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The Singapore Law Gazette

Amicus Agony

Dear Amicus Agony,

I have been with the same firm since I qualified as a lawyer a year ago. I consider myself to be a generalist or an “all-round” lawyer. Unlike my peers, I do not have a specialism and my practice areas involve a wide range of legal specialisms. 

A year of practice has taught me that it is difficult to continuously keep up with multiple areas of the law, and I feel less effective at my work at times. As an ambitious high-achiever with perfectionist tendencies, this has caused me to feel unfulfilled. I am afraid that in time to come, I will be seen as the proverbial jack-of-all-trades and master of none.

Having said that, I am also aware that I have amassed a wider skill set than most of my peers, and my versatility could be my essential edge over other lawyers in the future.

What should I do?

Dabbling Lawyer

Dear Dabbling Lawyer,

Hopefully you became a lawyer with the desire to provide a service to society, among other reasons. With that in mind, in order to do high-quality, high-volume work, what you need is motivation. It is certainly an arduous journey to keep up with the mastery of different areas of law. Try to find your work exciting and know that it can have a real impact on those around you and those you provide assistance to. This way, you will naturally find the drive to persist in legal practice.

That said, practice may become more manageable for you if you just focus on an area of law and gradually become more effective in your work.

In this regard, it may be prudent if you determine how you intend to grow your reputation in the legal industry. Do you want to be known as a specialist or as a broad provider/strategist? In order to be successful, your clients should know exactly what you stand for. Perception is key.

You may be heartened to know that there are practitioners who are their clients’ trusted legal advisors because of their ability to help them strategize in relation to both contentious and non-contentious legal issues. Clients do appreciate lawyers who are able to handle complex issues and identify issues and solutions because of their multi category expertise. In fact, new research has shown that the current perception of clients of the legal profession reflects a preference for lawyers who have the ability to handle their legal work, be it corporate legal transactions or litigation/dispute resolution.

At the same time, there is still a market and demand for lawyers working in niche law firms who are coveted because they have the experience and knowledge needed to provide advice to clients in certain industries. These clients do not wish to take risks in engaging lawyers who do not have the experience to serve their needs and help them achieve their objectives.

As such, decide at some point in time, whether you intend to develop a reputation for being a versatile, holistic problem-solver or a specialist and you will achieve efficiency, competence and fulfillment as a consequence.

Amicus Agony

Dear Amicus Agony,

I think that my boss is very lazy. He leaves me to do all his work while he spends most of his time out of the office, focusing on his personal life. Even though I have been in this firm for the past few years, and have had a promotion, my salary is still below the market value. I feel that I deserve to be paid more due to the amount of work I’m doing, and because I have been meeting the billing targets set by him. Should I confront him and ask for a pay increment?

Underpaid Senior Assoc

Dear Underpaid Senior Assoc,

It may be wise to ask yourself the following questions before ascertaining whether to approach your boss to have a discussion (and not a confrontation) regarding an increment to your salary:

  1. You may have met your billing targets every month, but have you considered the amount of money that you have been successfully collecting on behalf of the firm every month?
  2. For those files that you have billed and successfully collected, what percentage of those are clients who you have brought in through your own contacts? Or are they all your boss’s clients whom you have simply assisted with?

If your answer to (a) is that you have also ensured that the collections are on par with your billings, this shows that you are indeed a competent worker who has ensured that the firm receives sufficient revenue to pay off office expenses (including your salary). This is often one of the factors that bosses use to assess your job performance.

If your answer to (b) is that those are your boss’s clients, that would perhaps explain why he is often not in the office; he is likely playing the role of rainmaker by networking with prospective clients and bringing in cases to ensure that the firm has enough work, and in turn afford your salary. This also means that all of the effort that you have put in thus far is considered as “expendable value” to your boss – you may potentially be replaceable if your boss one day finds you too expensive to afford, or if he manages to find another associate with an asking salary that is lower than yours.

Fundamentally, to be in the position to bargain for a higher salary, you not only need to ascertain the amount of work you do with regard to assisting the firm in billing and collections every month, but also make sure that part of the clientele is directly attributed to you. This will boost your confidence levels, as you now have a bargaining chip on your side that will allow you to negotiate a higher salary appropriate to your value in the firm, or join another practice willing to pay you appropriately. Having your own stable of clients will also allow you a head-start if you decide to strike out on your own one day.

Amicus Agony

Dear Amicus Agony,

I have recently come to the conclusion that my opponents have been unfriendly and hostile towards me. I also have no friends in the legal profession. One called and scolded me recently for being rude, simply because I sent out a letter to him requesting for a reply within the next 24 hours. Why can’t he be more understanding? My bosses have given me so much work that it had slipped my mind that one of them had asked me to write to our opposing counsel to seek his consent and to write to court to request for a rescheduling of the court hearing date. The court hearing date was coming up really soon, which was why I sent out that letter to the opposing counsel asking for a quick response. What’s there to be upset about?

Moody Loner

Dear Moody Loner,

Like you, many of us in the legal profession wrestle with heavy workloads and tight deadlines, which is why one definitely does not appreciate it when a tight deadline is given – not from the courts, but from fellow members of the bar. If unfortunately such a tight deadline has to be imposed, my suggestion is that you should have personally made a phone call to give your opposing counsel a heads up to seek his informal confirmation first before sending out such a letter. At the very least, it would serve to cushion them from the suddenness of it. I recommend that you take some time out to read A Civil Practice: Good Counsel for Learned Friends. This book sets out many examples on how mutual courtesy and respect within and between the branches of the legal profession can be achieved, without resorting to total war, with holds barred and no punches pulled. Hopefully, you will be able to pick up some pointers from there which allows you to start making new friends within our profession.

Amicus Agony

Young lawyers, the solutions to your problems are now just an e-mail away! If you are having difficulties coping with the pressures of practice, need career advice or would like some perspective on personal matters in the workplace, the Young Lawyers Committee’s Amicus Agony is here for you. E-mail your problems to [email protected].
The views expressed in “The Young Lawyer” and the “YLC’s Amicus Agony” column are the personal views and opinions of the author(s) in their individual capacity. They do not reflect the views and opinions of the Law Society of Singapore, the Young Lawyers Committee or the Singapore Law Gazette and are not sponsored or endorsed by them in any way. The views, opinions expressed and information contained do not amount to legal advice and the reader is solely responsible for any action taken in reliance of such view, opinion or information.

The Law Gazette is the official publication of the Law Society of Singapore.