Datuk Goh Boon Kai is a 53 year old lawyer from Melaka, entering his 23rd year of legal practice. Having an LL.B (Hons) from the University of London external programme, he is currently a managing partner in his law firm, Messrs BK Goh & Goh. Despite having the responsibility of running a firm, he never fails to find the time to take care of his family and his health, indulging in activities such as travelling and sports during his downtime.
What inspired you to choose law as a career?
For me, law was not my first career. During my time (The 1980s), we did not have many studying options. After Form 5, you either take the STPM to try to get a place in the local universities, or you go straight to work.
I did fairly well in my SPM but I did not manage to get a credit in my BM. Thus, I couldn’t get a first intake in my STPM.
So after Form 5, I got a job as a bank clerk, which I took up. By the time I was called for STPM second intake, I decided to continue working. All in all, I worked in the bank for about 6 years in various departments, one of which was the credit and securities department (Loan) where we dealt with lawyers and legal firms quite a lot. I enjoyed the legal documentation work- I felt I was quite suited to that kind of work and besides, the lawyers seemed to lead a fairly comfortable lifestyle, as compared to mine as a bank clerk. Thus, I decided to pursue law.
What made you decide to start your own firm?
I have only ever worked for one legal firm after being called to Bar- I stayed with that firm for 6 years. I felt like I wasn’t making headway financially and at the same time, I was becoming rather complacent. The children had come along by that time, and I wanted to try to boost my income and get fresh challenges. Thus, I started my own legal firm.
“There is a perception that law is a glamorous profession and lawyers earn a lot of money, but that is not the full reality.”
Share with us the experience of starting your own firm. How was it at the start, and how is it now?
I didn’t have much money when I started out- Initially, I only had one clerk. I had to take a leasing facility for my office equipment and a small loan from my father in law, besides not taking any salary for the first few months. So it was definitely tough at the start but after about six months, things started to pick up gradually.
There was a lot of dissuading at the start- We were hearing comments like the economy being bad and how there was a lot of competition in the sector so starting out, we were apprehensive. But somehow, we did quite well. I must say that there is no shortcut to success. A lot of hard work, tears and blood were needed to reach where we are now.
Walk us through your normal workday. What do you do, what is your job scope like?
In terms of legal work, I mainly handle conveyancing matters, where I have more or less retired from handling litigation, or court cases. I also oversee the administrative and financial aspects of my legal firm, in which I am the managing partner. My work day starts around 10am: I sign routine letters, check and approve legal documentations, go through accounts, meet clients and brief my staff on relevant matters.
What are some of the major challenges of your industry?
Competition is stiff among lawyers, made worse by the tough economic conditions. Young law students will have to excel and do better than their competitors.
Technological advances, such as digitalization is another big challenge as it has changed the way we do things in the legal profession, especially in the last couple of years.
Legal practice then is so much different compared to what legal practice is now- For example, when I started out, filing documents in court was done manually. Now, it’s all done via electronics means. Law students must adapt with technology by studying the new areas in this digital economy.
Another example is adjudication for stamp duty- Where it used to be manual, now everything is done online. It may make things more efficient and cause less paper wastage, but the fear is that what used to be done by humans will be taken over by computers, notably in the field of conveyancing which forms a significant part of work for lawyers.
Lawyers will have to prepare for the eventuality that conveyancing will be much simplified in the future with technological advances, and reduced in its scope of work.
“To reach the top, to be a good lawyer really depends on the individual- The legal profession definitely isn’t an easy one, where a lot of hard work and sacrifices are involved.”
What are some personal challenges you face in your career?
During chambering and my time working as a legal assistant, I did not get much assistance or guidance from senior lawyers so I had to learn on my own. But all these toughened me up and made me a better professional.
In looking at the more general challenges that I, and most other lawyers face, the legal profession can be very stressful and demanding- What with intimidating judges, difficult clients, heavy workloads and tight deadlines.
What do you think is a misperception that the general public has about your job?
There is a perception that being a lawyer is a glamorous profession and lawyers earn a lot of money, but that is not the full reality. Only a small percentage of lawyers ever become that successful, what more with the stiff competition in the profession.
To reach the top, to be a good lawyer really depends on the individual- The legal profession definitely isn’t an easy one, where a lot of hard work and sacrifices are involved.
What can aspiring lawyers do to prepare themselves for the field?
Having a sound knowledge of the law helps.
Make sure that they polish up on their research/ analytical skills. The bulk of research work is done online now, via platforms such as LexisNexis. This saves so much time compared to the laborious manual research done previously so make sure that they’re familiar with the modern tools of legal navigation and shortcuts. Internships help with this.
It is also a good idea for law students to be active in their law school’s extracurricular activities, such as mooting and public speaking.
And, in addition to being good at their work, aspiring lawyers can brush up on their public relation (“PR”) skills- There is undeniably a business element to every law firm where one needs contacts to get work. Mingling around and getting to know people definitely helps.
Does your job ever feel redundant after doing it for such a long time and if so, how do you deal with burnout?
Very rarely- Things are not as stressful as it once was. My legal firm is more established now and I have an excellent team of staff. I enjoy my work, and I find it rewarding to see my staff growing alongside the firm.
I am now at a different stage in my career compared to the young lawyers where they have to try everything as a learning curve- My pace is now different. Where I used to handle all sorts of litigation cases, which is deemed the most stressful type of work, I can now be selective in taking on litigation cases. So it is not as stressful as it once was.
I do not find my work redundant at all- I find it interesting, challenging even where I continue to learn new things on a daily basis, and continue to motivate myself.
But in dealing with burnout, I would think that exercising, and taking breaks when you feel you need to are good ways in dealing with it.
“Legal practice then is so much different compared to what legal practice is now- Law students must adapt with technology by studying the new areas in this digital economy.”