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Old 17-01-2022, 11:42 PM
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If lawyers work till 2am and wake at 530am, why do they have time to post replies here?

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Behind the exodus of junior lawyers

Unreasonable work hours, toxic environments are push factors; many are drawn by better prospects in up-and-coming sectors that let them develop new skill sets.

She landed her first job as a lawyer with one of Singapore's Big Four firms, but called it quits 4 months after being called to the Bar.

"The hours were really horrible. I was waking up at 5.30am and going to sleep at 2am. The worst part is, this is what's expected of you. If you wanted to go for dinner, you had to get permission from the partner you were reporting to. If you wanted to go to sleep at 2am, you had to inform the partner," said the 25-year-old, who asked not to be named.

"I hated it so much that I quit before I found a job. Looking back, I can't believe I survived that."

She later took on a role in marketing and user interface design, along with what she described as a "humongous pay cut".

"When I left, an international law firm reached out offering compensation several times what I was getting (at the Big Four firm). I said no. It was a really difficult decision but I had such a horrible experience that I decided it just wasn't worth it," she told The Business Times.

The attrition from Singapore's legal profession reached a record high last year, possibly as the pandemic prompted lawyers to reassess their priorities. But industry players said the writing has long been on the wall.

Burnout, a "toxic" work environment, and the need to be available 24/7 are among the perennial push factors cited by over a dozen junior lawyers BT spoke to, who have either left the industry or have contemplated doing so. Most spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Some were also drawn by what they perceived as better opportunities and mentorship in fields such as crypto and fintech.

For many, the last straw came when their health or relationships with loved ones took a turn for the worse - prompting them to leave the industry.

A record 538 lawyers left the profession last year, with junior lawyers that have been in practice for fewer than 5 years making up about 60 per cent of these exits, Law Society president Adrian Tan said last Monday (Jan 10), during the opening of Legal Year 2022.

This coincided with a record low number being called to the bar. There were 614 newly called lawyers in 2021, down from 716 in 2020 and 706 in 2019.

Burned out and bullied

Young lawyers say there is little guidance within the industry to set them up for success. Several shared accounts of senior partners who were verbally abusive or who routinely flung files at juniors.

"The horror stories you hear are real. There are times when you go flying out of an office, and your work goes flying after you. Senior lawyers are often impatient and not as empathetic as the juniors hoped their mentors could be," said a 32-year-old lawyer, who moved to a boutique firm after negative experiences at a big law firm.

Some seniors consider such experiences a "rite of passage".

A young lawyer who worked under a senior counsel in major law firm said the partner often "bragged" about working even while in labour.

The lawyer said: "Because of the high levels of stress, the partners don't see others as humans who need to have a life. A lot of them would say they have gone through this. It's baffling that this sort of culture is allowed to persist in a major law firm.

"Why is the Law Society surprised that junior lawyers quit when managers like that get appointed senior counsel?"

Covid-19 a catalyst

Some lawyers BT spoke to said the shift towards remote work has also exacerbated the 24/7 work cycle in the legal profession.

"In the past if you physically came to the office and were working hard, people around you would see it. When everyone started working at home, our workload became invisible. Different partners would load you with a lot of work, the quality falls, bosses are unhappy with you, and that affects your general mood and motivation. It becomes a vicious circle," said a lawyer, who recently resigned from a Big Four firm and will be taking on a role as in-house counsel for a financial institution.

The legally trained administrators of the @singaporelawmeme Instagram account - which many lawyers pointed BT to - said travel restrictions have further exacerbated the problem.

"There are limited or close to no opportunities for junior lawyers to plug out and really take a break from everything. The constant expectation to be reachable and the demanding nature of the work often leave junior lawyers exhausted, drained and ready to resign."

The account, set up in 2018, curates the plight of junior lawyers through memes and contributions from its followers. It has been especially active last week, reposting anecdotes from young lawyers.

Better prospects beyond law

Apart from the push factors, some who left the profession were drawn by better prospects in up-and-coming sectors.

Kok Chun Hou, for instance, left legal practice to join a payments startup as he was attracted by the flatter hierarchy and opportunities to develop a business in a fast-growing industry.

