Life beyond legal practice: These Asian success stories prove it can be done
A Pakistani lawyer walks past the Supreme Court in Islamabad. Source: AFP/Aamir Qureshi

Many Asian families expect this career trajectory for their law student children: study law – get called to the Bar – practice. The end goal, ultimately, is to make partner at a successful legal practice.

This results in many law students employing a single track mind during law school, signing up for subjects relevant to what they plan to practice in their future career while restricting their internship options to law firms alone.

While practice can be a fulfilling career for many, it isn’t the only option available. Law is one of the most versatile subjects to study at university with a wealth of possible career pathways.

And as the folks below prove, these careers can be just as lucrative, meaningful, and even more:

1. Lee Kuan Yew, Prime Minister of Singapore 1959-1990

Lee was one of the most respected political leaders in Asia. Source: Shutterstock

The founding father of one of Asia’s most successful tiger economies, Lee got his educational background studying law at the elite Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge University. He graduated with a first-class law degree in 1949 and was called to the bar at London’s Middle Temple in 1950.

Upon return to Singapore, he set up law firm Lee & Lee with his brother Dennis, and close friend Edmund W. Barker, before leaving legal practice to enter politics. While these are impressive legal credentials, it was his tenure as the founding Prime Minister of Singapore for three decades – transforming the tiny island with scarce natural resources into one of Asia’s wealthiest and least corrupt countries – that will go down in history. 

2. Daim Zainuddin, Finance Minister of Malaysia 1984-1991

Daim Zainuddin led the influential The Council of Eminent Persons, appointed by the Prime Minister of Malaysia in May this year. Source: AFP/Jimin Lai

The businessman, politician and the most acclaimed of all finance ministers of Malaysia is a man with an illustrious career. Well-known for being recalled to serve in the government several times by its Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, Daim is also the man behind several lucrative business ventures.

Though he had planned to be a teacher, his family had pushed him to study law in England, where he turned out to be a diligent scholar. He was subsequently called to the English Bar in 1959 after 18 months at Lincoln’s Inn, London. His legal career saw him in private practice for several years as well as becoming the President of the Sessions Court in Johor, and later Deputy Public Prosecutor in Ipoh, Perak, until 1969 when he left practice to venture (successfully) into business.

3. Nehal Madhani, tech entrepreneur and founder of Alt Legal

Nehal Madhani was on the typical track towards a successful career in legal practice. He had graduated from the University of Pennsylvania Law School and had landed a job at the prestigious law firm Kirkland & Ellis, where he was making a six-figure salary.

Frustrated at seeing the inefficiencies that waste attorneys’ time, he taught himself how to code and created Alt Legal; a cloud-based IP docketing software that detects and updates changes to filings and all statutory deadlines, so practitioners don’t have to docket matters manually. Today, he’s a highly in-demand speaker and author the intersection of legal practice, technology and ethics at bar associations and conferences, and has been profiled in Inc. MagazineBloombergAbove the Law and Attorney at Work.

4. Penny Wong, Leader of the Opposition in the Australian Senate

Wong has represented South Australia in the Senate since 2002. Source: AFP/Torsten Blackwood

Malaysian-born Penny Wong studied law and arts at the University of Adelaide, graduating with honours in 1992. She subsequently worked for the trade union, covering furniture industry employees, and taking part in campaigns to improve pay and conditions for union members.

From 1996 onwards, she appeared as counsel in several industrial relations and workers compensation cases before being elected to the Senate for the Australian Labor Party in 2001. She has been re-elected twice, in 2007 and 2013.

5. Charles Yu, Author

Charles Yu, author of popular science fiction novel How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, is known for many things. He’s the runner-up for the annual winner Campbell Memorial Award for second best science fiction novel by the Centre for the Study of Science Fiction at the University of Kansas.

The Taiwanese- American was also named as a  “5 under 35” honoree by The National Book Foundation, selected by a previous National Book Award Finalist or Winner as someone whose work is “particularly promising and exciting and is among the best of a new generation of writers”.

But Yu’s background isn’t in literature or creative writing. Instead, he attended Columbia Law School, graduated and went to work at an “old school, white shoe” New York law firm. According to Columbia Law, Yu resigned as an in-house counsel at the technology company Belkin to become a writer on the HBO series Westworld.

Comparing law and writing, he said: “Both entail a lot of thinking and trying to communicate your ideas clearly; to try to put something in a form that others will find compelling.”

“My work life informed my writing,” he says. “I can’t imagine doing anything without that training.”

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