Singapore legal industry sees highest number of departures

Thanks to the Great Resignation, burnout, and generation gap, The Law Society of Singapore said.

Statistics showed 2021 saw the highest number of registered lawyers at 6,333 within five years. The Law Society of Singapore President Adrian Tan, however, pointed out that lawyers leaving their professions in recent years have also increased—and this is a cause of concern.

About 538 lawyers shifting careers were recorded in 2020, 30% higher compared to the previous years’ usual departures of around 380 to 430.

Out of the 22 law foreign and local firms surveyed by Singapore Business Review, only seven firms have increased lawyer counts. 

Allen & Gledhill, in particular, kept its top spot as the biggest law firm. This year, it had an additional 14 lawyers to its roster, bringing the overall number to 432 from last year’s 418. 

Keeping its second-biggest law firm rank is Rajah & Tann Singapore LLP, with an increase to 390 lawyers from the previous year’s 349.

Wong Partnership, on the other hand, maintained its roster size of 330 lawyers. 

Other law firms that showed maintained growth in the past year include Drew & Napier LLC with a jump by 20 lawyers to reach 319 overall. Meanwhile, Dentons Rodyk & Davidson experienced a dip by two layers to end the year with 204, down from 206. 

Meanwhile, firms like Bird & Bird ATMD LLP, and Tan Peng Chin LLC retained their lawyer count at 50 and 40, respectively. 

Tan Kok Quan Partnership and Tan Peng Chin LLC, both found at the bottom of the list, saw a decrease to 36 lawyers and preservation of their number at 40 lawyers, respectively.

Why are lawyers leaving?

Tan implied that the law industry, and all industries, in particular, are in the midst of The Great Resignation. He pointed out an observed trend in these departures.

14% of the 538 lawyers that resigned throughout the previous year were made up of Junior Category lawyers, or those in practice for less than five years. 

“The Junior Category might be facing a perfect storm: a record high number of departures coinciding with a record low number of entrants,” said Tan.

Official statistics also found on The Law Society of Singapore showed a drop in from Junior lawyers to those with five to 15 years of experience. As of 31 August 2021, 1,690 lawyers had five to 15 years of experience, a decline from the 2,214 junior lawyers seen on the website. 

Another factor that led to the resignations is burnout, Tan added. 

“It may be tougher to be a young lawyer now, than at any time in history. The hours are long, and clients are demanding. Thanks to technology, young lawyers are on call night and day. E-mail and instant messaging mean that they operate at a far more intense pace, compared to previous generations. Many are exhausted.” 

To combat this obstacle in mental wellness, various support schemes were introduced by the Law Society. This includes the Relational Mentorship Program, in which a junior practitioner requests for a relational mentor with a volunteer mentor, and the Young Lawyers Law Mentors Scheme, an informal peer to peer support scheme that groups up young lawyers with law graduates, trainees and newly qualified lawyers. Counsellors are also available for lawyers to take advantage of. A helpline is also available for members of The Law Society.

Despite these solutions in place, Tan said that these actions are only temporary as there is a huge gap between the experiences and mindset of those in the current generation and those with more senior experience.

“The 21st-century lawyers are different. They want to marry, not the law, but a human being. They too want to work hard. They too want their work to have meaning. But they also want other things that human beings 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, or compromise them, in favour of the law.”

Tan believed that along with this new movement towards a work-life balance, 21st-century lawyers can also face a future beyond the traditional brick-and-mortar law firm. 

In a poll delivered towards members and cited by Tan, 70% of respondents believed that law practices should be allowed to deliver legal services purely online, with over 80% thinking that a review of the current regulations is needed. 

Initiatives to further this advancement exist, with ‘Raising the Bar’ being the most prominent. This four-month-long programme was designed to enable business transformation, with one of its outcomes being the introduction of at least one digital solution. Areas of focus of the initiatives include digital transformation, business management and development. This programme is supported by both the Ministry of Law Singapore and Enterprise Singapore. 

It is this willingness to adapt and compete, Tan said, that will help Singapore law transform for the future. 

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