Why I Quit My Job: Changing Lanes, Climbing Peaks

Raphael Kok shares the reasons why, one year ago, he quit his job as a litigation lawyer at one of the biggest law firms in Malaysia. This post was originally published on his blog.

One year ago exactly, I quit my job as a lawyer.

The exit was swift and sudden. Those who knew me well – or thought they did – were caught by surprise and left perplexed. They thought I was a fighter, that annoying little prick who always wanted the last word in any argument.

Many asked me why I quit. Out of curiosity, out of care. I tried to explain. Some understood, some didn’t.

So let me explain again, one more time. Not because it sheds light on my life. Rather, because it may help shed light on yours.

“I Quit!”

One year ago exactly, I quit my job as a civil litigation lawyer at a top local law firm, and immediately joined a top multinational company as a corporate legal counsel. Was it a big shift? Yes and no. Yes, because I could no longer stand before the court, as I had used to for the previous four years, to argue cases before the Honourable Judges. No, because my current job still involves rendering legal advice – to those who need it, and also to those who think they don’t (and they are usually the ones who need it most).

I hung up my robes and bib. It’s like a doctor hanging up his white coat and stethoscope. To those in the service industry – marketing, advertising or consultancy – it’s like jumping over to the client’s side. Or, more extravagantly, like a battle-weary knight hanging up his sword, settling down on a snow-capped mountain top, vowing never to shed blood again and to preserve cosmic harmony.

Like him, only better hair and complexion, I have.

Changing Lanes, Passing Milestones

Think of it as changing lanes. I’m still driving on the same freeway. Not exactly a big step-up. Ideally, I would rather be off the road completely. Like, you know, to be on a starship, tearing through warp space, shooting for the stars. No, I haven’t made it yet. The journey is long and winding. There are many more milestones ahead.

But I did still pass a major milestone.

It’s not about the money, nor the benefits. There is still pressure to perform. I have toned down on legal jargon, but now have to pick up on corporate buzzwords.

There is, however, one major difference. Now, I have more freedom and control over my life. Now, I have more time and space for myself. I feel liberated. I feel free. I feel me.

Do I miss being in the fighting ring? Not really. Most of the time, there is no fighting in the courtroom. You spend the whole day before poring over the tactical board and sharpening weapons, only to find out the next day when you march up to the battlefield that your enemy’s out with a flu, and you have no choice under the rules of engagement but to turn around, go home and come back in a month’s time when everyone is free and fit.

And when the fighting does take place, it’s nothing as epic as what you see in ‘The Practice’. The questioning of witnesses is mostly mundane – what does this document say, what does that document say. Closing arguments are littered with technical legal jargon – sentences stretch on endlessly like a freeway, punctuated by commas like rest houses with leaky plumbing. At best, it’s like watching an excited bunch of robed and bespectacled wizards from Hogwarts waving their hands and shouting loads of Latin gibberish: Prima facie! Bona fide! Res ipsa loquitor!

Don’t get me wrong. I did not leave legal practice because I hated it. It’s just that I found something else that I enjoyed doing more. Did I find a better job? I found a better life.

I have a loooong way to go, to be that executive in the suit.

Of Peaks and Plateaus

Life is full of peaks and plateaus. Right before I left legal practice, the peak was not a long way off. At the rate I was trekking, I knew I could reach it soon. But one day, as I reached a plateau, it dawned upon me that the question wasn’t whether I could reach the top. Rather, the question was whether I should at all.

I looked down. I looked up. Peeking over the distant horizon, there are other mountains. This is not the only peak. It’s still not too late to scale down, and start a new climb. And that’s precisely what I did. I started afresh – at a mountain with a higher peak, yet less frigid and filled with many more plateaus where I could chill out and enjoy the panoramic view.

Henry Thoreau once said: “Many men go fishing all their lives without knowing that it is not fish they are after”. Damn right. Sure, I like sushi, but I also like a bloody steak, and there ain’t any cows in the water. I want to see the world and all its splendours, and not just be stuck to a small pond all my life.

