Dear newly minted advocates and solicitors of the Supreme Court of Singapore,
Heartiest congratulations – you persevered through law school, endured Part B, stayed the course for your training contract, tolerated your supervising solicitor and colleagues, and still managed to convince yourself to be called to the Singapore Bar. You deserve nothing less than a pat on your back. Now what’s next?
Equipping Yourself Professionally
Learning about the law does not stop as soon as you graduate from law school and pass the Bar! In fact, as a young lawyer starting out in practice, you should continue to build your knowledge and gain expertise not only in your current practice areas, but also in areas of the law that you personally find interesting but may yet have the opportunity to work on. Do not confine yourself to the usual textbooks and treatises, but read widely across a range of platforms – blog posts, magazines, law review articles, and commentaries from leading practitioners. The Law Society’s monthly online publication – Singapore Law Gazette – provides plenty of articles and commentaries on a wide range of legal related topics ranging from black letter law and practice management to personal and career development.
If you have an interest in a new, developing area of the law, be proactive and contribute articles to the Singapore Law Gazette, your firm’s client newsletter (if there is one) or even start your own blog. Writing a few articles and blog posts about your preferred area of the law and actively building thought leadership in this area can go a long way in increasing your value to your law firm, as well as demonstrating to potential clients your subject matter knowledge in an emerging/developing area of the law.
The legal profession is not spared from the accelerating disruption that is sweeping across industries and threatening professions. Today’s lawyers, particularly young lawyers, need to be cognisant of the impact of technology on the practice of law and acquaint yourselves with the various legal tech tools available. Thankfully many local law firms have jumped on the legal-tech bandwagon and have or are employing legal tech solutions in areas such as legal research, document and practice management. The tech divide between NewLaw and BigLaw has narrowed. As a young lawyer, you can look forward to tech relieving you of the mandate tasks of lawyering and focus on high-value adding work, provided you are first proficient with these tech tools. Attend training seminars and workshops to keep yourself updated on developments in the legal tech scene, and even equipping yourself with skills such as basic coding and programming, will prove to clients that you are able to “walk the talk”.
The Law Society has dedicated resources under our Legal Productivity and Innovation (LPI) Department to assist Singapore law firms and lawyers with matters relating to adoption of technology and implementation of innovative business ideas. Do spend some time checking out our LPI microsite to see how we can assist you and your law firm in your tech adoption journey. On the microsite, you can also read tech and innovation-related articles written by our Legal Research and Development (LRD) Department. Recent articles outline the experiences of some Singapore law firms with legal tech adoption and provide highlights of the Tech-celerate for Law Conference that was held on 15 May 2019 to commemorate the launch of the Law Society’s Tech-celerate for Law programme and the SmartLaw Guild.
While being tech-savvy is especially critical, the so-called “traditional” skills remain just as relevant. Essential traits such as interpersonal skills, adaptability, initiative and a willingness to re-examine the status quo will continue to remain relevant for legal professionals, as is a deep expertise in the law. You may also question whether it is wiser to specialise or be a generalist. A generalist teaches one to be adaptable and flexible, but at the cost of developing extensive knowledge in a particular area. There may not be a straightforward answer as much will depend on your inclinations and strengths. You will need to frequently assess your goals as these may change with experiences encountered during practice, and play an important part in determining the next career move. For example, is the prestige and stability of working in a large firm still an attractive option? Or is working in a smaller firm, which could give you more opportunities for developing client care, decision-making skills and other soft skills, the more attractive option?
However, young lawyers should also take heart in the fact that even if you choose not to continue in practice, you will acquire many other valuable soft skills in the course of practice that will stand you in good stead in any job or industry, such as project management skills, interpersonal skills, and attention to detail.
Finally, keep an open mind and listen to different perspectives, particularly from those who have “been there, done that”. If you can find a trusted mentor, it will certainly give you a leg up in your career. The Law Society runs PracMentor, a scheme under where young lawyers may seek guidance and advice from a senior volunteer lawyer on practice issues. You can read more about it here.
Ensuring Your Own Safety and Well-being
In the early years of your career in legal practice, it is almost inevitable that you will face gruelling hours, tight deadlines, and demanding clients (these will certainly not suddenly vapourise as you become more senior but you are likely to cope better with them given a bit of experience). These factors can take a toll on many young lawyers who may find yourselves struggling to meet demands and pressures from all corners. It helps to remind yourself that work is just one part of your life. Rather than seeking to achieve the often elusive work-life balance ideal, aim for a “whole-life balance”. This means seeking avenues to enjoy your work while setting aside quality time with your friends and loved ones, as well as time to focus on your health and well-being through adequate sleep, exercise, nutrition, as well as leisurely pursuits outside of work.
