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A Lawyer by Training, A Journalist by Heart

Updated: Sep 6, 2020

It’s never too late to be what you might have been. 

It’s never too late to find what sets your soul on fire. 

“What is your ambition?” 

Advancing through the phases of life, this is an inquiry that forever lingers in the back of our mind, the beginning of every conversation. 

“What is your passion?”

This is a question we regularly pose to ourselves, and remains significant, even during our job applications, and this was no different for Mr Terence Toh. 

Mr Terence was a Public Prosecutor and a Research Federal Counsel with the Attorney General Chambers and a lawyer at a private law firm before he found his true calling as a journalist. In any case, a legal career was never a choice of his. 

“I always wanted to do something more with writing or the creative arts, even since I was small. I was influenced by my rather conservative parents: they said it would be hard to earn a living as a writer, and it would be better to go into a more lucrative, high-paying job. They said that since I like to write, why not go into law, that has a lot of writing too? And I, like a good filial child, decided to take their advice.”

Misconceptions propagate the legal field as a prospect, glut of generalisation plagues the legal industry and it was not long until an inevitable acknowledgement strike Mr Terence: 

“I just wasn’t very happy doing this job. It never felt right: a lot of the times I felt I was just pretending. I would just come in every morning, keep myself busy, and then clock out and go home at the earliest possible time. I soon found myself dreading the idea of having to read legal documents and suck up to judges for all of my life. My other colleagues genuinely enjoyed doing their work while I had to sometimes force myself just to drive to the office in the morning.” 

“While I didn’t mind studying law, the practice of it was completely different.”

In an ideal world, everything would work perfectly according to the law. But in reality, there are issues like red-tape, human blunder, defilement and human inadequacy that get in the picture. 

“You get cases deferred for legal advisors raising the most idiotic reasons, legal counsellors who act willfully in court to get a specific response from witnesses, etc. I was not strong or passionate enough to continue managing this,” he said. 

In the legal field, winning cases (as a Public Prosecutor), completing research projects and writing opinions (as a Research Federal Counsel) and working up to a higher position topped his priority list.

“And also, get through this as fast as I can, retire quickly, and never look at a law book ever again,” he jokingly added.

Mr Terence endeavoured to live the best of the two universes for a period of time, freelancing for a paper while pursuing legal practice as a primary career. This is a potential option for those meaning to take on two paths.

“You could go to court on weekdays and write in a blog or something in your spare time. But it takes a lot of good time management and dedication. You will have to find a system that works for you and really work at it.”

Even when he was doing his law degree at Taylor’s University, he engaged himself with a lot of writing activities.

“I was freelancing for newspapers like The Star and The Selangor Times and was also writing for Taylor’s The Lexicon (which at the time, was an actual newsletter, not yet a website. Wow I’m old). But I did find learning about the law fascinating, so I kept on with my law degree,” he shared. 

But when he took the leap of faith and transitioned into a journalist, his goals realigned and he found himself looking for interesting stories and people to cover, adhering to deadlines, aiming to win awards, becoming a senior journalist or editor-in-chief of a publication, and even starting his own publishing house.

“The best thing about this job is sometimes you get to meet and talk to your heroes,” he said, adding that he hopes to interview J.K Rowling or Stephen King someday.

Despite not finding his place in the legal field, Mr Terence never regretted taking a law degree and credited his legal experience as an asset that moulded him into who he is now. 

“In this context of switching from law to journalism: no experience or knowledge is ever wasted,” he maintained as he found skills like opinion writing and drafting arguments useful in his journalistic career. 

“For instance, as a lawyer building a case, you need to sort out important facts and build a good narrative that a judge can follow precisely. This is roughly the same thing a journalist does when he or she is writing a story, except he is writing for the public instead.”

His legal background also gave him an edge when he joined Star Media Bhd as a court reporting journalist. His colleagues had a difficult time grasping legal concepts while he already had 3 years of fundamental understanding of them.

Hence, speaking from his own experience of changing careers after a law degree, passing the Certificate in Legal Practice (CLP) and two years of legal work, Mr Terence is a firm believer that when one realised one has made a mistake in life, it is never too late to change.

“And whatever you have gone through, even the bad experiences, especially the bad experiences,” he emphasised, “are usually there for a reason. Learn from them and use them to make a better life moving forward.”

The key is to take notice when you are beginning to shrink to fit places you have outgrown. Currently specialising in arts and culture feature writing, Mr Terence further advises that:

“The best thing you can do is to go for as many experiences in legal practice as you can. Go for attachments, try out for internships, volunteer at the Bar Council or advocacy groups or whatever opportunity you can get.” 

The point is to “go for positions in territories of law that you are truly keen on” as this will give you a clearer behind-the-scenes picture of life in that particular area of law and make a better decision when “choosing for yourself if this is such a daily existence you want to live or not”.

Additionally, discover and pursue places of law you are not intrigued by or think minimal about, because as Mr Terence put it, “You never know. You may wind up securing your fantasy position or career. Be available to new encounters.”

It's never too late to reinvent yourself or pursue the latest things that make you light up. If you aspire for an ambitious feat, don't concentrate on what was taken away. 

Sometimes it pays to take a risk. 

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