If Bruce Wayne – Prince of Gotham, Princeton graduate, and billionaire heir to Wayne Enterprise – can scale up and down the Himalayas... so can you!

It’s natural to take the wrong lane. It’s natural to make mistakes. It’s natural to be afraid to face our mistakes, and stay in denial. It’s natural to look down into the yawning abyss below and think: “I’ve reached this high, might as well go all the way up.” It happens to the best of us.

It’s natural to feel that way, but it doesn’t mean that we should. No, we must always be bold to check our inner compass and search our souls. Don’t be afraid to change lanes and scale new peaks. There’s nothing wrong climbing up, climbing down, and re-climbing the same peak again after exploring other peaks. Take Steve Jobs – he co-founded Apple, left Apple, and after about twenty years, returned to steer Apple to its present dizzying heights. If you’re not exploring, you’ll never get to where you want to be most. If you’re not exploring, you’re not living.

Then again, at the other end of the spectrum, there are some who change lanes as often as James Bond changes partners. They tell themselves that they’re exploring. But most times, they’re deluding themselves. Paralysed by vertigo, they’re afraid to climb higher above a certain plateau. They’re stuck moving horizontally, never moving upwards. Perpetually switching lanes is just as bad as being stuck in the wrong lane.

Ultimately, it’s all about finding the right peak, and reaching as high as you can climb. You may be happy where you are now, and what you do now. But always ask yourself: Is this as good as it gets? Are there other peaks of happiness I would rather reach? Can I be happier than this?

Repeat this each time you wake up in the morning: "I don’t want happiness, I want EUPHORIA!"

Shoot For The Stars

For now, I’ve only changed lanes. But feel free to careen off the freeway into the dark woods, if you’re up to it. Or, like our ancestors, pack all your possessions, buy a one-way ticket, and start a whole new life in a whole new land. Don’t mind me. I only took a big step. You can take a giant leap. All you need is faith.

Be who you want to be. Do what you want to do. If you like dancing, then put on your damn dancing shoes and dance the night away. If you had always dreamed of opening a cafe, then instead of splurging on that new designer bag, save the money and open that damn cafe.

No time? No talent? That’s nonsense. Real dreams aren’t the kind you forget once you wake up. Real dreams are the kind that keeps you up all day and all night long working hard to transform them into reality.

Here and now, I feel good about myself. I’m doing what I enjoy doing, like writing. And much, much more. In time, I’ll share more about what’s going on in my life (and in my head).

Me? I’m not finished yet. Changing lanes is just the start. I’m still building momentum to lift off and shoot for the stars.

You can, too. And you should.


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Raphael was named after an angel and Italian Renaissance painter. However, he does not have a halo on his head and consistently scored a ‘C’ grade in art class back in school (no, ‘C’ is not for Consistency). Previously a litigation lawyer, he now works in a multinational company giving legal advice to those who need it, and those who think they don’t. In his free time, he travels through the past, present and future – through the sheer power of imagination, a few shots of single-malt whiskey and Daft Punk’s ‘Random Access Memory’.

Posted on 1 October 2013. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0.

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27 Responses to Why I Quit My Job: Changing Lanes, Climbing Peaks

  1. Cheng

    A-levels student asking a question here – do you have to be called to a bar in order to work as in-house legal counsel? Or is a law degree enough?

    • No, taking the Bar is not a requirement, though it certainly helps. Going through the Bar, pupillage, practising is a rite of passage. But if you can shine, you can bypass all that.

      In my company, there are a few who joined legal in-house immediately after graduating.

      Then again, your starting pay and position may not be on par with the rest, if you do take this short-cut route. You still need to pass the company's 'internal rite of passage' (perhaps start as a paralegal).

  2. Shaira A

    Kudos for an inspiring article, Raphael! As a pupil, reading your honest article made me take a step back and really think about my goals and aspirations about the future.

