538 lawyers in Singapore left profession in 2021, a five-year high

President of the Law Society of Singapore Adrian Tan giving his address during the Opening of Legal Year 2022 at the Supreme Court on Jan 10, 2022. ST PHOTO: KEVIN LIM

SINGAPORE - The legal profession saw a record number leave its ranks last year, and a concerned Law Society wants to find out why young lawyers in particular are quitting, its new president Adrian Tan said on Monday (Jan 10).

In his maiden speech at the annual ceremony to mark the opening of the legal year, he added that the number of lawyers who exited the profession hit a five-year high of 538, an "alarming" year-on-year increase of over 30 per cent.

For the previous four years, the number hovered between 380 and 430, he noted.

Out of the 538 departures, 310 consisted of junior lawyers who have practised for less than five years. They made up 14 per cent of the lawyers in that category, he said.

Coupled with a record low number of new lawyers being called to the Bar last year, the junior category "might be facing a perfect storm", said Mr Tan.

"New lawyers rejuvenate the profession, providing the nation with advocates, solicitors, prosecutors, registrars and judicial officers. It is important that, after investing so much to train them, we find ways to retain them," he added.

"It takes years, maybe decades, to be any good at this job. Law requires sustained focus and dedication. Law is not a gig but a calling."

Mr Tan said the Law Society will study the attrition rate of young lawyers.

The obvious question, he added, is whether blame should fall on the pandemic.

"The truth is that, even before 2020, young lawyers were complaining of burnout," he added.

"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 with previous generations."

In response, the Law Society has introduced more than a dozen support schemes, which include senior lawyers volunteering to guide juniors on law and career issues and external counselling services.

However, these are reactive solutions that do not address the cause of the problem, said Mr Tan.

He added that younger lawyers are different from their predecessors, many of whom viewed their careers as the central focus of their lives and described themselves as being married to the law.

"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."

Mr Tan presented a possible solution - a lawyer who "works from a laptop, uses technology to collaborate with other lawyers, meets clients virtually, and is not bound to a physical office".

He said after the Covid-19 pandemic hit, lawyers adjusted to the idea of videoconferencing and learnt that court hearings could be held remotely.

"Lawyers encountered another new phenomenon: family time. We could see family members in the daylight and dine with them on weekdays," he added.

He questioned whether law firms still needed large offices and if lawyers could dispense with "20th-century concepts" such as daily commuting and "working for the landlord".

In a poll of society members, more than 70 per cent of respondents said law practices should be permitted to deliver services entirely online, without a physical office.

More than 80 per cent thought that rules should be reviewed to allow for innovative ways to deliver the services, he said.

He added that the Law Society initiated a four-month-long acceleration programme supported by the Ministry of Law and Enterprise Singapore to help small- and mid-sized law firms innovate and transform their businesses.

"We might see a future where traditional and virtual law firms compete for legal talent based on, not just salary, but the availability of hybrid arrangements and varied career paths."

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