How to land a job as a paralegal in Malaysia – and ace it

The author discusses the tricky business of applying for paralegal work in Malaysia and the lessons she learned from applying for a role that was not advertised.

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One of the most frequent questions I have gotten recently is,

“Actually, what do you do?”

I have been working as a paralegal for the past eight months. Some in the industry may be familiar with the fact that the firm employing me does not normally take in paralegals. So, when someone asked me, “so, did you get here through a relative or a friend?” I was not surprised (my answer was ‘no’).

So how did I do it? Here are a list of things I did and the lessons I learned.

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1) Apply, apply, apply

Like most foreign law degree holders, I was not a ‘qualified person’ under section 5 of the Legal Profession Act. This meant that I was not entitled to petition the court for  admission as an advocate and solicitor. While working towards becoming a ‘qualified person’, I needed financial support and craved legal experience. So, I applied for entry-level positions at law firms.

At the job application stage, I sent my CV and personalised cover letters in response to job vacancies displayed on the websites of law firms and platforms such as OfficeParrots, JobStreet and JobsBAC. I also combed through the list of job vacancies publicized by the Malaysian Bar. Not wanting to limit myself, I even emailed law firms that did not showcase any job vacancies suitable for my level of experience and qualification – that was how I got my current job!

My advice: Don’t be afraid of thinking out of the box when applying for jobs. This applies to every stage of the job application process. Be bold and dare to deviate from commonly used phrases and ‘safe’ CV templates. After all, it has been reported that recruiters spend mere seconds reviewing a single application. When I took the initiative of emailing firms that were not actively recruiting, it probably bought me a few more seconds for some screenings.

Be patient and stay enthusiastic about every application. Companies and firms are not obliged to respond to you immediately and many of them may take days, even weeks to reply to you (if they respond at all!). There is no “Last Seen” notification for email, so you will not know if and when your email has been read. However, it is important to remain dedicated in your job search and professional in your correspondence, even if it means restraining yourself from dropping an email to check in on your application when you know you shouldn’t.

2) Actively collaborate with your (potential) employer

Now for the exciting bit – I was invited to an interview for a role that was not advertised. Since the firm did not normally hire paralegals, I could not point any reviews of the position to outline my expectations.

However, I did not walk into the interview completely blind. There were three key points of reference which gave me confidence in my interview ability:

  1. I knew about the firm’s ethos, history and values from my own research;
  2. I also understood my short-term and long-term goals; and
  3. I was familiar with my strengths and weaknesses.

I only learned about the scope of the job during the interview. On the spot, I used the above key points to assess whether the job was a right fit for me and whether I was a right fit for the company. That’s right – it wasn’t just about taking whatever I could get. Although in recent times, employers have lamented that fresh graduates should lower their standards, I strongly believe that individuals should set minimum standards and ensure that their personal interests are protected. It is healthy to set reasonable baseline expectations relating to travel distance, minimum salary, benefits (if any), among other things.

My advice: Be prepared to defend your baseline expectations and ask the relevant questions. Provided that your standards are reasonable, the interviewer may even be impressed with how self-assured you appear. For example, if you told yourself that you would turn down the offer if the pay is below X amount (for good reason), stick to that promise. Be aware of the power that the interviewer wields over the conversation, but do not be pressured into agreeing to terms that are incompatible with your baseline expectations. If you are offered a job on the spot, you are entitled to ask for some time to think about it.

Be honest with what you can offer the firm. Since I planned to work full-time while preparing for the CLP part-time, I made my priorities very clear in all the interviews I attended.

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3) Be inventive and resourceful

My official job title is ‘Paralegal’. ‘Legal Executive’ is also another commonly-used title for similar work in other firms. Like interns, paralegal work is often fluid and open-ended. Here is a useful and concise summary of the differences between interns, paralegals and secretaries / clerks. However, because my role is relatively new, my job scope is arguably even more fluid and open-ended than usual. I have been emboldened to do things without being asked, such as drafting outlines of litigation strategy. Of course, this had not been possible without fantastic superiors.

My advice: Try out new things! Being inventive is not the sole domain of those with newly-added roles like mine. Don’t banish yourself to the photocopier or coffee machine. Don’t fall into the trap that thinking that law does not allow you to be creative. Constantly think of ways to improve not only your own efficiency, but also your firm’s efficiency.

If you have extra time on your hands, ask for greater responsibility. This can be as simple as offering help, or as challenging as identifying niches to be filled. An example of the latter: if your firm does not circulate legal updates / related news internally, maybe you could volunteer to take up that mantle. Conversely, if you feel like you are doing too much, you might want to set boundaries for yourself (e.g. No Work Rule on weekends) and negotiating with your boss to reduce your workload.

A non-exhaustive list

There are many other tips that you can glean from a quick Google search, like asking someone else to proofread your CV and being on time for an interview. A lot has already been written on the subject, but I wanted to put a personal spin on it. I hope that you enjoyed reading this article as much as I enjoyed writing it.