To Be Or Not to Be
Law Society President Adrian Tan has raised the perennial problem of young lawyers not staying long on the legal course. This reminds me of my own legal journey. Next month will mark my 25 years in law. And it was not supposed to be this way.
At 18, I wanted to become a social worker. My father gently prodded me into law. I then told myself, I will practise for three years only. By the time I looked back, six years in a top law firm had passed. I was not happy during the six years, but I kept at it. The days were long and there was much to do.
A new dream started to grow – to be an entrepreneur and run my own firm. I have been running my own firm since I was 37 till today. Even then the thought of leaving law was in my mind many times after I started my firm. It was only after I turned 50 that it became clear that I was in law practice for the long term.
For a very long time, I have been fascinated about what makes the millennials tick. Lately, I became worried about the future of the legal profession where millennials will become leaders of the Bar. I have interacted with interns, trainees and young associates for many years. In recent years, I have also been providing career guidance and mentorship to young lawyers. I was pleasantly surprised to learn that the young lawyers who chose to remain in practice are hungry to do well and are very concerned about their career progression. Some even lose sleep over it.
I am from a different generation of lawyers. I had held only one job before I started the firm. The only way we know how to practise law is the traditional way. We did what we were told and just worked. We did not question our bosses and we were not too focused on our values, looking for change or gaining new experiences. We just worked long hours, over weekends, public holidays and during our annual leave.
I confess that the only way I knew how to run a law practice was to follow the working style of the only law firm I had worked in. It took me many years to realise that this will not work in the current working environment. So, I only changed my way of managing lawyers in the last five years. As bosses, we not only have to change the way we work with our young lawyers but we must also know how to do so. We do not understand millennials, the way they think and work. In turn, the young lawyers do not understand us, seniors either. So, there is an understanding gap and to close this, both sides have to engage in transparent, open and frank conversations. This conversation is urgent and important as it will not only foster a strong working relationship with each other, but young lawyers may stay the course for longer. This is the only way we can make some inroads with this hotly discussed issue.
There are some facets of law practice which are constant – the way the courts function and client expectations. Legal work cannot be completed within usual office hours. As bosses, we are also in a conundrum. We are sandwiched between the courts, clients and the junior lawyers.
How can senior and junior lawyers co-exist together? Firstly, we can admit that we are very different and will not agree with each other’s values, thoughts and ways of working. Senior lawyers can be more understanding, and accept that junior lawyers will not work like we did and will not tolerate us like how we did of our bosses. Junior lawyers seem to think that they know the intricacies of lawyering well. Junior lawyers can, however, whilst upholding their individuality and capabilities, learn how to become good and effective lawyers from their seniors. They must accept that they don’t know everything, and be willing to learn from us in areas of legal drafting, crafting strategies for cases and managing clients.
Law schools, besides teaching law, ought to prepare their students for the practice of law so that the students are clear about their career options. During the initial years of law practice, junior lawyers need a lot of support, not only from their peers and the members of the law firm, but from their families as well. If family members expect the junior lawyers to keep good working hours and be there for them at all times, this as I have seen, creates dilemmas for young lawyers. It takes a village to support young lawyers.
Everyone can do their part to support young lawyers to remain in the legal profession for as long as they can. However, let us not fret over too much if they leave. Like all employees everywhere, lawyers will leave, return, leave and the cycle continues. This is the norm and we have to accept it.