While advocating whole-life balance, the Law Society is cognisant of the fact that some of our members are not just facing issues of over-working but even trickier matters of sexual harassment and bullying. In 2018, the International Bar Association (IBA) launched a survey investigating how sexual harassment and bullying affect legal workplaces; this survey received responses from almost 7,000 legal professionals in 135 countries. The results of the survey were subsequently published by the IBA in a report in May 2019. It found that bullying and sexual harassment is rife in legal workplaces, and almost universally experienced across jurisdictions – one in two female respondents and one in three male respondents had been bullied during their legal career; sexual harassment affected one in three female respondents and one in 14 male respondents. The results also confirmed that younger members of the profession are disproportionately impacted by bullying and sexual harassment.
Law firms are high stress environments where time and patience may be in short supply. Tempers will flare up inevitably over work related matters, and that is (with few exceptions) part and parcel of law firm life. The commonly dispensed advice not to take scolding from your bosses “personally” is sound advice if the criticism is targeted at your work instead of devaluing you as a person.
However, it is also a reality that the same high stress environment often facilitates bullying. The difficulty lies in ascertaining when harsh treatment shades over into bullying. Bullying does not necessarily have to involve a physical component but can also include threats or acts of intimidation, humiliation and deliberate provocation. In this regard, an Amicus Agony article in June 2019 of the Singapore Law Gazette featured a first-year associate experiencing verbal abuse on a daily basis from a senior partner. The article outlined possible steps that the associate could take to address the situation if he/she believed that he/she was a victim of bullying.
One indication may be when the criticisms or scolding are aimed at factors that are unrelated to your work (e.g. comments about your weight and appearance). You may also be the target of bullying when you are subject to harsher treatment than your peers in a similar situation. As for sexual harassment, this includes unwanted and unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature (including physical, verbal or non-verbal conduct such as sending of inappropriate text messages or unsolicited images through text/social media), that creates an intimidating, hostile, abusive or offensive working environment.
If you feel that you might be the victim of bullying and/or sexual harassment, you should seek the views of friends and colleagues you can trust to obtain a balanced viewpoint on your concerns and where necessary, respectfully and calmly bring the matter to the attention of your firm’s HR department. You should also consult the Law Society’s various pastoral schemes which can be accessed through a centralised, dedicated and confidential hotline – Members Assistance and Care Helpline at 6530 0213 or via an e-mail to [email protected].
Giving Back Through Pro Bono
Pro bono is as much a part of legal practice as it has been during law school. If you are looking for pro bono opportunities and wish to further access to justice for all, the Law Society, through our wholly owned charity-subsidiary, the Law Society Pro Bono Services (LSPBS) invites you to join them as a volunteer.
- pro bono legal assistance for the most disadvantaged in the community as well as for organisations serving the needy;
- support for lawyers undertaking pro bono work; and
- support for other organisations engaged in access to justice initiatives.
Key initiatives include:
- Law awareness programmes that reach out to members of the public to increase understanding of how the law applies in their daily lives through free public legal education talks, booklets and collateral; collaborations with agencies such as NTUC, the Community Development Councils and People’s Association;
- Community Legal Clinics which offer free basic legal advice to members of the public who are facing a legal issue on personal matters and do not have access to legal advice or representation.
- The Criminal Legal Aid Scheme (CLAS) which offers pro bono criminal defence representation for needy accused persons regardless of nationality.
- The Ad Hoc Pro Bono Assistance Scheme which offers legal representation for persons with exceptional circumstances who do not meet the criteria for existing legal aid schemes but nonetheless are in urgent need.
- Community Organisation Clinics/Project Law Help which assists community organisations (including registered charities and social enterprises) by offering free basic legal advice on operational issues for community organisations in Singapore that have an objective to meet community concerns or needs. Legal assistance is also rendered under Project Law Help to cover pro bono corporate transactional assistance in addition to legal advice for eligible community organisations.
Going forward, LSPBS will be launching new schemes for vulnerable groups such as Project LEAF (Legal Empowerment and Assistance for Foreign Spouses), legal assistance for migrant workers and foreign domestic workers, as well as a Poverty Simulation Exercise which aims to help legal professionals grow in empathy and better understand the problems of inequality.
LSPBS works closely with and provides support to various social service organisations and non-profit organisations. Given the wide range of volunteering opportunities and initiatives under LSPBS, many practising lawyers have set aside hours (or even days) to volunteer and contribute directly to the well-being of the needy. Join them, and LSPBS, in serving the wider community. Sign up with an e-mail to [email protected].