Navigating Practice in the Midst of COVID-19: Tips for the Young Lawyer
Building on the themes covered in two previous Law Gazette articles The Junior Counsel Survival Guide (August 2020) and Called During COVID – Thriving and Staying Relevant (August 2020), this article supplements with tips and pointers for the Young Lawyer to navigate through practice during these unprecedented pandemic times.
Even as Singapore moves into Phase 3 of its phased-reopening of the economy, work-from-home arrangements continue to be the norm for most office-based workplaces. Phase 3, along with its attendant restrictions, “does not mean a return to pre-COVID Times”, as the Government notes in its Roadmap to Phase 3, and until “the virus is under control with widely available vaccines, we must be prepared to stay in Phase Three for a prolonged period, potentially over a year.”
For the foreseeable future, at least, most of us would still be working in situations where physical, in-person interactions in the office (with clients, bosses and colleagues) and in court are significantly reduced and limited.
In the Law Society of Singapore’s COVID-19 Legal Profession Impact Survey conducted in May 2020, which results were published in June 2020, two of the top three stressors were “work” and “COVID-19”, and anxiety, fatigue and disrupted sleep were the top three stress symptoms. How then, should we deal with these concerns in this prolonged period of COVID-19?
In this article, I offer some tips and suggestions to aid fellow young lawyers to cope with these challenges.
Continue to Enrich the Mind – Zoom Webinars and Beyond
Be it professional skills or domain knowledge in a particular area of the law, it is important to stay relevant and updated. COVID-19 or not, our annual CPD requirements still remain. It is important to keep ourselves constantly updated with changes in the law. After all, our clients rely on us to give them accurate and up-to-date legal advice and we can do so only if we are well-informed.
The lack of physical seminars and talks does not mean that learning opportunities for professional improvement and upskilling stops. In fact, aided by a multitude of teleconferencing video options, there has been even more opportunities for us to attend webinars and talks.
The convenience brought about by technology (coupled with the current work-from-home mandate) cannot be understated. With Zoom and a whole host of other video conferencing software, it is much more convenient to attend webinars and conferences using our devices from the comfort of our home offices.
The Law Society and the Singapore Academy of Law’s respective websites are constantly updated with upcoming conferences and webinars. Sign up for such mailing lists to events and webinars organised by other professional or accredited bodies and our law schools. Continue to keep up with Singapore’s legislative updates and recent case law.
Keep abreast of legal updates not just in Singapore but from the leading common law jurisdictions as well. For example, the cases or legal commentaries in these jurisdictions dealing with how or whether the doctrines of force majeure and frustration have been or might be applied to contracts during the COVID-19 period could be relevant in the cases that might come to you in the near future.
Take time to learn about a new area of the law. You might want to take stock of the developments and ongoing discussions on the regulation of AI technology, or learn about the various potential application of blockchain technology apart from cryptocurrencies.
Seek out new opportunities. The huge troves of material on the interwebs are available for us to take in. Continue to enrich yourselves and equip yourself with knowledge.
Set Boundaries and Manage Expectations
Anecdotally, owing to work-from-home arrangements, many peers have commented that they spend more time working from home as compared to the pre-COVID times of working in the office. Others have also observed that without the routine of going into the office on a regular basis, the delineation of weekends and weekdays has become muddled.
Unwittingly, the flexibility and convenience brought about by technology has also come at a cost to us in having to be on call to respond to calls, texts, and e-mails at any time of the day. Even though time has been saved by not having to commute, for some, the time savings have inevitably been channelled back into work.
It is important to set boundaries: demarcate clearly what is work and personal time – and stick to it. I personally try (to the best of my abilities, as far as work allows me to) to keep to hours which I would keep in the office. Barring work exigencies such as a transaction that requires urgent documentation to be engrossed for parties’ signatures, or urgent court applications requiring written submissions on short notice, there might not be a need to respond immediately to an e-mail at midnight or 1am in the morning.
