Young lawyers cite long hours, stress for quitting amid calls for more support from legal fraternity

About one in seven junior lawyers stopped practising last year. PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - The high attrition rates of junior lawyers has some law firms worried about the profession's rejuvenation process as older lawyers retire and younger ones grow disillusioned and leave the industry.

The departures represent a "worrying trend", said Ms Koh Swee Yen, a partner at one of Singapore's Big Four law firms, WongPartnership. She was recently appointed senior counsel.

Senior counsel Gregory Vijayendran from Rajah & Tann, another Big Four law firm, said "we will be unable to renew ourselves as a profession and will lose our bright young talent to other industries" if the exodus keeps up in the coming years.

In a speech on Jan 10 during a ceremony to mark the opening of the legal year, newly appointed Law Society president Adrian Tan highlighted the loss of 310 junior lawyers from the profession in 2021.

This means that about one in seven junior lawyers, defined as those who have practised law for less than five years, stopped practising last year.

While pointing out that the Covid-19 pandemic has had an effect on resignations across all sectors, Mr Tan said one reason junior lawyers left in droves last year could be the intense pace of work brought on by technology.

"It may be tougher to be a young lawyer now than at any time in history," he said.

"E-mails and instant messaging mean that they operate at a far more intense pace, compared to previous generations. Young lawyers are on call night and day. Many are exhausted."

He added that burnout was not a new phenomenon, a view echoed by Ms Tan Jun Yin, who was called to the Bar in 2016 but left her job as a criminal defence lawyer slightly more than three years later.

"Long hours have always been a feature of the legal sector. I didn't mind working hard and it is often necessary to put in the hours to do a thorough job, but constantly ending work late in the night is not sustainable over a long-term career," she said.

Ms Adeline Seet, 24, said her decision to quit her firm was due to the anxiety and stress she felt from having to deal with the structural problems of a small law firm.

She said: "As someone new (to the industry) and conflict-averse, I find it hard to speak out about these problems although my colleagues are really very approachable.

"It just got very overwhelming for me, and I decided that it was in my best interests at the moment to leave after less than a year. I'm really not sure if I will leave the profession altogether, I'm still trying to decide. "

Chia S Arul partner Sharon Chia, who said her law firm was affected by the departure of junior lawyers, called for the legal fraternity to show more support.

"It can be quite disheartening when newly called lawyers have to deal with impatient judges or registrars," she said.

Mr Patrick Ang, the managing partner of Rajan & Tann, said the firm recently launched a work-well guide to assist its lawyers in striking a balance between the rigours of practice and pursuing a healthy lifestyle.

The guide also seeks to reduce unnecessary sources of stress and promote mental and physical well-being.

Mr Ang said: "We also have an associates management committee - who are elected by their peers - which has regularly engaged the management on issues that concern young lawyers so that policies can be implemented to help address these issues."

Ms Tan, who rejoined her firm after taking a break from the industry to work with a non-governmental organisation, said she would encourage young lawyers to set their own boundaries early and actively communicate with those in management if they find they were being stretched too thin.

"In turn, it makes sense for higher-ups to pay attention to employees' mental health in order to retain talent and boost productivity," said the 30-year-old senior associate at Trident Law.

"Ultimately, I decided to come back to the profession because I enjoy the work. Criminal defence, in particular, exposes me to clients from all walks of life.

"Law, in general, is a practice of such breadth and depth that allows you to never stop learning, and I enjoy the constant process of discovery," she said.

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