Perspective of Life as a Young Lawyer
Young lawyer, congratulations are in order for reaching this milestone that you have been working so hard for.
You have gone through an extremely competitive selection process to get into this course of study, and to train in this profession. You may have put in long hours during school and vacation time to pick up new skills and furnish your CVs to clinch your dream training contract. You may have slogged hard at unpaid internships. You may have experienced multiple rejections in your quest for traineeship. But yet, here you stand. Finally Called to the Bar.
In your journey to get to where you are today, you have learned how to navigate life, and form and nurture relationships. If you were fortunate enough to have studied overseas, you can pat yourself on the back for having survived your own cooking and having made your own bed and slept in it.
Today’s transition from a trainee to a full-fledged lawyer must be a moment of great pride.
Remember your experiences. They will be a guide for your path ahead. They will be your key to opening doors.
Yet you may have graduated with a sense of vulnerability in this pandemic season, having observed how friends and family have been hit with pay-cuts or even job losses. Life for many has become precarious.
The legal industry has not been immune either. Firms both big and small have had to slash employees’ pay in order to keep afloat. The suddenness of the COVID-19 pandemic seems to have knocked us off our stride, and we are forced to play catch-up in the way we conduct legal practice.
I assure you that this sense of vulnerability is normal and is meant to be embraced in fullness. Every batch of newly minted lawyers confronts their own set of challenges. An Act of God like the current pandemic, or policy shifts implemented with poor timing, can impact job demand and supply.
Five years ago, in 2015, we had a record number of 535 lawyers called to the Bar, and I was one of them. Training contracts were harder to come by, as the ratio of supervising solicitors to trainees was half the current ratio of 4:1. My peers and I just happened to enter the profession at a time of oversupply, even as the third law school was concurrently being set up.
Even after clinching a much-coveted training contract, things weren’t always rosy. My pupil-master candidly told me on the first day of training that my shelf-life as a “white-collared labourer” was short. He laid out my career trajectory as follows:
- I would spend the first five to seven years of my practice diligently acquiring and honing the skills needed to be a half-decent lawyer.
- Thereafter, after promotion to junior partner, I would have a maximum of two years to prove my rain-making skills before becoming too expensive and ripe for replacement by hungry and ambitious newly minted lawyers like yourself.
How depressing. There was truth in his words of discouragement though, and I did take away some sobering wisdom, which I now share with you.
If your goal is equity in a top firm, the question to ask is whether you have lived long enough to know what you are sacrificing for?
I started my legal career in Disputes, with a focus on Insurance Litigation. I was naturally drawn to that area of practice, because I was then heavily involved in migrant worker issues.
I envisaged myself fighting for justice for the underdog, working with clever and inspiring colleagues, and making a real difference to people’s lives. I thought that I would specialize in an area of law that would be meaningful and fulfilling, and earn decent money along the way too.
Then the gulf between expectation and reality hit me. I got bogged down by e-mails, meetings, paperwork, clients’ demands, timesheets, chasing invoices and trying desperately to meet my targets. Clients were triaged via other touchpoints within the firm, and my work did not involve much interaction with them. The focus was on written (rather than oral) advocacy. Making a case out of paper evidence did not always necessitate meeting the client in-person.
While this made sense for my boss’s business model, I felt that this did not play to my strengths as a relational person. I struggled both personally and professionally with an unfulfilled, deep-seated desire to connect with and help clients in a more personal manner, and I started to feel like my eight years of education (six years to obtain a double-degree and two years of training and bar exam) was wasted.
Back to the basics.
My turning point came when I took a sabbatical to review my options and return to the basic question of why I chose to enter this profession in the first place. I was reminded that laws set the framework for our daily interactions and enable the smooth functioning of society. They are therefore a shared asset of our society. As such, I wanted my legal practice to be client-centric, collaborative and inclusive in the process of bringing stakeholders to the table to find solutions.
I eventually moved on to a rising mid-size firm and worked with a forward-thinking boss who mentored me closely in Private-Client work. He gave me opportunities to hone my soft skills in networking and client engagement, and helped build up my comfort level in talking to people more senior than myself.
I also found a meaningful sideline, teaching law to non-law students at the Singapore University of Social Sciences, and helping to raise general legal literacy.
Rethinking the meaning of a legal career.
Every generation will be faced with its own set of challenges that will reshape how we do things.
The recent influential movement in applying Design Thinking to create access to justice has opened the doors to untold opportunities that barely existed five years ago when I first started practising. While entire industries (e.g. Uber & Grab) have been transformed, the legal industry is still very much tied down to centuries of traditions and precedents.
There are now so many legal-related careers which require a broad spectrum of skillsets in addition to a domain knowledge in law. COVID-19 has accelerated changes within the judiciary and private practice, creating even more opportunities. The industry needs to balance reliance on the tried and tested, with the need for solutions that are unique, innovative and disruptive.
As lawyers, we are attuned to perfection in an imperfect world. In reality, you only need to have a good work ethic, apply yourself and be unafraid of trial and error before you see some wonderful results.
I would encourage young lawyers to focus not on the limitations, but on the possibilities that the current pandemic brings.
Sometimes, the most successful people have the strangest resumes.
Starting something new.
In September 2019, I founded my own boutique Private-Client firm specialising in the law of Succession, Trusts, Estates & Mental Capacity (which we affectionately termed as “STEM Law in 2019). I started with zero clients, and out of my home – it was a leap of faith based on a vision of common good, and a belief in having skin in the game to put my ideas and values to the test. I wanted to practise in a progressive way for clients and the other counsel that we worked with.
As a new and small firm, I had full autonomy to weave technology and processes together to ensure the best client experience possible. I wanted to design a practice that served not only our clients, but my own team well too. That required a fundamental rethink of our business processes, to develop a model that generates income, works for our lifestyle, and allows us to serve clients with empathy when their interests align with ours.
Can Business Be More Than Just Business?
On one of my midnight jaunts to my local NTUC FairPrice supermarket, I spoke to the young Abang on night shift there.
I asked how he was doing, and he told me that he would soon be shifting out of the Lavender hotel that his employer had put him up in for the past four months, and moving to a cheaper hostel in Geylang, in anticipation of cuts to government assistance for Malaysians working in Singapore. Prior to the lockdown, he had commuted across the Causeway on a daily basis for work. He said that he missed his wife and four-year-old daughter, and shared that he was contemplating quitting his job to spend time with them back home in JB, before looking for other work again. In his words, “Jobs always have – it’s just whether you want to do or not”.
I was struck by how clearheaded he was in weighing the trade-offs and deciding on what was more important for him in this current season. Indeed, we are young but once – and how we choose to spend our youth is so important. Youth is a currency that we earn and lose in equal measure.
So, young lawyer, what’s most important to you?
If you want a financially rewarding career, you may well find that the grass is greener outside the legal profession.
If, however, you desire to hone an excellent and ethical legal practice, and hold fast to honesty, fairness and kindness in your dealings with the Court, your peers and your clients, I would say that the grass is greener where you water it.
As I enter the sixth year of my legal practice, I am thankful for my friends and family who remind me that bread can be had with dignity, but we must not sacrifice dignity for bread. Misguided aspirations may result in some people falling for the fallacy that greater dignity equals to more bread.
As you would have probably realised by now, to thrive and flourish in this profession, you will need a wider set of measures for success and happiness. I wish you the very best in staying true to your guiding values and forging your own path ahead. Congratulations again.