Revisiting the Attrition of Young Lawyers in Singapore
What Does a Meaningful Conversation Look Like, and What Real Meaningful Steps Can be Taken?
The heightened focus since January 2022 of this topic, due to remarks by the new Law Society President Adrian Tan and the feature pieces in Business Times, Straits Times and finally Lianhe Zaobao most recently, appear to already be dwindling into the twilight. Will there come impactful change? And even before that has there been a clear diagnosis of the ailments (if there is even one)?
In 2006 I ventured into this debate with this article, and in the subsequent seven years had its contents quoted and repeated to me every now and again. I spoke up as a young lawyer who left the industry and “fell”, with great delight and ultimately to great career, personal and financial satisfaction, into the non-legal “practice” of commercial business-building. Viewpoints were also sought from 1,000 lawyers as part of a feedback exercise undertaken by the recruitment business I led at that time.
About two weeks ago, following exchanges on Adrian Tan’s Linkedin post, an intrepid Lianhe Zaobao journalist contacted me and sought my views after reading my 2006 article. It read to her like a commentary on today’s situation – when realizing late that it was not, it so astonished her and so fuelled her incredulity that she sought me out.
The questions and discussion I was taken through were admittedly agonizing. In 2006 I gave my views bolstered by an over-arching concern borne out of sheer necessity (and despair). Today, with the present discourse, I think and write this with unease, an unsettledness which now and again descends into melancholy.
First off, one needs to state: this is not a new topic (for me, it probably rose with the emergence of the big firms circa late 1990s), but in fact rears its head every couple of years, interspersed with the “excess supply glut” issue during the 2015-18 period. These articles and publications paint a basic timeline:
2006: “Retention of Young Lawyers”: https://v1.lawgazette.com.sg/2006-9/Sep06-feature2.htm
2007: “Report of the Committee to Develop the Singapore Legal Sector”: https://www.mlaw.gov.sg/files/news/press-releases/2007/12/linkclicke1d7.pdf
2011: Facing Associate Departures, Singapore Law Firms Fight Back With Perks – Ben Lewis 07-11-2011 – Asian Lawyer
My central thesis on this topic has always been: If any law firm hopes to retain young talent, there must be instituted a culture of mature, professional, sophisticated mentoring and management by senior lawyers. If such a culture were to propagate internally, it is this “institutional memory and culture” that will act as a self-check permitting it to be reinforced daily, constantly through the conscience of its members: “This is not the way we deal with potential clients in this firm”, “The right thing to do is to slow down and give that junior your time’, “Be positive, smile, light up your day and those around you, no matter how bleak the case goes, or how dreary your day is”.
A healthy, positive culture must replace “war stories” no junior lawyers wish to keep hearing, or the constant haranguing of associates because seniors are fearful or paranoid of client remonstrations.
Senior lawyers must understand a basic truth: young lawyers do not have your presence of mind because they have not gone through the repetition you have, nor are their pressure considerations the same. They wish to get that piece of work in front of them right, and they may be fearful or paranoid of getting that wrong in the same way you are fearful or paranoid of not delivering for your client. Both are different tasks requiring different skillsets despite falling on the same spectrum of client deliverables. Reducing fear and paranoia through communication and optimism provides a calmer environment for delivery and a superior learning domain.
The small size of the Singapore legal industry means cross-pollination (through employee inter-movements) of a narrower range of culture occur. There must now rise a handful of firms who wish to do things differently, and may one or some succeed to set examples for others.
Beyond treatment of young talent, pay must rise significantly and immediately. Newly qualified base-pay (discounting misleading “front-loading” figures) have not kept up with the rise in law school fees and associate billable hourly rates in the last 20 years. Passing on this cost to clients is not possible – partners must accept a reduction in salaries until such time new generations of soon-to-be Senior Associates who are well-trained (by them), professional and sophisticated enough to do basic client-procurement and client-servicing.
A more settled, mature developmental hierarchy predicated on being “older and wiser” must be created within larger law firms. It was remarked to me by an old friend and senior partner of a large law firm recently: “Attrition helps because we cannot promote everyone to partnership”. Is the base instinct of young lawyers so primitive: Partner or bust? What stops one from being a lawyer – a good lifelong legal technician without fee-earning expectations – from staying on in a law firm until retirement? Could not fee-earning responsibilities be substituted with superior mentoring abilities and great legal technical delivery?
While it is natural for the most experienced lead-lawyer to take the credit for litigation or corporate outcome, the reality is that every person in that team unit is indispensable. Seniors must see themselves as part of a team no matter the chasm in legal know-how, technical knowledge, and commercial wisdom between themselves and the junior associate. This requires something lawyers need an abundance of: Humility.
