The Big Read: As a legal career loses its sheen, law firms take action
There are currently about 1,600 criminal and family lawyers here. About one in 10 is above 65 years old.
Lawyer Sunil Sudheesan, the acting head of the Association of Criminal Lawyers of Singapore, noted the great emotional strains on lawyers in these two practice areas.
“Criminal law is a very depressing game to play ... the first case that really left a deep impression (on me) was Took Leng How’s,” he said. “I was involved in the psychiatric aspect of that case. After we lost in the High Court, I got quite upset and wondered, ‘Was it because my submissions were not good enough?’”
In a case that gripped the nation, Took was sentenced to death in 2005 for the murder of eight-year-old Huang Na.
But criminal and family law are not the only areas where warning signs are going up. Senior lawyers noted that in all practice areas, the attrition rate is high compared with other industries. LawSoc president Thio Shen Yi felt the demands of the profession may not necessarily be in sync with what many millennials are prepared for. Gen Y lawyers crave new experiences and have an array of options available to them, said Mr Thio, who is the joint managing director of TSMP Law Corporation.
The Singapore Corporate Counsel Association, which represents in-house lawyers, does not track the number of lawyers who have left private practice to go in-house. Anecdotally, however, the SCCA has observed a “gradual increase” in the number of in-house counsel over the years.
Currently, there are some 2,000 in-house counsel here — almost half the number (about 4,800) of lawyers in private practice.
One of those who made the switch was Ms Jaime Lee, 29, who started her legal career in 2010 at a Big Four law firm before joining a global commodities company as an in-house counsel. In December last year, she left the industry to focus on growing her stationery and lifestyle products business. “I was very happy where I was, but the business was growing and I had to decide whether I wanted to take the leap of faith to go full-time to bring it to the next level,” she said.
Ms Joanne Poh, 31, also cut short her legal career. After less than three years in the industry, she left to pursue freelance writing. “Most of my friends thought I was insane to want to leave a high-paying job,” she said.
Veteran lawyer Foo Siew Fong, Head of Family and Matrimonial Law at Harry Elias Partnership, offered a reason young lawyers opt out: “The best time (to leave) is when (one) is still young and has no financial burden of maintaining a family.”
Last year, LawSoc set up a taskforce to conduct focus group discussions with junior lawyers and find out “what might keep them in the industry, pull them away, (or) push them away”. “Once we understand the causes, we can try to work out solutions,” said Mr Thio.
He said he was not unduly worried about the situation, which he felt could be corrected by market forces in due course. “If there are fewer people in the middle category, then these people become very much in demand. The rewards for them increase, and more people are incentivised to stay,” he reasoned.
Nonetheless, some law firms — both big and small — have begun taking action to retain their young guns.
At Drew & Napier, the management recognises that lawyers need to “pause, recharge, and take care of their families and other aspects of their lives”. Mr Kelvin Tan, a director at the firm, said: “We have flexible arrangements to help our lawyers do that, like sabbaticals, the flexibility to work from home fortnightly, and part-time working arrangements.”
At smaller firms, lead lawyers encourage their juniors to take ownership of cases that they are helping with. “Assisting doesn’t mean taking notes only, they have to interact with clients and prepare (for the case),” said veteran lawyer Edmond Pereira, who runs his own practice.
To give room for young lawyers to grow, Mr Peter Low, who also runs his own practice, believes in pushing every member on his team to develop their “own public persona”. He said: “I don’t want a lawyer to tell me after five years that people think he’s my sidekick. It cannot be like that. Five years later, people must say, ‘Forget about Peter Low, forget about the law firm. You’re a good lawyer’.”
While the industry struggles to hang on to its young talent, a constant stream of fresh law graduates seeks to enter the legal profession.
In 2014, Law Minister K Shanmugam warned that Singapore could face an oversupply of lawyers in the coming years, due to the spike in the number of Singaporeans studying law overseas. As a result, aspiring lawyers have to manage their expectations in terms of pay and job opportunities, he said.
