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The Singapore Law Gazette

President’s Message

Recently, I hosted the Presidents of Law Associations of Asia, or POLA, in Singapore. This is an annual international conference of legal industry leaders. But the pandemic halted POLA meetings for two years. This September, Singapore was fortunate in being able to host POLA in person. This is a summary of my keynote speech at the event. It’s about having fun.

These two years have raised an important issue faced by our profession.

It concerns the demand for talent, and the need for renewal.

During the lockdown, people began to re-examine how they were living their lives. This examination was especially acute among the young. They were the ones who had only just begun their working lives.

Before the pandemic, they would have had a period of orientation and adjustment. They would have sat side by side with their colleagues, bantered with them over meals and formed bonds as they worked together on files. They would have accompanied their seniors at meetings, assisted them at hearings, and learnt through observation as legal work was carried out.

Because, after all, for young lawyers, training happens in the gaps and spaces between cases and tasks. It is in those gaps and spaces that questions are asked and answered, that jokes are told, that friendships are made. As hard as legal practice is, young lawyers were also able to see the fun side of it: the meals and drinks together, the shared hardships when rushing to meet a deadline, the celebration of wins.

The class of 2020 and 2021 lost all that mentorship and camaraderie.

So, it is no surprise that they look at law firm culture differently from previous generations.

A UK survey revealed that the average associate attrition rate for the “top 1,000 law firms in England and Wales” increased from 10.44% in 2020 to 14.31% in 2021. That’s a 37% increase over a single year.

A US survey showed that the average associate attrition rate in top law firms was reported to be 16% before the pandemic, and 27% in 2021 — a staggering 61% increase.

One study found that out of every 20 lawyers hired by a law firm, 15 would leave within six years.

And the data shows it’s mostly the younger lawyers who are moving, with many leaving private practice altogether.

One global survey shows that 70% of corporate lawyers and 58% of law firm lawyers say they are very to somewhat likely to leave their current position in the next year.

Here in Singapore, we see similar trends. We have fewer young lawyers staying the course.

Through conversations with senior lawyers in Asia, I understand that the situation is the same in countries in the region.

New lawyers are vital to the industry. They rejuvenate the profession. They are the leaders of tomorrow. I hope, during this conference, we can discuss ways to attract them to stay the course. Legal practice is hard. It requires time and patience. What changes can we make to ensure that the lawyers of tomorrow will choose law as a lifelong pursuit?

One way is through technology.

The pandemic changed how and where professionals work.

A senior lawyer told me that, when he was a junior, he was expected to be at the office whenever his seniors were there.

Today, it’s the opposite. The senior lawyer says that it is now he who must ask juniors whether they intend to be in the office on a weekday, during working hours. And, the answer is not always a “yes”.

The truth is that, after the pandemic, young lawyers have tasted a new way of working: they work from home, with flexible hours. And they have become accustomed to it. As a matter of survival, they have had to structure their lives around working from home. This is understandable, as the pandemic forced them into a new way of working. The pandemic also made them pay a heavy price: the new way of working involved them being on-call, and expected to respond to e-mails, attend meetings and do work at all hours of the day.

The result? After two years of working from home, interacting through video calls and generally working outside the traditional 9 to 5, young people have quickly evolved to cope with the demands of that unusual style of work.

Today, an increasing number of young lawyers favour law firms who support that way of working: hybrid or full-time remote.

One survey suggests that 69% of corporate lawyers and 72% of law firm lawyers expect to work remotely from home all or part of the time going forward.

Thus, in searching for an employer, the young lawyer of today will consider if the employer has the flexibility to allow for work-from-home arrangements.

Again, this is understandable. It’s quite difficult to make human beings switch from one mode of working to another. For older lawyers, this is not an issue, as we have had years, maybe decades, of working in the office, and we are simply returning to something that we consider to be “normal”. But the issue is acute when we consider juniors who have started their careers working from home, without ever having had the experience of life in the office.

Be that as it may, technology has become a major factor in attracting talent. Employers must set up systems to facilitate the need or desire for employees to work from home.

Other important factors include hiring policies that emphasise diversity and inclusion. Young lawyers want to be proud of the law firms they belong to. They are more prepared to speak up, sometimes in social media, if their employers fall short. This has made law firms update their attitudes towards issues of inclusion, bullying and harassment, among other things.

To me, it all boils down to this:

Before the pandemic, we could show young lawyers the fun side of practice.

During the pandemic, young lawyers saw only how fun it was for them to stay at home.

They didn’t have a chance to understand that meeting your colleagues, working together with them, and socializing with them, also had its attractions. They didn’t have the opportunity to see that legal practice, before the pandemic, had its enjoyable and satisfying moments. For our part, as seniors, employers, or leaders, we failed to show our younger colleagues the value of working together, in person, on legal work. Human beings are social animals. Building relationships, team spirit, and firm culture – all these are best done in person, not over Zoom. Now that the pandemic is over, how can we build teams, build law firms, and build relationships, once again?

That is the challenge for law firms today.

We must now be bold, and re-imagine the law firm of the future, one that fits the needs and wants of the next generation, while showing the next generation the value of collaborating in person. What’s at stake? If we fail, we will lose a generation of legal talent.

For their sake and ours, we must make practising law fun again.

President (January 2022 to July 2023)
The Law Society of Singapore