"My work now is comparatively more impactful and provides a large scope of responsibility and decision-making capacity that I would otherwise not have as an associate in legal practice. Personally, I find that there is a lot more potential for meaningful contribution, progression and a sense of satisfaction in what I do currently," said the 29-year-old.

Legal recruiters said law firms face rising competition from sectors such as crypto and big tech, which often offer "hybrid roles" that let young lawyers develop new skill sets.

"Young lawyers are not as keen to be confined to strictly follow the traditional legal career path as they seek exciting new ventures, setting new precedence for the industry, such as by joining fields like legal tech or AI (artificial intelligence)," said Lim Chew Ern, an associate director at Ethos BeathChapman.

Many of these roles offer compensation more commensurate with work hours, too.

But even fatter salaries within the legal profession will not plug the attrition, said lawyers and recruiters. "Raising salaries is not the answer. That could help in the short term, but there needs to be a fundamental mindset shift, a greater level of awareness and empathy, amongst senior partners," said Lee Shulin, co-founder and director at legal recruitment firm Ansa Search.

"Not every lawyer today dreams of becoming a senior equity partner. Money becomes less of a pull factor for lawyers with a different set of motivations and life goals. Junior lawyers may prioritise their families or other interests, and that's not because they are millennials or part of the 'strawberry generation'. Saying those things is just a convenient way of sweeping the issue under the carpet," she said.

Jolin Chen, who took up an in-house counsel role at a multinational tech company right after she was called to the Bar in 2018, said there is a unique culture of "abuse" in law firms.

"There is zero margin for error because junior lawyers fear the repercussions of making mistakes. This creates a very damaging environment for young working adults.

"Many people harp on the privilege of having a law degree and I recognise that. I escaped practice in shame initially, but I'm now a strong advocate for better work-life balance and better mental health."

Culture not main reason for attrition: LawSoc president
Culture may have played a part in the attrition of junior lawyers, but the spike in exits last year was more likely because the pandemic offered lawyers an opportunity to reset and reassess their working conditions, said Adrian Tan, president of the Law Society (LawSoc).

"Why do lawyers leave the profession? In a nutshell: it's hard work, with high stakes. It can get to you," Tan said, in response to the reasons offered by lawyers The Business Times spoke to.

In his speech at the opening of Legal Year 2022 last week, Tan had associated the legal profession's record attrition to a global phenomenon now known as the Great Resignation. Record numbers have left their jobs across various industries since the pandemic started.

"Singapore law firm culture has not changed in the space of a single year. Culture may play a part in individual cases, but it cannot explain a pandemic spike," he said.

Stress is a primary reason raised by young people he had surveyed for leaving the profession, Tan said. The experiences of working from home and being constantly connected have exacerbated that.

Clients expect lawyers to be on demand, round the clock. They rely on lawyers to close business deals or to "rescue" those who are at the threat of losing their money or liberty, Tan said.

"Lawyers are often first responders when it comes to problems. Their repeated exposure to trauma and stress creates a situation of 'vicarious trauma'. Lawyers suffer from PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), in the sense that they are prone to relive emotionally draining or challenging events over and over again," he said.

While lawyers of the last century may regard their careers as a lifelong profession and were prepared to "slog away" so that they could master the vocation, lawyers today have more options.

"We cannot expect them to look at things the same way. Many are smart and hardworking, but also want balance in family and social lives," Tan said.

And the Singapore lawyer is in great demand today - not just among local firms.

"Once a young lawyer has served a stint there, headhunters swoop in to poach them to fill legal positions elsewhere. For example, these young lawyers are enticed to join international law firms, banks or even a tech start-up, in the hopes that it may become a unicorn," he said.

Young lawyers surveyed by LawSoc have been calling for an industry transformation, while many are looking for a way to continue serving their clients while protecting their mental health, Tan said.

Tan, who is now a partner at TSMP Law Corporation and has served as a lawyer for over 30 years, had for similar reasons left practice to serve as general counsel at a government technology company for a few years in the early 2000s.

"I was excited to try something new. I would like lawyers to do that, but I would like some of them to come back to practice. I missed going to court, battling opponents and helping clients.

"Like many other Singapore lawyers, our job means much more to us than just a title. We are deeply invested in the outcome of our work: every defeat drains us, every victory invigorates us. So, for many of us, law cannot be a gig, but a calling."

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