The findings of the latest Joint Graduate Employment Survey released earlier this week showed that the median gross monthly salary for fresh law graduates from Singapore Management University fell to S$4,731 last year, compared to S$5,025 in 2014. The starting pay for those who graduated from National University of Singapore’s Law Faculty also fell to S$4,700, from S$5,150.
To guard against the oversupply, the authorities have dropped almost half of the 19 United Kingdom law schools on the list of institutions whose graduates are recognised for admission to the Bar from this year. But it will take some time for the impact of the move to be felt.
For now, law firms are spoilt for choice, with many fresh graduates vying for training contracts. “It’s actually good for law firms. When there’s an oversupply of law students, it means that law students may not be as fussy as before in terms of the areas they go into,” said Mr Thio. “If we take the situation five or six years back, all the law students wanted to go into corporate transactions or commercial disputes. You might find a situation now where law students say, ‘well, I’m quite happy to go into criminal law or family law ... It might be easier for me to secure a job that way, and that’s my way of entering practice’.”
Mr Pereira used to have one or two trainees in his firm. These days, he has four trainees under his wing. He has even encountered applicants who said they were willing to go without the training allowance.
Rajah & Tann Singapore managing partner Lee Eng Beng advised fresh law graduates to chalk up relevant experience before applying for a training contract, which is required for admission to the Bar. Mr Lee, a Senior Counsel, said: “A lot of Singapore law graduates see being called to the Bar as a final qualification that they need to acquire as soon as possible. I don’t think it’s necessary. There’s too much focus on the qualification to practice, and not enough on gathering real experience and learning, which will produce a good practitioner in the long run. It’s an outdated mindset.”
He added: “If you are already very clear that you want to enter a certain industry...and if you’re prepared to spend a couple of years to work in that industry and gain knowledge, and two years later, apply to us for a training contract, I would put that name first. Grades will be secondary by then.”
It is not all bad news, however.
While those in the legal fraternity fret that a core of practitioners to succeed the likes of Mr Shanmugam, Senior Counsel Davinder Singh, former Attorney-General Walter Woon, Senior Counsel Michael Hwang and the late Subhas Anandan on the pantheon of Singapore’s legal giants is not forthcoming — possibly a consequence of the industry’s struggles to hold on to its brightest talent — others are more sanguine.
Mr Amolat Singh felt that this is inevitable as the overall pool of lawyers gets bigger. In the past, it was easier to shine, he said. But these days, the gulf between top lawyers and “the rest of the crop” has narrowed considerably, he said.
Rajah & Tann’s Mr Lee also noted that large law firms have also shifted away from depending on star names. He added: “When you have your branding and profile revolving too much around individuals, that’s not healthy for large firms. All individuals will grow old and retire one day. So the institutional name is the one that remains.”
And while bright young legal minds here have been lured away by firms overseas — especially in Hong Kong, which serves the China market — Professor Woon feels this is not necessarily a bad thing. “I suspect that the brain-drain would be worse without the prospect of working for an international law firm in Singapore. The young and the restless will move abroad to get the international exposure; the presence of leading international firms in Singapore gives us the opportunity to lure them home,” he said.
Singapore is not standing still, either. It has been strengthening its position as a dispute resolution hub. The Singapore International Commercial Court (SICC) was launched in January last year, complementing the work of the Singapore International Arbitration Centre and the Singapore International Mediation Centre.
In the past, appearing in the courtroom was “the only avenue known” to lawyers, said Mr Amolat Singh. “For every dispute, we say, ‘See you in court.’ But now there are alternatives, and people are beginning to realise the benefits of alternative dispute resolution. The outcomes can be more custom-fit.”
Asked if such a shift could take away the thrill of arguing in court which some lawyers live for, Mr Singh said: “The disputes will still arise, but the manner of resolving them is a bit faster, and I can go on to the next file...It’s just a question of changing our mindsets and modus operandi to suit the new model.”