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The Law Exodus – Where is the Promised Land?

By Stefanie Yuen Thio

The legal industry needs to reset its thinking towards attrition.

Burnout, bitchy bosses, the relentless battering of unreasonable client demands. These are some of the reasons cited for lawyers fleeing the profession in droves, many to become baristas or bakers or bitcoin traders.

Law firm partners are stumped. It is a strange time to be leaving a lucrative profession: the world is just coming out of a global pandemic whose economic fallout has barely begun to be felt on the high street yet, due to government aid measures. Small businesses are shuttering faster than you can say “Omicron”, and restructurings of both small companies and multi-national conglomerates are just beginning. The law is one of a handful of sectors still with good prospects.

While many segments of the economy have stumbled, law firms offering premium services had blowout pandemic years. Bloomberg reported last November that US firms saw significant increases in revenue and profitability in the first nine months of the year, with the largest players seeing the biggest gains. In a US survey, firms reported a 14.3 per cent jump in revenue, more than double the 5.7 per cent uptick in 2020. UK firms had the same trajectory, with many reporting double-digit growth last year.

Singapore law firms, especially those that deal in well-paying mergers and acquisitions and private equity sectors have enjoyed a similar rise in revenue and profits. This is on the back of historically low interest rates everywhere in the world, sending fund managers and investors on a corporate spending spree. Not to be outdone were restructuring practitioners and, thanks to the government’s effective efforts to promote Singapore as an international arbitration hub, those who fight cases in arbitration chambers.

It seems like a really good time to be a lawyer. But young associates are quitting in unprecedented numbers. Is it simply a matter of too much work, or is there a deeper structural change at play?

The broader landscape

Legal practice is unquestionably tougher on lawyers today than it was two decades ago. Technology has made instant communication via email and virtual conferencing possible, word processing capability means that documents are longer and more complex, and the world turning into one big global village enables deals to be done in multiple time zones simultaneously. This combination of factors has worked lawyers in relevant practice areas much harder within more compressed timelines, effectively being on call 24 hours a day. Such is the nature of legal practice today. And while associates are not the only ones affected, junior lawyers will necessarily have less control over their work and be more heavily involved in time-intensive tasks such as proofreading for transactions and legal discovery for disputes.

Burnout is therefore very real. But the cause of the Singapore legal exodus is more complicated than just tired lawyers.

New York is the world corporate juggernaut. When the Great Resignation swept through the US, it took along many lawyers. US practices had to resort to hiring offshore, including from UK firms, which naturally turned to Singapore lawyers, given the similarity of our laws. In addition, many international firms had selected candidates from abroad for their Singapore operations but Covid restrictions meant that securing employment passes was harder and took longer. For an international firm, hiring a Singapore law-qualified associate was a quicker fix to a pressing problem.

And the poaching did not stop with law practices. Singapore has seen an influx of technology firms, due to our nation’s effectiveness in controlling Covid-fallout and Mainland corporates looking to offshore some of their operations. Private money has also found a safe haven here from increased US-China tensions, bringing family offices and fund managers to Singapore. Banks and businesses, already wary of placing too much reliance on their Hong Kong operations prior to the pandemic because of political unrest in the Fragrant Harbour, were forced by its zero-Covid policy and border closures to plant a flag here.

All these companies need lawyers, and that is where some of our associates went. A 30 per cent pay bump to join a titan like Amazon makes for an open-and-shut case.

Law practice today

Recent news reports have shone a negative spotlight on the office shenanigans of some senior practitioners. Certainly, bad behaviour should be called out and my advice to associates is to find a law firm where they are valued and respected as contributing members of the team, not mere digits of production. But it would be overly simplistic to attribute every resignation to an abusive boss.

Covid forced the world, including lawyers, to pivot to working from home. This may have created a patina of flexibility, but the actual 24/7 demands of the job make true autonomy illusory. Couple unrelenting client demands with a disconnectedness from your team and the camaraderie and shared experience that make the high-octane work enjoyable, and you get a very tedious existence: hunched over your kitchen table where the Wi-Fi signal is strongest, still in your pyjamas at four in the afternoon because you’ve been stuck on an international closing call since you rolled out of bed at 7am, and struggling to print a 300-page document on your 10 page-a-minute inkjet.

It has been two years since the world started naming Covid variants. Many of the lawyers who commenced practice in 2020 would have scant idea what it is like to actually work in a law office, to receive hands-on training, or to make friends with colleagues over lunch. If another law firm or company offers more money to do similar work, also from home, there would be little to persuade them not to jump ship.

What have law firms done in response to the legal exodus? We have dug ourselves a deeper hole. To attract and retain talent, New York White Shoe firms raised associate pay. A newly qualified lawyer now commands an annual compensation package of US$200,000 (S$270,000), on top of a sign-on bonus. Firms in the UK and Singapore have had no choice but to follow suit in upping salaries (TSMP is equally guilty of this). But in order to make newly qualified lawyers profitable, the employer needs to work them very hard and associates are expected to clock in 40 hours of billable work a week, with many working twice that. This impossible demand not unnaturally leads to burnout and resignations, which firms try to address by throwing even more money at the problem.

Thus the vicious circle.

Not all lawyers are motivated solely by money. In this, Singapore is a victim of its own success. Young people grow up in, by and large, more comfortable circumstances than their parents, which has taken the need for survival off their list of life imperatives. And the world is changing at an ever increasing speed, with new technologies spawning hitherto non-existent career opportunities. A young person can grow up today and aspire to the respectable role of influencer. Graduates unsure of their life goals can take on different roles as a gig worker. If all that fails, you can always try your hand at becoming a crypto billionaire.

What this boils down to is that young people are no longer confined to a career path dictated by their area of academic study. They have myriad work choices, and some family support to fall back on in case their first start-up does not become Singapore’s next unicorn. This embarrassment of riches in options has also resulted in Gen Z’s wanting to try as many jobs and in as many sectors and geographies as possible. These days, even conscientious lawyers who like their job and colleagues would feel that a two-year stint in the law firm is a commitment thoroughly fulfilled. Because young lawyers tend to not be profitable when they first start working, and with this short time horizon in mind, law firms have to work their associates even harder during the period that they are employed there.

What then?

Unfortunately there is no single strategy for law firms to address this problem. The issue is not simply about work-life-balance – which is impossible to guarantee when eye-watering pay packages are the norm – or about toxic bosses.

Law is a degree that is increasingly, and rightfully, recognised as a good training of the mind and not merely the equipping for a vocation. As a result, legal graduates are sought after by a wide swathe of industries. Our law schools need to increase their intake to cater to this demand.

As an industry, we need to start seeing our associates as valued colleagues, and treat them accordingly. We have to remake our offices to become places they enjoy working and where they can build friendships. There are few things more professionally soul-destroying than a hot-desking arrangement or an impersonal cubicle. And no matter how tough the case, no experience can replace the sheer joy of being in the trenches with your team members, cross-checking your submissions over cold pizza. We also need to give our young lawyers a sense of ownership over the enterprise that is their career, and make them see a long-term engagement as something to be desired. This requires active mentorship from their seniors.

More importantly, law firms need to reset their thinking about attrition. We have to accept that among our lawyers, some will stay; others will leave; yet others will go and come back. And that’s okay. Because a law firm should measure its success against the number of fulfilled individuals who pass through its doors and whose career success that law firm contributed to.


This article was first published in The Business Times on 31 January 2022.

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