Help! I Want to Stay in Law Practice!
If I were to be admitted as a lawyer today, I may not go into private law practice. The young lawyer of today has many interesting options – law practice is but one of them. So, I applaud those of you who are joining law practice – be it in a large, medium sized or small boutique law firm – in the midst of the Great Resignation facing us today.
I have spoken to many trainees and young lawyers over the years. Some have shared that they are entering law practice to give it a try and see how they enjoy it. What you have heard from your seniors and other lawyers could be that the hours are long, you work in difficult environments and face demanding clients. That is true but at the same time, it also depends on how you manage the rigours of law practice and how much you like it. Anecdotally, a typical young lawyer may not practise in a law firm for more than an average of two to three years or may leave the legal profession after that.
Some move to a few law firms before they discover a suitable fit, others seek legal counsel positions, join the Legal Service, move to international law firms or leave the legal industry altogether. It is likely that you may fit into this demographic of lawyers. Today, there is a growing trend of young lawyers who, after acquiring a few years of experience in a large law firm, leave to set up firms of their own together with friends. They bring fresh perspectives to law practice and serve niche clients in different areas of law. They have shared that they enjoy the autonomy in the kind of work they take on and the way they run their law practice.
Is any one of these options the better or the best one? Yes, but only if you like it.
When I was admitted as a lawyer, I told myself I would try out law practice for three years and assess my options thereafter. I joined a large law firm and spent six years there. I was not very happy, but the work kept me busy and the third year mark slipped by quietly. I then had a wish to be an entrepreneur. After I left the law firm, I decided that I should run a law firm as that is the business I know most about.
I have been running my own law firm for the last 19 years. I am fascinated by the business aspects of a law firm and family law practice, the area that I am most passionate about. The rigours of running a law firm are different from law practice and I still dreamt of leaving law one day. Well-meaning friends, however, advised me that I am good in my work and I should continue to help more clients.
It was only about three years ago that I was finally convinced that running a boutique family law firm is my calling. It was only when the conviction became clear that I enjoyed getting up every morning to go to work.
People who know me have often heard me speak about the why of becoming a lawyer. This question ought to be asked during the many turning points in a person’s career. When we are fully satisfied with our answers (and don’t be worried when the answers keep on changing), then we discover our passion. Passion is so crucial as it drives us in what we do. When we are passionate about our work, the issues of work-life balance, the long hours and the challenges we face become secondary. We keep on working at our craft to hone our skills and become a successful lawyer. There are many such young lawyers in our midst.
If you discover that your passion lies in something else, I say – go for it. And should the passion change, move on and do another different thing. There are many lawyers who left the legal profession and returned to it later on. There are others who have done very well outside of law, and made significant contributions in their chosen fields.
I am also often asked how to sustain oneself in a law practice. Traits such as being humble, the willingness to make mistakes, ability to accept criticism and reprimands from superiors and focussing on the learning points from these experiences are a must-have.
The best advice I received from my supervising solicitor 26 years ago is still relevant to me today – “Look at the client’s problem as if it is your own problem or that of your loved ones. You will then find many ways to solve it”. Placing ourselves in the client’s shoes and walking in it will make us understand his feelings and perspectives about the problem.
The stress caused by clients’ expectations and demands will become bearable if we learn how to manage clients. I would even say that clients undergoing marital or personal problems are the most difficult clients to manage. Even today I am still learning lessons on client management. I don’t think that managing difficult clients is that much different from managing difficult family members. If we learn to manage such family members, we can apply the same principles to managing clients. For me, I have learnt to manage family and loved ones better as a result of managing difficult clients!
I also hear about the importance of work-life balance from young lawyers. I do not deny that having time for ourselves and focussing on other aspects of our life is important. The question is whether we live in a society that enables us to have work-life balance. The answer is a clear no. It is not possible to demarcate time for work and personal life. There is, however, a shift now to work-life integration and this is a more tenable approach. This concept is about finding time for work and life at the same time. At times, we need to focus on life when there are pressing demands on us and at other times, work may need more attention from us.
The pandemic has shown us that the hybrid model of working both in the office and at home can help us to achieve work-life integration. Young lawyers can discuss a work arrangement with their bosses that allows them to focus on work and life at the same time. As employers, we are often encouraged to create such feasible work environments for our staff. A conducive work environment could support young lawyers to enjoy law practice better.
In the past, I have dismissed my emotions and tried to focus only on my work. It made me feel frustrated and unhappy about law practice. Taking time to focus on our mental well-being is important. Recently, I have discovered that listening to my innermost feelings and thoughts, and finding ways to deal with them makes me feel better and be more motivated in my law practice.
There are also frequent complaints that all that young lawyers do is work and they have no time for other pursuits. Find time to do what you enjoy. It is possible and a must-do. It can be playing a sport, engaging in a favourite past-time or meeting friends. This helps you to recharge and return to work in a better frame of mind.
There is much support for young lawyers today. Look up the pastoral care and career guidance programmes run by the Law Society. Finally, as an employer, I can tell you – we want young lawyers to succeed in law practice. We do not want to or enjoy making your life difficult. Like you, we have many competing demands on our time – we too are subject to the demands of clients, have to spend time bringing in business to the firm, focus on overheads and take care of our lawyers and staff.
You are the future of the legal profession. You have a very important role of assisting clients to solve legal problems so that society can continue to function. You are the voice for the weak and the disadvantaged members of our society. Being a lawyer is a privilege and a calling.
Welcome to the Bar!