What I learnt after leaving legal practice to pursue an MBA

Guest writer Janice Tan Ying has been on quite a journey since she first wrote for us in October 2017 (“5 things I learned from pupillage that law school didn’t teach me“). In this article, she shares some of the many things she learnt from her recently-concluded two-year MBA.

Two years ago, I left legal practice at one of the largest law firms in Malaysia to pursue a full-time MBA at the Asia School of Business (ASB) — a partnership collaboration between Bank Negara Malaysia and MIT Sloan School of Management. This was a decision that felt incredibly daunting at the outset. 20 months (and an MBA degree in hand!) later, I dare say it was one of the best decisions that I have made.

Here are some of my reflections from my business school journey:

(1) Growth happens outside of your comfort zone

For as long as I could remember, I was a seasoned resident of the comfort zone. I completed my law degree, passed the Bar, survived pupillage, and eventually qualified as an Advocate & Solicitor. I was so focused on the idea of working towards the much-coveted “path to partnership” that I had not stopped to reflect on my “Why” and ask myself if that was what I truly wanted.

Along the way, the opportunity to do the MBA came up. Many thoughts crossed my mind as I contemplated whether to take up the offer — If not Law, what else? Would I regret leaving legal practice? Is this the right time for a career transition?

I also had senior lawyers, well-intended as they may have been, advise me against leaving practice as “it would be such a waste”. I distinctly remembered feeling nervous about my decision, but decided to take the plunge anyway.

Throughout the course, I was continuously stretched beyond my comfort zone. The pace was intense and the learning curve was steep, especially since many subjects were new to me. I had to reprogram my mind to unlearn and relearn. Within a few months, I learnt to be comfortable with financial jargon instead of legalese, trading case law for business case studies, churning out Powerpoint decks instead of legal submissions.

The sooner I got comfortable with the feeling of discomfort and focused my energy into maximising my learning opportunities, the faster I was able to build my growth muscles.

(2) Done is better than perfect

Before I embarked on the MBA, I was told that the experience would be akin to “drinking from a firehose”, and it turned out to be 100% accurate. This was especially challenging for the first six months where I had to find my groove amidst the whirlwind of full-day classes, assignments, group projects, and picking up new skills and competencies. Outside the classroom, I welcomed the opportunities to take on leadership roles in several clubs and societies, design business plans, contribute to a regional policy paper for ASEAN capital markets and even co-host a podcast!

As someone with a real fear of failure, I would usually refrain from diving headfirst into ventures I was unsure I would succeed in. With that said, my time at business school allowed me to overcome this mental block. The concept of “fail fast, fail forward” was something that stayed with me from my Design Thinking course at ASB. I found myself applying this problem-solving methodology that involves rapid prototyping and experimentation in various areas of my life; to give myself room to fail and experiment.

Putting myself out there and immersing myself in new experiences with the goal of learning instead of succeeding helped me challenge all the self-limiting assumptions I had, and made me realise that done is better than perfect.

(3) Develop self-awareness through active reflection

Ditch the labels. Beyond the books, my MBA journey taught me the importance of finding a career path that aligns with my unique strengths and inclination instead of what is most prestigious.

The first step is to actively identify what those strengths (and weaknesses!) are by reflecting on past activities and noting down common threads. If you are unsure, seek honest feedback from those around you. The sooner you realise that you possess a set of strengths that are uniquely yours, the sooner you will be able to make informed career choices and leverage your skillset.

Be flexible. Don’t be afraid to make career pivots based on new information. Experiment and make time to consciously reflect about the life that you want, balanced with financial realities. If you are looking to pivot out of legal practice, speak to people beyond your professional circle to understand what the realities are in the alternative career path that you are keen to pursue.

Undoubtedly, I recognise that business school provided me with a safe bubble to dabble in different industries and functions. But even after I have graduated, I am determined to carry this paradigm shift with me as I move forward in my next role.

(4) Surround yourself with people who challenge you

During my MBA, I experienced firsthand the importance of building a community and surrounding myself with people who challenged me intellectually and creatively. I was very privileged to be in the company of classmates who are brilliant and kind. It is said that we are the average of the five people we spend the most time with. Within these 20 months, I have learnt so much from 46 of them (who hail from 18 different countries) both inside and outside the classroom. I am grateful to have had the opportunity to see the world through their lenses, and understand what it means to manifest strength in diversity.

Indeed, when you surround yourself with people who inspire you and push you further, you will go further.

I wrote this reflection at the end of my first week at business school, and it still rings true for me today: “Here’s to saying YES more often to things that scare me, and to continuously challenge myself to not only step out of my comfort zone, but to take that leap of faith when opportunity presents itself.”

Here’s to welcoming the next chapter of life with open arms.

Janice is now working in a strategic HR role focusing on policies and governance in Hong Kong.

One thought on “What I learnt after leaving legal practice to pursue an MBA

  1. James 29 June, 2020 / 6:54 pm

    Did you leave law to join HR?

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