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Old 08-02-2022, 09:18 AM
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Junior lawyers are leaving practice not because of their lack of grit, the poor work life balance, or unreasonable clients or bosses. People who phrase the issue as such are missing the other side of the equation.

The reality is each generation of lawyers has to work harder, for much longer, for a smaller share of the pie. Let me explain what I mean.

Michael Hwang SC described his experience as a junior lawyer back in 1968 as follows: ďCourier services had not yet started operations, and overseas telephone calls were pretty expensive by todayís standards, so everything proceeded at a certain pace, especially if there was correspondence with someone overseas. Working life was therefore somewhat leisurely, which meant that working late was not usually required. I was therefore able to enjoy a reasonable social life after work, although much of that time was spent by me in teaching part time at the Law School.Ē

Ever since Michael Hwang SC's time, we have seen lots of technological advances. It is well documented that working hours have increased across industries generally and in the legal industry in particular. The first iPhone was only introduced 14 years ago. Prior to that it was easier to disconnect from work.

It is recently quite common recently to see LinkedIn posts about senior lawyers having to "work hard too". Unfortunately people seem to overlook the fact that, by design or otherwise, junior lawyers are now expected to work harder with fewer quality breaks because it is now harder to disconnect from work. It is well documented in Singapore and overseas that the actual time billed by lawyers has been increasing year after year.

It is also worth noting that when senior lawyers had to work hard in the past, they did so in a context where there was a clear path to partnership. Or they were already partners! By that I mean real partners. A quick review of the CV of any senior lawyer will show you how early those senior lawyers made partner. Working hard in that context means putting money directly into your pockets. Working hard in today's context means putting money into other people's pockets.

Unfortunately, people seem to again conveniently overlook the fact that the work/reward ratio of working hard as a 6 PQE partner or a 4 PQE soon-to-be partner is different from a 4 PQE associate.

On this note, it now takes a junior lawyer much longer to reach (real) partnership level, and even after slogging for a long time, the prospects of making partner are no longer clear. Tell any junior lawyer that if they work hard for 6 years, they will get the chance to flip a coin, and if the coin lands on head, they will definitely become an equity partner. I can assure you that the attrition rate would definitely slow down. The reality however is that the chances of making (real) partner seem to be worse than a coin flip. This is also well documented.

So, not only do junior lawyers have to work hard for much longer, they are also paid terribly in relative terms. 20 years ago, pupils had to serve 6 months of pupillage and received $2,000 in pupil's allowance. The median wage then was about $2,000. Soon, trainees will be required to serve a training contract of 1 year and there is no news as to whether the prevailing market trainee allowance of $2,000 will be revised upwards. The median wage today is $4,500. People who were formerly trainees and now partners are wilfully blind to this fact.

In short, the story of a junior lawyer in a local firm is this.

As a trainee, the soon-to-be junior lawyer has to receive more than half of what their partners used to receive and train for twice as long. After the junior lawyer gets called, they have to work much harder in terms of volume and intensity compared to what their partners used to do as junior lawyers. The junior lawyer also has much less breaks compared to what their partners used to have. And the junior lawyer would have to slog for a much longer time before they get a chance of making (salaried) partner.

This is in a context where opportunities are aplenty for a young and smart person.

No wonder people are leaving. It is not because they cannot take the hard work or the toxic culture. It is because it is not worth it.
Great post. They just donít recognise or pretend not to recognise this fact. Itís easier to just say young people have different dreams and prefer work life balance. And itís also easier to pretend itís all about pAsSiOn when they refuse to pay junior lawyers more in line with inflation, but still expect them to work much longer hours (and stay connected even while on leave, weekends or on public holidays).

If you make me an equity partner at 6 PQE Iíd be equally passionate. Now I just have different passions, just not one in which I am killing myself to pay for another personís third condo!
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