Hearty congratulations to the newly-called lawyers of the 2020 Mass Call! You would have been among the pioneer batch to receive the Law Society’s first ever Mass Call e-Goody bag and I certainly hope you will enjoy the benefits and privileges we have specially curated for you.
Last month in my Law Gazette message, I had shared details of the responses we received from our membership-wide survey on the impact of COVID-19, which was conducted from 13 May to 31 May 2020. (An infographic on the results was shared with all members on 12 June.) The purpose of this survey was to obtain feedback from our members on their work-from-home (WFH) experiences and to better understand how COVID-19 has impacted the economic health of law firms in Singapore and the mental well-being of members.
This being our annual Mass Call dedicated edition, I will share with newly-called lawyers salient parts of our survey results which will impact them in more direct ways.
Given what we have already heard in mass media regarding the devastating impact of COVID-19 economies around the world, when it comes to the impact on our law firms’ economic health, it is unsurprising that 70 per cent had experienced a decrease in workload. Even for the 10 per cent who face an increased workload, it was doubtful if such increase would translate to more fees, as it was evident that clients were constrained by tighter purse strings. Nonetheless, it was helpful for us to be able to identify through the survey the top five practice areas which experienced an increase in workload so that we can assist members to pivot to these areas – family law, commercial litigation, bankruptcy and insolvency law, employment law, landlord and tenant law. Newly called lawyers may wish to consider venturing into these practice areas should such an opportunity present itself. We are also seeking to identify other practice areas not already on this list which may experience a “revival” of sorts in the post-pandemic era and in so doing, assist law firms in maintaining a thriving practice.
The very same survey also identified the pressing concerns law firms were facing due to the economic disruption caused by COVID-19. Forty-six (46) per cent fretted about a reduction in revenue, 34% about an inability to seek new clients and new work, 32% about a cashflow crunch, 28 per cent about actual or possible pay cuts and 27 per cent about an inability to provide usual service to clients. We certainly hope that the Phase 1 and Phase 2 of our Extraordinary Relief Package have already brought some relief to our members (Phase 1 was announced at the start of the survey on 13 May and Phase 2 right after its close on 2 June). We were deliberate to ensure that newly called lawyers benefited disproportionately from our ERP by refunding 100 per cent of their PC fees. The complete survey result pertaining to such economic disruption is currently being studied by the Economic Action Council who will work with Secretariat to propose measures to alleviate the firms’ pressing concerns.
On the popularity of the various forms of assistance extended by the Law Society to our members, 68 per cent valued free or subsidised CPD activities, 57 per cent welcomed discounted membership fees while 42 per cent felt that technology subsidies or grants were of assistance.
Non-monetary forms of value-add provided by the Law Society were also given due credit by some respondents – 32 per cent acknowledged that lobbying for legislative changes was helpful and 26 per cent found our updates on government regulations and advisories useful. Junior lawyers in particular should avail yourselves of our complimentary CPD webinars during the second half of 2020 and take the first steps towards carving out a niche for yourselves in a practice area (or two) as well as upskilling yourselves in the essential areas of professional ethics, risk management and business development.
Our members are proving to be an innovative and resilient bunch by their willingness to diversify beyond services offered by a traditional law practice structure if afforded the opportunity. Forty-six (46) per cent would consider providing legal services via an online marketplace whilst 32 per cent would be open to “smart contracts”, 30 per cent to independent legal service start-ups using disruptive technology and 17 per cent to technology incubators. Sixty (60) per cent also thought that wider adoption of technology around the world in response to COVID-19 lockdowns would potentially offer new opportunities, resulting in 49 per cent expressing a keen interest on a post-pandemic expansion in their international practice. Such data will guide us in our engagement with regulators regarding possible legislative amendments to allow for the operations of alternative legal service providers (ALSPs) as well as in our continued delivery of the “Lawyers Go Global” programme to aid members in expanding your international practice even as we face travel restrictions and other similar constraints during this period.
Another critical aspect of our survey pertains to the mental well-being of our members. This is an area that the Law Society has been focusing our resources on especially in the recent years to ensure that our members are not just cared for in the area of their professional affairs but their emotional, psychological and social well-being. Twenty-seven (27) per cent of our survey respondents reported moderate to severe adverse impact on their mental well-being as a result of COVID-19 and experienced stress symptoms such as anxiety, fatigue and disrupted sleep.
The self-awareness demonstrated by these respondents was encouraging as it signalled the first step towards achieving an improved state of mental well-being. Instead of pushing negative emotions onto the back burner and disregarding them, it is far more productive to identify and accept our feelings and then seek constructive ways of responding. Part of mindfulness, a technique proven to be effective in dealing with stress, is about maintaining a moment-by-moment awareness of our thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations and surrounding environment. The circuit breaker, travel restrictions and safe management measures have turned the lives of many of us topsy-turvy; there is little doubt about that and it will be futile to pretend that life is as-usual. Even for those who are coping better than most (whether it is because we are in the “right” practice area or job, are more introverted, more tech savvy or simply enjoy the good fortune of staying in a larger residence) the new normal still takes some adjusting to and relationships with others now demand a higher-than-usual dose of empathy. Acknowledging the impact on your mental well-being means that you can now think about the steps you need to take to contain the fall-out. On our part, we are raising awareness through our Practice Well CPD programmes of the Mindful Business Charter, an initiative started in the UK by in-house legal teams and their outside law firms which is aimed at removing unnecessary stress in the work lives of lawyers through behavioural change based on best-practice principles, as well as making available to members a holistic suite of practice support and well-being schemes.
For the newly-called, please do not subscribe to the belief that you are destined to be part of the “lost COVID generation”. If you find yourself currently without a job, do not accept the generalisation that not being employed equates to eventual loss of employable skills which binds you in a vicious cycle of unemployment. It is my genuine conviction that what changes the narrative is what you do when you are not officially holding down a job. Are you idling or expanding your professional capabilities, whether through formal classroom training (physical or virtual), volunteering or taking on short-term paid assignments? Are you retreating into your cave or growing your professional network and building up your personal brand? Such is the resilience of the human spirit that we are surely capable of overcoming the current adversity. We will then be well-placed for fresh opportunities that will come with the post-pandemic recovery, whatever the shape of that recovery curve.