  3. EcchiDo

    came across your article while i am lingering around the internet and pondering what should I do with my life, my degree or should I do my piles of work beside my laptop. Good article. Conclusion: do what you like.

    • Yes, that's the gist of the message. We all know this, but it's easier said than done.

      Throughout our lives, we are constantly told – by our parents, teachers, peers, community leaders, that faceless voice in video ads – to like this, like that. Eventually, we end up doing what we've been influenced to like, rather than what we really, really like.

      To separate the wheat from the chaff – that's the struggle. It's not easy. But we have to, otherwise we are no better than lemmings.

  4. Me gusta

    This is interesting. May I offer a slightly different perspective?

    Firstly, I think this is a well-written article. I think it's great that young lawyers out there are moving into in house roles and not just because "all my friends are doing it" or "it seems like the snazziest thing to do" or because "an industry giant came a-calling." Whatever his reasons (even though I don't think it was actually spelt out very well), at least he's weighed the pros and cons, and come to a decision.

    Separately – WTLow's comment is rather interesting due to the comparison he is attempting to draw between a local car and a local law firm. Not quite sure if it's even a fair analogy, given that Malaysia hasn't even opened its doors to foreign law firms. So comparing a local law firm to a multi national company just gives a sense of apples and oranges.

    My personal view is, everyone stays or leaves a job for his or her own reasons. I'm sure I don't have to go through the whole myriad of reasons. Your career doesn't define you – but if you feel it does, then I guess you're well prepared to make sacrifices on other fronts. I've reached a stage in my life where many friends have given up their legal careers temporarily or permanently for families, to take a break, to move out from the legal profession. What I've witnessed is that few return to the legal profession post the break (except those who have traveled the world and have run out of cash and don't really know what else to do). Point is, your cup of tea may not be someone else's. And while all of us should be encouraged to take a step back once in a while to reflect on how far we've come in life, there's nothing wrong with continuing status quo, if we think that's what we want to do.

    I've practised as a corporate lawyer in the so-called large firm – which, truth to be told – bears little weight outside of Malaysia. I've moved into the in house scene a little over 5 years ago, into the little red dot. I've worked in both local companies and a large multi-national. I've mainly been a generalist corporate commercial counsel, but am now taking on a new challenge of compliance and regulatory related work. I could go on and on about how each one of my career choices was better than my last, but why should I? Each one of them shaped me up in both character and skill to be what I am today.

    Conclusion: Leaving practice doesn't necessarily make you a better/happier/richer person. It's not just your dreams that matter, but what is practical at each stage in your life, and who you will impact by making those changes.

    As a side note – in house jobs don't necessarily guarantee you more time to yourself. It comes with its own challenges of managing internal clients (who used to be more than an arm's length when you are in practice) and external legal costs. You have to master every aspect of the law – there's no room for "specialization" unless you're in a specific industry, like finance. You don't always have a mentor, unlike associates who have partners in a firm. Support staff are lean – you make do with your limited PowerPoint and printing/binding skills. Your people skills are extremely important in managing internal politics, both within the legal team and outside. Who you report to and who that person reports to makes hell of a lot of difference. You're at risk of being made redundant easily, because unlike a law form, you're a cost centre. You have to deal with incompetent external counsels and trust me, I've dealt with quite a few in my time —- including some from Malaysia.

    So yeah, that's my rather long spiel giving a slightly different perspective :)

    • Well-articulated thoughts, but I beg to differ on one thing – I don't see how your perspective is any different from mine.

      My article is less about quitting legal practice and "what did I did and do now", and more about knowing when to call quits (no matter what job you have) and "why I did what I did". I think I've made this quite clear in various parts of the article (e.g. taking the Steve Jobs analogy, I have not discounted coming back to practice someday).