What are the prevalent industry thinking that must be challenged? Besides those referred to above, here are some more:
- Contention: The high turnover is part of the pandemic era’s “Great Resignation” – consequent to the deep-reflection by workers of their careers, work-conditions and long-term goals.
- Rebuttal: in 2006 attrition of <7PQE lawyers was 58 per cent. In 2021 “about 60 per cent” of <5PQE lawyer left the practice industry. The state of things has always been one of high attrition among young lawyers, identified as early as in my 2006 article, as well as the 2007 Law Report by VK Rajah “Report of the Committee to Develop the Singapore Legal Sector”.By comparison,
USA at 18 per cent associate attrition rate 2012-20181 https://today.westlaw.com/Document/Iac28d510050311eb83aba243f7354a34/View/FullText.html?transitionType=Default&contextData=(sc.Default)&firstPage=true
UK at 14 per cent and US at 16 per cent associate attrition rate during the pandemic2https://www.artificiallawyer.com/2021/11/29/the-winners-in-laws-great-resignation-will-be-firms-that-focus-on-innovation-not-compensation/
- Contention: instantaneous communication adds to the stress and pressure making lawyering far more difficult than ever before.
- Rebuttal: Junior and Senior partners have always been able to contact juniors any time they wished. They were always at their desks and near a phone.
- Contention: “legal practice is hard work. Only the tough survive”.
- Rebuttal: this is too short sighted, simplistic and basic a view. There are many professions that are hard work. Hard work must also be proud work. We all seek meaning, content and pride in the work that we do. To derive meaning and pride from our work, a holistic view of one’s tasks must be had, as opposed to being at the receiving end of piecemeal reactions when a partner chases after you.
- Contention: “attrition is the same as everywhere. Singapore qualified lawyers are just so highly demanded by other industries.”
- Rebuttal: Singapore attrition is significantly higher than the oft-compared UK and USA. This evades the reality of having to address the high attrition. Law graduates cannot be produced in greater and greater abundance only to be “run out” by the practice industry by their 5th, 6th or 7th year, which basically puts the onus of the solution solely onto law schools.
The psychology and science of a typical industry lawyer have been much dissected and analysed. Why have no steps been taken nor has the situation improved? In my opinion only because not enough people have paid due credit to them. In the article “Why Lawyers are Unhappy” by Marin E P Segliman, Paul R Verkuil & Terry H Kang,  DeakinLawRw 4; (2005) 10(1) Deakin Law Review 49, the basic reasons leading to unhappiness and legal practice industry attrition, have already been summarized as:
- The unhappiness of a lawyer is defined as disenchantment and poor health;
- The root causes are:
- lawyers make good lawyers because they are pessimistic; and have poor decision-making latitude (i.e. they don’t make decisions and have no or little control in their occupation); and
- the clear remedies to the above two malaise are:
- to create a culture of “learned optimism” and
- “disputing technique” to their negative emotions, in their workplace (to translate to their personal lives); to increase the low decision making latitude so that it may combine with high-pressure to alleviate the immediate environmental concerns.
- The zero-sum nature of legal work: for you to win, someone has to lose, and invariably you will be in a position to lose at some/most points in time.
- The clear remedy is to empower junior lawyers to communicate their emotional and mental issues and problems and to make them stakeholders in the immediate environment to allow them to shape their environment through application of their individual strengths to instil higher morale, i.e. give them a sense of self-worthiness where the zero-sum nature of the industry does not;
- Cooperation as a means of mitigating the effects of an adversarial system: the mentality that in every law firm, there must be a culture of strong attempts to co-operate with their opponents.
- Law schools play an important role in making consonant the connection between legal teaching and the demands of legal practice: to provide a ready, prepared experience for young lawyers when they confront their realities of practical legal practice; as well as being able to discern quickly which graduate is good for what: litigation, corporate or non-confrontational aspects of legal-work?
- The importance of Bar societies/institutions to promote civility among members/adversaries with the mentality that law as an institution has higher callings.
Ultimately these are the important factors that must be implemented: decreasing pessimism in the individual (and culturally in the institution where the individual finds oneself), increasing decision making latitude, and leavening zero-sum games with a co-operative dimension, only then can the practice of law be healthier and profitable.
Legal work is Hard work and must be Proud work. We all seek meaning and achievement in what we do – may we be lawyers or not. Young lawyers must be able to derive both from their daily work through a holistic understanding of one’s tasks, as opposed to being at the receiving end of piecemeal reactions when a partner chases after you.
To that end, the prevalent industry thinking must change, and immediately so, without which there can be no real, meaningful steps that lead to impactful change.