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Opinion: Why lawyers quit the profession – and how to stop it

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A 30% increase in lawyers quitting in Singapore highlights several problems that persist within the legal industry – and I should know, I used to be in it

For the past two weeks or so, my social media has been flooded with posts from Singapore lawyers discussing the mass attrition of young practitioners from the legal profession.

In his 2022 opening address at Singapore’s Supreme Court on January 10, Singapore Law Society’s president Adrian Tan revealed that a record 538 lawyers left the profession last year.

It marked a 30% increase in exit rate compared to 2020, with junior lawyers having less than five years’ experience making up the bulk of those who quit.

A similar trend has been spotted in London, with firms struggling to retain lawyers despite offering lucrative salaries.

As a lawyer who left the profession in 2021, albeit in a different country (India), I am more than familiar with the cultural issues that exist within the legal industry. Now, as a journalist, I want to use my platform to discuss these problems and encourage a wider conversation.

Many of these issues, from long workdays to poor compensation at lower levels, are common to the profession across several countries.

Burning out

In his speech, Tan said that the pandemic is somewhat to blame, which caused lawyers to re-examine their priorities. He noted, however, that lawyers were complaining of burnout even before 2020.

The burnout is real. I used to be personally worried about leaving the office before 8pm during my stint at a law firm, irrespective of how tired I was. I’ve also heard one too many horror stories from friends and former colleagues about workplace abuses.

For instance, a friend, who was invited to a late-night party by his team leader at a top-tier law firm, was asked to return to the office and finish working on a deal after the party, while his senior headed home. He quit the firm shortly after to start his own practice.

Many of the other lawyers I know don’t remember the last time they went for a vacation without having carried their work laptop or phone for “emergencies”.

Occasionally working seven days a week and pulling some all-nighters are unwritten agreements between the management and the lawyers at top-tier firms.

Clients who expect lawyers to be accessible round the clock, and set impossible deadlines, promote the already unhealthy work culture. And lawyers who claim to be “married to the law” or take pride in putting in those extra hours only aggravate the issue.

Poor pay

But those who don’t want to chase the big law dream have to face a different challenge altogether.

Although pay disparity exists even in top-tier firms, junior lawyers starting out at smaller firms and litigators working with independent senior practitioners are well underpaid.

The prospects are even worse for law interns. They often spend months training at firms, receiving only “exposure” or “experience” as remuneration.

Foreign law firms can operate in Singapore under limited conditions; they are not allowed in India at all. This in turn stifles competition for local law firms, which do not have any reason to offer better employment conditions.

Job dissatisfaction

Compensation, however, is not the only thing that lawyers are unhappy with.

Work at law firms can often be unfulfilling. Opportunities for movement across different departments of top-tier law firms are rare, which limits holistic growth opportunities.

In the context of an intellectual property firm, this means that a young lawyer who started out in the prosecution department might be processing trademark applications or taking care of opposition actions for a very long time in their career (sometimes even throughout their work-life), without any room for change.

It works for the law firm because a lawyer who has spent years honing a particular skill is likely to be able to “process” more work in less time.

But imagine building a career just searching trademarks or replying to office actions. Irrespective of the money it generates, it is likely to be unfulfilling for many professionals.

In-house positions are considerably better in terms of work-life balance, although they usually pay a lot less than law firm jobs. And often, in-house lawyers are often stuck handling compliance and administrative work, or largely taking care of commercial issues.

Alternative options

Of course, there are many lawyers who are content with the security that comes with a law firm job.

Younger lawyers, however, want more from their life. If they’re unhappy at work, they know better than to stick around.

In a social media post, Tan wrote: “21st-century lawyers are different. They want to marry, not the law, but a human being. They too want to work hard and make a difference. But they also want to have children, to build a home, to have a life outside the law. And they may not want to put these aspects of their lives on hold in favour of the law.”

Many of my friends who are working at law firms must plan their vacation according to their senior’s schedule. Taking more than two to three days off is frowned upon.

If younger lawyers do not want to go down this road, it is more than understandable.

Another factor that weighs in here is the increased availability of alternatives. I know lawyers who have quit the law firm life very early in their careers and are working independently in the legal sector as career coaches, freelancers, or in other capacities.

Many of them have stronger personal brands than senior partners at law firms and are earning as much as they would at top-tier firms.

There are others who have completely cut ties with the legal profession and have taken up different jobs as management or tech professionals.

Call for change

The alternatives are great, but we cannot ignore the fundamental problem. A terrible work culture shouldn’t push young lawyers to quit the profession.  

The issues arise from poor labour protection in many countries, including Singapore and India. Lawyers don’t have any option other than to quit if they don’t want to put up with the low wages or extra-long hours.

Some of the first steps needed for modernising the legal services industry are ensuring equitable wages and fixing the maximum number of work hours for lawyers.

There also needs to be a fundamental shift in the mindset of law firm management and partners. The culture of abuse and exploitation, which affects those on the bottom of the ladder the most, must stop.

More than anything, young lawyers need empathy from their seniors, because a missed deadline is often not the end of the world.

For now, the important thing is to keep the conversation going, with the hope that it fuels a systemic change to reduce the number of lawyers calling it quits in the future.

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