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The Singapore Law Gazette

The Greener Pasture is Where You Water the Grass

Since time immemorial, lawyers have been glamorized and romanticized from Hollywood to Mediacorp in movies, dramas, the media, and basically by everyone. Lawyers are glamorized and romanticized because becoming and being one is not easy. Law faculties around the world take in only the cream of the crop. Many law schools even interview applicants to assess their aptitude and attitude. I don’t believe any law school applicant reads law under any impression that being a lawyer would be a bed of roses. And if law undergraduates go through their fair share of internships, they would be under no illusion that the entitlement to proclaim “I am a lawyer” is anything but going to be hard-earned. The social status and respect accorded to lawyers worldwide come at a price – hard work.

When I was a budding lawyer in the early 1990s, I had a young family to feed. I was grateful for a job and failure was not an option. There would be a “pep talk” by the boss every year end. I would be nervously wondering how I fared compared to my peers, whether my work was valued, whether I was making good progress in the firm. My year-end bonus and annual increment would always be disclosed to me at the end of the 10 minute “pep talk”, almost with a shrug of the shoulders, as if it didn’t really matter. And strangely enough, my value to the firm mattered more to me than my economic well-being. Looking at all the well-heeled partners then, I assumed without doubt that my financial rewards would come about later on if I worked hard long enough. I accepted hard work, long hours and incommensurate salary as a given in any and every budding career.

In his inaugural speech at the Opening of the Legal Year 2022, newly elected Law Society President Adrian Tan spoke on various issues, one of which was about young lawyers leaving the profession. His well-intentioned concern was well-received by senior members of the Bar, many of whom also wanted this issue probed to rectify the “push factors” and stem the outflow. Not so surprisingly, social media came alive with comments from young lawyers including:

“Underpaid”

“No nurturing”

“High pressure”

“Loss of interest”

“Long / crazy hours”

“Lack of mentorship”

“Steep learning curve”

“No work-life balance”

“Unable to have relationships”

“Competitive working environment”

“Loss of mental / physical well-being”

“Pay can’t compare to other industries”

“Difficult, demanding and unappreciative clients”

“There are easier and less stressful ways to earn a living”

Legal practice in the first few years is tough because the learning curve is very steep and there simply is no shortcut to the learning process. For the less tenacious, it is very easy and tempting for a young lawyer to compare himself with his peers in other vocations, professions and industries, and conclude that “there are easier and less stressful ways to earn a living”. But hang on – wouldn’t young entrants in other vocations also give similar feedback? And to the disappointment of many senior practitioners, the following grievances were also aired:

“Replaceable slaves”

“Difficult / crazy bosses”

“Toxic work culture / environment”

“Partners are unappreciative and abusive”

“The people who caused it are asking why”

“Senior lawyers exploiting junior lawyers with low pay”

Ouch. What many young lawyers don’t realise is that behind many employer’s carpeted premises, shelves of law reports, office paraphernalia, and brave smiles, the law firm bosses are struggling to find work, placate clients, handle opponents, meet deadlines, collect bills, pay rent, pay salaries, balance the accounts, and feed their own families. Law firm owners face an irreconcilable disconnect between calls for low costs and demands for high salaries.

The pressures of being a lawyer are cumulative from a combination of factors including the exigencies of the matters, the anxieties of the clients, the nature of the work, the timelines imposed by the courts, the deadlines stipulated by the processes, the ever increasing costs of running a law firm, and to borrow Jack Neo’s phrase “money no enough” – “no enough” for clients to pay law firms, “no enough” for law firms to pay their lawyers, and “no enough” for lawyers to pay for the high costs of living in Singapore. All these issues afflict and affect every lawyer, young and old; so let’s not turn this topic into one that creates a “them” and “us” divide.

As lawyers, we should be skilled in the art of asking for what we want. But do we know what we want? And are we realistic about what we want? At every interview with lawyer job applicants in my firm, I would ask the applicant to rank the importance of the following on a scale of one to 10:

  1. Money;
  2. Work-life balance;
  3. Work environment;
  4. Challenging work.

(a) and (b) are self-explanatory. I want the applicant to apply his mind to the reality that money and work-life balance sit on opposite ends of the see-saw. Most applicants quickly realise their dilemma and rank these two items vis a vis each other realistically.

For (c), I want the applicant to think about his work environment. The higher the pay, the higher the stress, the more high-strung the environment. The converse is true. So the applicant has to find his own sweet spot.

(d) tells me whether the applicant is passionate about being a good lawyer, or just punching his time card.

I tell the applicant to be honest in this exercise or he would be doing himself no favour otherwise, and will not last the probationary period. The greener pasture is where you water the grass.

Law Society President is commissioning a survey to improve the lot for young lawyers. Since we are looking into the issue of young lawyers leaving the profession, we should also look at the statistics relating to middle and senior category lawyers leaving the profession, as well as the closure of law firms in these past two COVID-19 stricken years. For all we know, young lawyers leaving the profession may only be the tip of the ice berg.

Co-Managing Director
Chia Wong Chambers
E-mail: [email protected]