types of conversations you have to learn to have as a lawyer.
- Ask questions of those who have the responsibility to train you. You may think your question is stupid (and it likely is), but it doesn't matter - your seniors have heard all sorts of questions over the years and they are more ready and willing to answer your questions than you think.
(Remember that time you kept passing your senior lawyer notes with your questions in a meeting? a-n-n-o-y-i-n-g… if it’s important enough to ask, ask properly; if it isn’t, wait for the right time to ask…).
- Ask questions about how you are doing and where your career is going. Don’t just continue beavering away in a bubble – ask how you are shaping up, ask what the next step in your career is; don’t assume other people are planning your future for you. If you are not thinking about it, why should they? And think about new areas of the law you can get interested in.
2) Don’t get complacent (or worse, arrogant).
There is no substitute for being prepared – prepare, practise, think, and practise again. There is no shame in talking to yourself in the mirror… (well, maybe just don’t do it in public…).
Be confident, be comfortable in your skin, and be proud (especially take pride in your work - it doesn't matter if it is a tiny bit of a very large deal, it is your work) – but don’t be an arrogant git. And never forget that you are standing where you are because of so many advantages that you have had in life.
3) Identify your support system.
You are going to continue spending very long hours at work. Lawyers who practice in law firms like being part of a tribe – we enjoy being around other people, bouncing ideas off them and having someone to moan to.
You don’t know this yet, but that guy who moved to Singapore and started work in the same month you did is going to dance at your wedding. And the senior lawyer who gave you a very hard time as a junior associate is going to be one of your closest friends a decade from now. And the associate you liked going to the odd movie with is going to say some very nasty things about you in a couple of years.
Build your tribe. All of these people will shape you. They will answer your questions, legal and otherwise. You will do deals, serve on committees and celebrate birthdays, weddings and baby showers together. Find the good eggs and grow with them (and if you come across the odd rotten egg, move on, it isn’t the end of the world).
4) Give back.
When you are very tired, what does one more hour matter? The difference between half a night’s sleep and three hours of sleep, you say. That hour could make a bigger difference to someone else. Pro bono, mentoring, diversity, teaching – find your niche.
In particular, try and give back to the next generation of lawyers (or at least start thinking about the next generation - they are all around you – young, enthusiastic, raring to go). Listen to them. Stop to commiserate when they mess up. Take a moment to answer their questions. Laugh at a funny e-mail together.
5) Be present.
I have left this one for the last, because you are too young to appreciate it. But in another four years, it will likely move up the list. Be present, be engaged. Stay in touch with family and friends. Do things with them – go for movies, get dinner, catch a play, have a proper conversation with the people who matter.
And don’t worry too much about having all the answers. You will likely never have them. But have fun looking for them.
A well-wisher from the future
PS: Get a hobby (no, reading on flights is not a hobby). It helps. For one, you will fret less. And you will be less boring.