      Maybe I will write a more specific piece on the differences between being a practising lawyer and a corporate lawyer. But I do wonder even such generalisations really help, since the work scope and culture can be vastly different for different law firms, as do for different companies. For example, my company is so vast that the legal team has its own specialisations (IP, competition, compliance, etc.) – in some ways, one could argue that my company is more similar to a big law firm than a small law firm is to a big law firm.

      Anyway, I find that the main differential of any organisation is the people. Distinguishing law firms from companies this way is rather helpful – because, like it or not, most lawyers do share certain similar behavourial traits that sets us apart (e.g. being the annoying little prick who wants the last word in any argument), and this influences how we treat our subordinates and colleagues. Which is NOT to say that lawyers make bad employers and peers. Different styles for different people.

      To my non-legal friends, I'm still an annoying little prick :)

    • I actually wrote a reply to this last week, but somehow it didn't get published.

      Anyway, what I wanted to say is that your perspective and mine is not so different, after all. All I'm saying is that we should search our souls, and pursue what makes us truly happy. In my case, for the moment, that meant leaving practice – it's just my personal example. For others, it might be joining or staying in practice. To each their own.

      The last thing I would want someone to take from article is to blindly their current jobs without first knowing what they want out of their lives. That would be totally against what I'm advocating.

  5. Sinjoro Eng

    Congratulations! It is the right choice of yours, I hoped. I did that switch 4 years ago when I go to know Esperanto and I switched lane. But alas, as a low income educationist, I did not enjoy much of the new life in the new lane. But at least, to my conscious of heart, I endure and am willing to suffer the material life from 10 down to zero with two meals a day instead of five plus teh tarik.

    Each and every of us has our own choice of life style to choose from. It can be the five star hotel and five star restaurant or self made coffee of 37 sen per glass or mamak stall teh tarik.

    Choose what you enjoy the most but not what you regrets later the most

    Bondeziroj al via nova vivo

  6. WTLow

    TLDR version: "Young litigation lawyers in big law firms have no life and no career prospects. Do what you like. You can return to practice if everything else doesn't work out."

    It is easy to stereotype and trivialize the life of young lawyers in practice. But I think we could all benefit from a candid and honest assessment of the realities of the subject matter of your article.

    From a young lawyer's point of view, it is always about better pay, better benefits, better hours, which cumulatively constitute "better life". Any attempt to dress up a career change as involving the so-called pursuit of happyness (sic) is, to quote the philosopher Bane, admirable but mistaken. The truth is, perceptions matter, especially the perception of authority or superiority. Role reversals are empowering (instructing those who once instructed you is pure vindication.) And although they rhyme, "Audi" sounds better than "Myvi", and "MNC" sounds better than "LHAG".

    The point that I am trying to make is that the real problem appears to be that young lawyers (including myself) are stepping into the legal profession with unrealistic expectations, and an extremely inflated sense of self-worth and invincibility. Once they realise the reality is less idyllic than the ideal, any option or choice will seem a better option or choice to them.

    With respect, there are therefore two broad replies to your article.

    The first is the well-known article in the Huffington Post entitled "Why Generation Y Yuppies Are Unhappy": http://www.huffingtonpost.com/wait-but-why/genera

    The second is the perhaps-lesser-known but equally important article by a certain Raphael Kok entitled "A revolt against old order" in which the author, as a young Putik Lada brimming with passion, ideals and aspirations, observed in very telling passages:

    "What Malaysia lacks is a multi-tier labour market which rewards young professionals based on merit. Here, they feel unwanted. Here, they do not feel the love."

    "To the underlings, remember that there is salvation to your hunger and anger. The sea will not run out of horizons. The market will not out run of demand for professionals. If the future is bleak in your profession, leave it behind and don’t look back. Or stay and join the rest of the young revolutionaries in wait."

    • I do think a lot of young lawyers are guilty of taking up law with the wrong expectations, and they quit practice with the wrong reasons (hence, my caution not to simply change lanes for the sake of changing lanes – exploring is fine, but we need to move forward, eventually).

