Burnout leads to 'hollowing out' of mid-career lawyers

Lawyers attending the opening of Legal Year 2016 at the Supreme Court auditorium on January 11.
Lawyers attending the opening of Legal Year 2016 at the Supreme Court auditorium on January 11.PHOTO: ST FILE

Two years ago, then-Law Society president Lok Vi Ming observed that within their first decade of practice, three out of four lawyers would have left the sector.

Such burnout among mid-career lawyers has resulted in a "hollowing out" of mid-career lawyers, Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon noted, citing how lawyers with seven to 12 years of experience made up 10 per cent or less of the entire profession over the last five years.

"To translate that into real numbers, there were only 423 mid-tier lawyers last year," he said.

In comparison, during that same period there were 1,909 junior lawyers with less than seven years of experience, while seasoned lawyers with more than 12 years of experience numbered 2,502.

CJ Menon noted that in every decision to leave the legal profession, a balance of factors is at play, such as the "pull" of a better job or quality of life outside the sector.

 

There is also a a range of "push" factors: Long work hours made longer by technology, a lack of real ownership over one's work, and a sense that the opportunities for professional growth are shrinking.

"As these frustrations are compounded day after day in the grind of practice, they begin to take their toll on the young lawyer until, finally, the fire sizzles out. In short, he burns out," the CJ added.

Law Society president Thio Shen Yi said it was essential that firms see their mid-career lawyers as "long-term resources" and not overstretch them to a point where they leave the industry.

CJ Menon stressed the need for a "recalibration of priorities", away from the profit motive in the sector.

"The demanding working conditions we see in firms today is but a symptom of the overt commercialisation of legal practice," he said.

The current assessment of work performance based on high billing targets has affected the professional development and satisfaction of young lawyers, he added, saying firms had to place a higher premium on "nurturing of young talent". "Our law firms must see themselves as educational institutions with a duty to train their young lawyers into the very best version of themselves."

Zhaki Abdullah

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on August 28, 2016, with the headline 'Burnout leads to 'hollowing out' of mid-career lawyers'. Print Edition | Subscribe