What you do out of habit or on a constant basis creates expectations of you: if you usually respond immediately to calls and e-mails late at night, way past normal working hours, you create expectations of your availability and capacity to turnaround work at that time. While our employment laws may not be as strict as France’s (such that a work-related text message to a colleague after working hours may get you in trouble), it helps to manage your colleagues’ and clients’ expectations, if you stick to these boundaries you have set.
Remember, if you don’t respect your own time, no one else will.
Stay Active and Healthy
We should not let this pandemic relegate us to a sedentary lifestyle. Find time to exercise. If you don’t have time, make time. The health benefits and importance of regular exercise cannot be understated.
Apart from the health benefits, exercise provides an avenue for stress release. Often when I am stressed over a piece of rather complex piece of work, I find that a regular jog around the neighbourhood or a quick trip to the gym works wonders in clearing the mind – much better than poring over dense legislation for hours.
Also, often neglected is the aspect of mental health. It is important to pay attention and care for one’s mental wellbeing in addition to one’s physical health. As highlighted by Mr Gregory Vijayendran, SC in his Message in the August 2017 Law Gazette, a lawyer’s mental health is “as important as any other professional obligation”, and “as with psychologists, impaired attorneys often ignore the early warning signs of mental illness and risk placing themselves as well as others in serious jeopardy”.
Practice can be stressful at times. Coupled with the worries brought about by COVID-19, ranging from the uncertainty in career prospects to a lack of incoming work, or from never-ending e-mails to billing targets, it can take a toll on one’s mental health. However, there are healthy ways to address it.
Having a support network – be it your family, close friends or colleagues – helps greatly. Do not be afraid to reach out. Where necessary, seek professional help. There is no shame in needing help. The Law Society also has various avenues such as the Members’ Assistance & Care Helpline (‘MACH’) available for members. One thing that we can do is also to keep a look out for one another, and offer encouragement and support to our peers in these challenging times.
All Work and No Play Makes Jack a Dull Boy
Much as it is important to nourish the mind and body, the soul needs some nurturing as well.
With border closures and travel restrictions still in place, leisure travel appears unlikely to resume in the near future. Nevertheless, my suggestion is to pick up a hobby or find an interest – be it gardening, a musical instrument, golf, wine or coffee appreciation, vinyl record collecting – to keep your mind off work, and as an avenue for you to wind down and rest.
Many would cite the lack of time and heavy work commitments as reasons for not being able to pick up a hobby. My answer to those: if not now, then when?
Some seek Zen through yoga, meditation or self-reflection. If it works for you, practise it.
I personally find respite in going on nature hikes. The nature trails within our nature parks, such as the Coast-to-Coast Trail or the Labrador Nature & Coastal Walk, and the islands off the main Singapore island remain open. For the more adventurous or sporty ones, a cycling adventure along the Round Island Route around Singapore (approximately 120 km) or perhaps even the rugged Bukit Timah Mountain Bike Trail are available too.
If you prefer to stay at home to avoid crowds, cross-stitching, crocheting, or knitting could be therapeutic and beneficial as well. A (temporary) social media and technology detox might work too.
Find something that works for you.
Stay Resolute and Resourceful
Inevitably, many of us worry about our future amidst these uncertain times. Try to take your mind off work whenever you can, and simply commit to doing your best at work. Surround yourself with family, friends and colleagues who will encourage and support you as you hone your craft. Don’t forget to rest, reflect and recharge.
I conclude with a quote from the Honourable the Chief Justice Menon in his Mass Call Address 2020 “that these are challenging times should not in any way diminish the pride in the accomplishments that have brought you here today, nor dampen your hopes and aspirations for your careers in the profession”. With “resolve and resourcefulness,” I am sure that we would be able to find ways to overcome this pandemic and “take advantage of the new opportunities that will emerge”.
I hope that you as a young lawyer will be able to take away some tips or find something useful in this article to help you in this often stressful, but mostly rewarding and fulfilling career.