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6 M’sian law grads who strayed from the practice to pursue entrepreneurship instead

I’m sure all of us have been asked this question: “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

My answer changed all the time. I wanted to be a teacher, then a veterinarian, then an insurance agent. Thankfully, my final decision to be a writer is still relevant to me today.

But the same can’t be said for everyone. In particular, we’ve spoken to quite a number of entrepreneurs who came from backgrounds in law, yet left it to pursue other passions.

For example, we recently covered the story of Meng and Ivor—law grads who started HYGR, an eco-friendly body care business. Wanting to hear from more entrepreneurs who strayed from their law studies, we reached out to several other Malaysians and got their stories.

Passion and profession

When your passion happens to pay well, it’s a no-brainer.

For Denise Teh, founder of Sweet Hato, a home bakery we’ve featured before, such is the case. Her interest in law sparked when she attended a public lecture on the brief overview of contract law.

Now specialising in baking and selling meringue cookies, Denise Teh was called to the UK Bar in 2018 and the Malaysian Bar in 2020 / Image Credit: Sweet Hato

Yet, sometimes passion isn’t a chance encounter. Sometimes, it’s more of a legacy.

The decision to pursue law just made sense for Dominic Chou (Dom) who co-founded The Bao Guys along with two other law graduates.

Although Dom’s family never pressed him to study law, his father has his own practice, so it felt like a natural course of action to go into the industry, until making and selling baos captured his attention.

But for others like Veenea Nair, passion took a backseat.

“Singing is what I want to do in life,” she said. “Yet I was taught that you don’t necessarily need to choose music as your first degree.”

Veenea Nair, age 23, graduated with a Bachelor of Law in 2020 / Image Credit: Veenea Nair

Instead, Veenea was told that her first degree could serve as a foundation, and what she did next could be entirely up to her. Staying true to that, she is now a singer-songwriter who is actively sharing her talent on YouTube.

There are also those who just don’t enjoy law, which was the case for HYGR’s founders, and Zach Shaw, who founded his own creative agency, Zael Creatives PLC. He wasn’t really into the subject, but was interested in writing, photography, and history.

“My parents made it clear that a Mass Communication degree was not an option that they would support, so I chose law because my sister is a lawyer, and I would be utilising my writing and research skills,” Zach explained.

Not a phase, not a waste

As we all know, tertiary education is not cheap. The sunk cost of a law degree can make leaving the legal world a scary decision.

“Almost every adult I’ve known had the stigma that if you studied law you have to become a lawyer. No other way out,” Denise said.

Some even advised her against continuing her home bakery, or she would lose the opportunity of one day working as a lawyer. Faced with criticisms, she began to doubt her decisions too, but eventually began seeing their words of discouragement as a source of motivation.

“I pushed myself to be the best so that I could demonstrate to them that I do not have to be a lawyer to be successful in life,” Denise shared.

Although Zach’s parents didn’t approve of a Mass Communication degree, they were somewhat relieved that he at least had a backup plan in digital media. Zach’s lawyer sister had always advocated for him to pursue his passions, provided encouragement, and even business referrals when he needed them the most.

At age 28, Zach is now a creative director / Image Credit: Zach Shaw

“I’m constantly getting referrals, business advice, or even just a listening ear from my family, friends, and even my ex-boss,” said Zach. “It helps to know that you’re not alone in this journey called life, and that there are people out there who want to see you succeed.”

Fuelled by the pandemic

Interestingly, the disruption of the pandemic seemed to be a catalyst for these law graduates.

All three of The Bao Guys graduated from law school in the midst of the pandemic and were unable to sit still while waiting for updates on their CLP exams.

Did you know: The Certificate in Legal Practice (CLP) is a 9-month long post-graduate course and exam taken by law graduates to become a qualified lawyer in Malaysia.

“So, we started selling baos,” co-founder Lucas said. “We were initially supposed to do it to fill up our free time during MCO, but what was more of a hobby back then turned into a full-time job pretty quick.”

All three founders of The Bao Guys graduated in 2020 / Image Credit: The Bao Guys

Within four months, The Bao Guys expanded from their condo into a cloud kitchen in SS2, which eventually opened up a dining space to turn their outlet into a restaurant. Fast forward to today, they’re in the midst of opening a third outlet.

Zach’s creative agency and Denise’s Sweet Hato were also founded mid-pandemic in 2020, while Veenea started her YouTube channel in 2021.

In fact, many businesses were born amidst the lockdowns, and those who were simply looking for a sense of stability incidentally ended up starting a whole new chapter of their lives.  

Transferable skills

Although these entrepreneurs are not currently working in the legal industry, the time and money that they put into law school haven’t really been lost. On top of legal knowledge, there were other transferable skills obtained through their studies.

“First, law school moulded us to be fact and research-driven, and along with that came a certain work ethic that carried on with us throughout our business journey,” Lucas shared.

The Bao Guys’ founders want to focus on the expansion of the business before deciding to sit for their CLP exams / Image Credit: The Bao Guys

Plus, the team could save on legal fees along the way. Zach seems to agree.

“Besides being able to draft my own agreements, being somewhat adept in the art of negotiation, persuasion, and presentation has helped me tremendously in pitches, mediating difficult situations, and closing sales,” Zach added.

If lost, return to law

Despite straying from their degree, these law grads still have a genuine interest in the subject and have yet to call it quits on the possibility of practising it eventually.

“I personally found a passion in law and found pathways for me to enjoy it after I fulfilled my dreams in music,” Veenea expressed.

Denise also has the same mindset. While law is still a viable option, she believes her season as an entrepreneur has not ended yet.

The Bao Guys put it aptly by explaining that their law degrees are kind of a safety net. “The idea of pursuing a legal career is always there as an option for us,” Lucas explained. “We have not dropped law per se, but definitely our business has taken a front seat.”

Image Credit: The Bao Guys, Zach Shaw, Veenea Nair, and Sweet Hato

As Zach put it, “I believe that there’s a purpose for every season. And if somehow life calls me back to courtrooms, I’ll answer with a smile.”

No regrets

Maybe one day we’ll see all of these brave individuals practising in law firms, but for now, their current roles are keeping their hands and hearts full.

“The choice to venture into something of our own is definitely a decision I would not change,” said Marc Wong, another co-founder of The Bao Guys. “The amount of hard work you put in ultimately translates into the visibility of the rewards you reap. So that, to me, trumps any 9 to 5s.”

Their decisions to pursue a certain degree is informed by various reasons, but all of them amicably parted ways with law.

Amicably, and perhaps even temporarily. But even if they decide to return to law one day, the decision doesn’t devalue the worth of their current careers.

  • Read more stories about Malaysian startups here.

Featured Image Credit: Veenea Nair, singer-songwriter / Denise Teh, founder of Sweet Hato / Founders of The Bao Guys, Dominic, Marc, and Lucas / Zach Shaw, founder of Zael

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(UEN 201431998C.)

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