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Lawyers heading in-house for better work-life balance

SINGAPORE — Stress from the demands of work, the lure of easier jobs and a different work experience are some reasons many lawyers are calling it quits shortly after they have ditched the “rookie” tag.

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SINGAPORE — Stress from the demands of work, the lure of easier jobs and a different work experience are some reasons many lawyers are calling it quits shortly after they have ditched the “rookie” tag.

The “striking” statistic that three out of every four local lawyers leave private practice within their first decade on the job, resulting in a dearth of practitioners with between seven and 12 years of experience was flagged by Law Society (LawSoc) President Lok Vi Ming at the opening of the legal year last Friday.

Mr Lok noted that while lawyer numbers have risen steadily to hit a record high of 4,549, those who have been practising for seven to 12 years numbered only 386, or 8.4 per cent.

This is in contrast to the 54 per cent who have more than 12 years’ experience, while those in their first seven years in the profession make up almost a third.

Mr Lok suggested that “the current strength of our economy, which started its recovery in early 2005” was one reason lawyers left in huge numbers in their first decade of practice.

Lawyers TODAY spoke to noted that in-house counsel positions, such as those in companies, are attractive to mid-career lawyers because working hours for such positions are believed to be shorter.

Mr Sunil Sudheesan, a Partner at RHTLaw Taylor Wessing, said many of his peers “go in-house to have a better work life balance”.

He added that “some just want a different kind of experience and some may just be sick of dealing with their bosses or irritating clients”.

Of the 160 who graduated from National University of Singapore Law School in 2004, Mr Sunil said only about 30 have stayed in private practice.

Providence Law Asia’s Managing Director Abraham Vergis said mid-career lawyers are typically in their thirties and by then, “they would have clocked enough experience in private practice to become Head Legal or Regional Counsel in MNCs (multinational corporations), which are well-paying jobs with better working conditions”.

And if they have already started families, they “can no longer afford the continuously long hours”, he added.

Indeed, Senior Legal Counsel at UOL Group, Ms Sharon Tan, said she stopped practising as a corporate real estate lawyer after five-and-a-half years due to stress, the long working hours she had to put in, and a lack of work-life balance.

“Unless you are senior enough and have a huge and effective team of lawyers working under you, long working hours cannot be avoided,” said Ms Tan.

For Ms Wong Shyen Sook, who left a law firm after five years to work in-house at an MNC, it was her desire to “see the commercial side of law; to see the interplay between law and commerce”.

To stem the high attrition rate, Ms Tan suggested flexible working arrangements, such as telecommuting or on a part-time basis, especially for lawyers with young children.

Worryingly, the trend of mid-career lawyers choosing to leave practice does not appear to be a new problem. According to figures provided by LawSoc, the number of lawyers in this middle category has been falling, on the whole, over the past five years. Falling steadily from 523 in 2009 to 386 last year, rebounding only once in 2012 to 442.

While there are concerns the trend will lead to a possible shortage of lawyers suitable for middle-management ranks in firms and where the next generation of seasoned lawyers will come from, some have pointed out that the figures might seem more alarming than in reality.

For instance, they noted that the numbers in the senior category were drawn from many cohorts.

Mr Sunil added: “There is no point in isolating a particular five-year category of lawyers (as opposed to a seven year group of lawyers and a group of almost 28 years’ worth of lawyers) and say that it is low and that it is a problem ... when you consider the massively different numbers of lawyers getting called to the Bar over the last 20 years.”

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