      One of the points I'm trying to make – to any person, not necessarily someone who is young and a lawyer – is that we should be honest and self-critical about ourselves. Let's not delude ourselves into thinking we can all be the next Bruce Wayne or CEO who sells solutions (not products). And ambitions mean nothing without hard work.

      • WTLow

        Raphael, I agree with the comments in your reply. But there is a real risk that this message will not come across very clearly to readers of your article.

        I also agree with the comments of Me gusta, which are precisely the realistic, world-weary advice which young lawyers need but may not want to hear at this stage of their professional lives.

        In particular, I completely agree with the observation of Me gusta that what is really important is "what is practical at each stage in your life, and who you will impact by making those changes".

        It is a view that, if I may respectfully suggest, can only be acquired and fully appreciated through a gradual process of maturity, forged in the fires of the vicissitudes of life. It also captures the real meaning and purpose of being a lawyer, and serves as a timely reminder why lawyers are (or once were) viewed as being part of a "noble and learned" profession.

        As to the references to cars and companies local and foreign, if it was not clear, the point was simply that sometimes perceptions matter more to us than reality. We hardly descend into any meaningful conversation as to the apples and oranges.

  7. A Rakyat

    I want to quit my job as an engineer and be a school teacher. Unfortunately, I'm financially shackled to this lane of the Rat Race. I was unlucky and needed surgery. Sigh.

    • vic

      Rakyat

      "Knowing that you still have "choices" no matter how far down the track you are – that's the part we all struggle with." – well said.

      Its a struggle but so are all paths leading to success.

  8. Quek

    Ur article will inspire those young lawyers who once thought of doing litigation spending their nights at work is their only goal in life but later only to realize that is not what they wan. For me i am still climbing in the world of lawyering and ur article has really inspire me to think further to think beyond my boundries of just being a lawyer. thank you for ur wanderful article. if there is an article ever to put it Compulsory for any young lawyers to read it will be this article.

  9. Lily

    I quit my job as a civil litigation lawyer, take a break, went for vacations and started afresh as a conveyancing lawyer (where i have zero knowledge!). Still practicing, but in a different side. I have a better life, spend more time with my kids and family, instead of preparing submission in the office until 8p.m.

  10. Thanks

    "You spend the whole day before poring over the tactical board and sharpening weapons, only to find out the next day when you march up to the battlefield that your enemy’s out with a flu, and you have no choice under the rules of engagement but to turn around, go home and come back in a month’s time when everyone is free and fit."

    I can relate to this one Raphael. But I was on the other side, always charging up my mana for battle not knowing when such 'flu' will infect our captain. In the end and having enough of it, I left him and joined another only to discover that he has the same habits and even the worst kind of 'diseases'. Can't really hope and expect much in this depressing profession…

    Thanks for the article.

  11. ipnazi

    Do i smell copyright infringement?

  12. Thanks, Cass and tamarind. Glad you liked it.

  13. tamarind

    Excellent article! You will always be an inspiration to us in the legal profession.

  14. Cass_Shan

    Excellent article Raphael. I'm g;ad someone wrote this with the honesty and optimism that you did. Keep it up, inspire people!

  15. Audrey Lim

    I read this article and it made me wonder about the choices I've made so far, and the choices I'm about to make.

    Good one, Raphael Kok.

    • Knowing you have "choices" – you are already on the right track.

      Knowing that you still have "choices" no matter how far down the track you are – that's the part we all struggle with.

      Resigning our lives to chance and circumstances is one of the worst choice one can make.

  16. Sreetharan Queen

    Meh..

    Mid life crisis lawyer, just found out they pay more at corporate world, and doing less job.

    • If by "doing less job", you mean "doing less secretarial paperwork suited for a paralegal and meandering around the court to get mention dates" – then yes, you are correct.

      But to suggest I have less than 30 years more to live – I hope you are not.

  17. Sreetharan King

    Nice