Why Do So Many Young Lawyers Leave Practice, and is This a Problem?
Just one year into the practice of law, I have noticed that several of my peers have left, or are thinking of leaving the profession. I spoke to a former schoolmate recently who resigned from his job as a junior associate in a big law firm after just a few months. He planned to pursue a role in the media industry. He was a first-class honours law student, and from my impression of him in law school, was more than capable of becoming a successful lawyer. When I asked him why he left, he said his biggest gripe was the working hours – his weeknights and weekends were all burnt as a junior associate.
Another newly qualified lawyer I know resigned from his job, took a coding boot camp course and intended to switch careers to become a full-time software engineer. His reasons for leaving were toxic bosses/colleagues, lack of guidance, unmeaningful and uninspiring work and a general feeling that the legal industry was too saturated and competitive.
These people have invested so much time, money and effort to get qualified – and it is astounding (to me) that they are willing to leave all that behind to pursue something else. Was their short-lived taste of the practice of the law that bad? Does this mean there is something wrong with the practice of law in Singapore, and do we need to make some changes?
The rate at which young lawyers are leaving practice could pose these problems:
- Senior lawyers/law firms become less incentivized to mentor/invest in their junior lawyers because they fear the junior lawyers may not stay for long.
- The constant attrition and turnover contribute to inefficiencies in legal practice, as time has to be spent training new hires and getting them up to speed with the existing matters. This may translate into higher legal costs for clients/lesser profits for law firms.
- Outflow of talent from the legal profession, which may impede Singapore’s ambitions to be the legal hub of Asia.
There are, however, several other factors to be considered:
- Not all people who go through the steps to become qualified lawyers do so intending to practise for the long term. There will therefore be a group of people who will leave practice upon qualification or soon thereafter regardless of how good or bad practice is because that was their intention all along.
- The complaints made about legal practice are not unique; they apply to many other industries. Unhappy workers and attrition exist in every industry.
- There are many alternative career options available for young lawyers today, which may have contributed to their leaving practice. For instance, roles for junior lawyers in legal technology companies, legal operations and compliance teams, amongst others, have popped up. In-house legal roles are also increasingly more accessible to junior lawyers, even those fresh out of law school.
In any case, some would argue that young lawyers leaving practice is not necessarily a bad thing, either for practice or for the society/economy at large:
- There is a glut of young lawyers as it is.
- The young lawyers are not wasting their skills and knowledge – they are bringing the skills they gained in the process of becoming qualified lawyers and applying them to other industries.
My view is that, for the sake of long-term sustainability of the profession, young lawyers leaving practice early is a problem that deserves looking into.
A Fellow Young Lawyer
Member, Young Lawyers Committee
The Law Society of Singapore