Lighter workload, training among moves to retain staff

Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon speaking at Mass Call held on Aug 26, 2016 at the Supreme Court auditorium.
Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon speaking at Mass Call held on Aug 26, 2016 at the Supreme Court auditorium. ST PHOTO: WONG KWAI CHOW

There is no easy way to stop younger lawyers from leaving the practice, the legal community told The Sunday Times.

In his address to this year's newly minted lawyers, Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon called for law firms to see themselves as "educational institutions with a duty to train their young lawyers into the very best version of themselves".

In response, some law firms said they have made efforts to retain mid-tier lawyers, such as by training them early and letting them have input in designing policies.

The Law Society is conducting a survey to study the stress that young lawyers face. The results are expected by the end of the year.

Its president Thio Shen Yi said: "We hope we can use (the results)... to give us some real deep knowledge into what young lawyers face in terms of pressure, what drives them and what drives them away."

SENSE OF FULFILMENT

A lawyer who is earning lots of money may actually be less satisfied than one who thinks he or she is making a difference. Carving out part of the week for work that does not pay, but has an impact on your community, can make the rest of the week feel more worthwhile.

PROFESSOR SIMON CHESTERMAN, dean of the National University of Singapore's law faculty, on how pro bono or voluntary work can help retain lawyers

It is "unrealistic" for lawyers starting their career to expect high salaries and independence, said Professor Simon Chesterman, dean of the National University of Singapore's law faculty.

"But it's also short-sighted on the part of law firms that squeeze their junior staff for short-term performance rather than building careers."

Lawyer Gloria James-Civetta suggested easing the workload by having longer deadlines and getting help from paralegals. At her firm, lawyers are paid "above market salary" and get pay rises every six to 12 months, depending on how they perform.

Rajah & Tann Singapore started a service last year to match legal consultants to companies that need legal support on short-term contracts and project-specific work. "Lawyers who need a break from practice and want to try something different but still stay in the legal industry can tap on (this)," said deputy managing partner Patrick Ang. There have been 11 successful matches.

Some firms said they try to meet the career aspirations of lawyers by giving them room to progress and have ownership in their work.

Mr Bazul Ashhab, managing partner and head of dispute resolution at Oon & Bazul, said it has put in place policies in the last five years to encourage young lawyers to stay for the long haul. For instance, partners train them to manage clients and court expectations, and guide them in building their clientele so they have the skills to become partners later. The firm also has regular meetings and an annual retreat "where ideas are canvassed and new policies are formulated with input from younger lawyers".

Mr Chia Ho Choon, human resources partner of Withers KhattarWong, said "high potential lawyers" have "career progression opportunities, management responsibilities as well as freedom to develop their practice".

Some firms said that with recent mergers, more opportunities exist for young lawyers to be part of higher-level work. For instance, those who join Withers KhattarWong can get global exposure by working in 17 other offices abroad.

Mr Lek Siang Pheng, deputy managing partner of Dentons Rodyk & Davidson, said lawyers can now be more involved in cross-border transactions and global disputes and arbitrations.

His firm is one which has bucked the trend - its proportion of lawyers with seven to 12 years of experience grew from nearly 14 per cent in 2011 to close to 18 per cent as of last month.

Mr Tan Chong Huat, managing partner of RHTLaw Taylor Wessing, said it is exploring automating aspects of work processes to be more efficient so as to ease the lawyers' workload. About 50 per cent of its lawyers have seven to 12 years of experience, compared with 60 per cent five years ago.

But Mr Tan also highlighted that lawyers need to have passion, along with a supportive work environment, to "keep them aligned" and "help them fulfil their passions".

Prof Chesterman said that pro bono, or voluntary, work - which is increasingly being adopted by many firms in the United States and elsewhere - can also help retain lawyers.

He said: "A lawyer who is earning lots of money may actually be less satisfied than one who thinks he or she is making a difference. Carving out part of the week for work that does not pay, but has an impact on your community, can make the rest of the week feel more worthwhile."

Amelia Teng

•Additional reporting by Zhaki Abdullah

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on September 04, 2016, with the headline 'Lighter workload, training among moves to retain staff'. Print Edition | Subscribe