Walk Out, or Work It Out: How to Stay Motivated in the Legal Sector
In the Opening of Legal Year in 2014, Lok Vi Ming, SC – the then-President of the Singapore Law Society – cited that “three out of four local lawyers leave practice in the first 10 years of practice”.1 See <https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/3-out-of-4-local-lawyers-leave-practice-in-the-first-10-years-of-practising-lawsoc> (last accessed 7 December 2018).
It is a staggering statistic, but not a fantastical one; I have seen my own fair share of lawyers growing disillusioned with the realities of the legal sector, some of whom are my friends who were called to the Bar in the same year as I was five years ago.
The Stresses of Law
Over the course of five years, these 10 friends have all embraced different trajectories in life since becoming practitioners of Law.
- Three of them are now in-house legal consultants for various corporate entities.
- Another three have (like me) either ventured into setting up their own practice or risen to become partners and directors of small law firms.
- Two have risen to become senior associates in big firms.
- The last two have left practice entirely, choosing to become investment bankers instead.
It bears mentioning that the two senior associates have recently been contemplating the possibility of leaving practice as well. If they subsequently do embrace the idea, it would mean that more than half of my peers would have elected to turn away from practice altogether, thereby reinforcing Mr Lok’s assessment.
Their wavering commitment is understandable. The long work hours, hectic schedules and challenging clients can indeed be a turn-off for many practitioners, especially those new to the field.
Like me, you most likely have had days where you wondered if going through Law school was worth it at all. Perhaps the thought is swimming in your head right now. Some of you already know that your time in this industry is up, and that you already have plans to move on. In that case, I wish you the best of luck in your future endeavours.
But if you’re merely feeling tired and demotivated, read on.
Working It Out
It is possible that you are still interested in some aspects of practicing Law, but feel overwhelmed with the demands of your work. This is natural; the management of stress is part and parcel of any job across all industries, be it medical, finance or even education.
There are two qualities you will need if you wish to remain practising Law:
- your willingness to learn; and
- your commitment to your choice of career.
If you think you possess both of these: Congratulations! You are just facing another hump on the road for now, but you will get through it eventually.
I am no stranger to stress and have experienced self-doubt at some points in my career. The setbacks I have faced and the obstacles encountered seemed insurmountable at times, but because I cannot envision myself in another career that I would perform better in or would grant me a better sense of satisfaction, I chose to remain in Law. That, combined with an open mind towards learning new skills has enabled me to overcome them.
With that said, I have since found that keeping a few bits of advice in mind can allow one to have a considerably less stressful career in Law.
Keeping the Right Mind-Set
Are you a glass half-full or half-empty type of person? Do you believe that the grass is always greener on the other side?
As people, we often view undesirable results in a negative light. When our bosses suddenly dump work on us on a Friday, we grumble because we imagine they are keeping us away from an early weekend. Got chided by the judge today? Obviously, we were unduly punished because he/she was in a bad mood so on and so forth.
It goes without saying that negative thoughts influence negative emotions, which invite even more negative thoughts that worsen your mood further. To stop that from happening, consider changing your mind-set to a more positive one. Your boss is giving you another affidavit to work on this Friday because it is urgent, and he trusts you enough to get the job done with minimal delay. The judge might still be in a sour mood, but they are also correcting your mistakes and thus training you in proper court procedure as a result.
When you change your mind-set, you will soon discover that every undesirable outcome can be a chance to learn and therefore not something to get upset about. Keep it up, and you will find yourself improving in ways you have never thought of before.
Rome was not built in a day. Similarly, you would not become a superstar lawyer immediately even if you burn the midnight oil for three straight days, so don’t. Go home when you need to, have a good rest and come back the next day with a clear head and a refreshed spirit. Looking ahead, be sure to budget some days to take time off work and go on a break.
As simple as this advice might be, the unfortunate reality is that most of us will more than likely ignore it in favour of work.
Sometimes it is due to the fact that your peers in the same firm are engaging in a silent game of “Chicken” – whoever goes home first is the weaker lawyer. This is more prevalent in larger firms, and is arguably detrimental for everyone involved, including your firm. Not only does it promote an unhealthy lifestyle amongst the lawyers (ie, irregular mealtimes and lack of sleep can be potential health hazards), some studies have also shown that productivity actually decreases in the office after a certain length of time, making all that overtime worthless for you and the firm.
With that said, the more plausible explanation for lawyers being workaholics is that there is simply too much work to be done. I am guilty of this sometimes, as I would lug my files back home to work on over a quiet weekend. But again, moderation is key, and frequent breaks are a must. Weekends are meant to be enjoyed, after all!
Getting the Family’s Support
It can be difficult to remain committed as a practicing lawyer if you find yourself torn between work and family obligations. With loved ones to care for, the long hours and stresses of work no longer affect you alone; your family will also find themselves having to live within your schedule as well.
This problem gets considerably tougher with more dependants in your family. Your elderly parents will need to go for doctor’s visits alone. Your children’s parent-teacher sessions will require careful scheduling, or your spouse will need to shoulder more responsibility in your stead. And you will have to juggle your free time between spending it with them, or with your files on the next major case.
The solution to all this? Talk to them and seek an understanding. A supportive family will allow you to pursue your career goals to your fullest extent by taking care of things at home. Your spouse’s support will matter most in the long run, as he/she is your counterpart in family matters and can attend to pressing issues while you are away.
At the same time, however, be sure to give them your attention whenever possible. After all, what good is career success when you have no one to share it with?
Harmony at Work
If your office is filled with people you can collaborate effectively with and whose company you enjoy, why would you ever dread going to work?
Without going into details, I can say from personal experience that harmony at the workplace is often overlooked, yet contributes so much to productivity and morale that more firms should be actively taking office cohesion into account. I have witnessed situations where colleagues within arm’s-length refuse to speak to each other, going so far as passive sabotage for petty revenge’s sake. On the other hand, I have also had the absolute pleasure of meeting co-workers that have since become lifelong friends.
Constructing a law firm that prioritises harmony at work is difficult, but not impossible. My current firm – MSC Law Corporation – is just one such example. We regularly arrange get-togethers and meals that allow us to bond closer together, which translates to even better synergy and cohesion when it comes to work.
Know Your Maths
This last bit of advice is more about enhancing your image as a rainmaker. It is easy to be a workhorse. Your boss assigns you work, and you attend to it, passing it back to them when you are done. And then they give you some more. Rinse and repeat.
But you cannot be a workhorse forever, because workhorses are a dime a dozen and your salary will stagnate. Why would they pay you more when they can just hire someone else that asks for less? So, if you are aiming to receive a better income, start thinking about becoming a rainmaker. These people are important because firms will wither without new clients.
First, you will need to know if your firm is generating sufficient income from the files you are involved in. Then think about these questions: (i) Are you the one who brought in the file? (ii) Are you up-to-date with your billings? (iii) Has the client paid off these invoices rendered yet?
Bear in mind that it is not the number of billable hours accrued, but how much you have assisted your firm in the acquisition of these bills that matter. Harnessing the skill to be a rainmaker is important, as you will then be in the right frame of mind to sustain yourself in this competitive legal industry.
The life of a law practitioner can be tough, but it is definitely not a harrowing experience that you may be imagining. Challenges abound but only because the rewards are sweet, and not all of it monetary in essence; perhaps you will come to love a career in Law just as much as I do.
|↑1||See <https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/3-out-of-4-local-lawyers-leave-practice-in-the-first-10-years-of-practising-lawsoc> (last accessed 7 December 2018).|