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Disruption brought by global uncertainty has pervaded the dynamics of the legal workforce, with lawyers across Asia rethinking a career outside the same old fish bowl. Freny Patel dives into the reasons behind this trend

In his alarmist “great resignation” speech in early 2022, Singapore Law Society president Adrian Tan lamented high attrition in the Lion City’s legal fraternity, alerting warning signals to the rest of Asia to rectify high attrition or face an exodus of talent.

Surprisingly, the pandemic was not to blame. Rather, the biggest challenge he saw was burnout, over which lawyers had been complaining way before 2020.

“Email and instant messaging mean that young lawyers operate at a far more intense pace, compared to previous generations,” he warned, highlighting mental well-being as a serious cause for concern.

His apprehension was subsequently, more recently, shared by India’s Chief Justice, Dhananjaya Yashwant Chandrachud, who equated junior lawyers to slave workers. At a Bar Council of India gathering, he said junior lawyers were overworked and underpaid, urging senior members of the bar to pay them decent salaries.

Although not sparking this trend becoming known as the “great resignation”, the pandemic surely added fuel to the fire, pushing many lawyers to adjust their working routines, roles, practice areas or even entire careers.

In tandem with these developments, say experts, is an urgent need for the region’s law firms to increase pay and improve working conditions if they wish to retain talent. As one lawyer who recently left private practice put it, there is a direct correlation between attrition rates and the empathy of leaders in how they treat their teams.

Many lawyers and legal recruitment agencies Asia Business Law Journal interviewed agree. There are various reasons for people movement in the legal fraternity. Hitting the glass ceiling, wanting a better work-life balance, lack of confidence in meeting billing targets, and wanting a more meaningful role in the corporate world are just some of the reasons why a new generation of lawyers are not necessarily at one firm for the long haul.

“The primary reason for people to move is realising they’ve hit a glass ceiling,” notes Rabindra Jhunjhunwala, a Mumbai-based senior partner at Khaitan & Co.

Han Ri Bong, a Seoul-based partner at Bae Kim & Lee, says the younger generation of lawyers has a different perspective from the older one, where staying at the one firm for decades until becoming partners was the norm.

He says the South Korean legal industry is different from what it was 30 years ago, when the market was small, with only about 300 lawyers passing the bar annually compared to thousands today.

The Wolters Kluwer Future Ready Lawyer Survey 2022 concurs that most legal organisations are not doing very well at delivering on the expectations of their workforce, warning that 70% of corporate lawyers are likely to leave their current positions in the next year.

Amid the pandemic, the Singapore market also saw a higher volume of mid-level associates leave their practices. This void in mid-level senior associates placed greater strain on very junior lawyers, who had to directly interact with partners, says Linus Choo, Singapore executive director at global recruitment agency Ethos BeathChapman.

But, pressed for time, partners could not support the junior lawyers to provide necessary guidance or support. There is always the pressure of deadlines when it comes to private practice service delivery, especially when it comes to arbitration, litigation or corporate transactions, Choo tells Asia Business Law Journal. “Resources being thin, and with this pressure to deliver, there is hardly time for hand-holding, and interaction reduces.”

The pandemic has been a game changer, forcing many lawyers to reset and reassess their working conditions, and leaving law firms across Asia grappling with high attrition rates.

Organisations that did not allow employees flexibility lost people to other firms, says Jhunjhunwala. “Desperation defines one’s strategy to deal with a crisis, and giving flexibility is a strategy to retain people … allowing them to continue working from home.”

With increased flexible working and less face-to-face contact, the emotional connection between lawyer and law firm may not be as strong as it once was, meaning employees have been more inclined to move jobs, points out Geoff Allen, a partner at Trowers & Hamlins in Malaysia.

Adrian Tan, Singapore Law Society

Perhaps understandably, litigation or arbitration have more stable teams than other practice areas, says Brian Chan, head of the Hong Kong legal practice at Ethos BeathChapman. There has not been a lot of movement in these teams, not even among law firms, because “lawyers engaged in dispute resolution have to attend court or arbitral proceedings that could take a year or two for trials to end”.

On the other hand, transactional practice is largely driven by the state of the capital markets. When the market is hot, there’s a strong demand for equity or debt capital markets lawyers, says Chan. When the market contracts, there’s less demand for these lawyers, reflected by an annual attrition rate of 30%-40% for capital markets legal teams in private practice, and less than 20% for dispute resolution teams in Hong Kong, he says.

At the same time, most Asian markets have witnessed a high demand for data privacy and technology, media and telecommunications (TMT) lawyers. “Triggered by the pandemic, e-commerce has boomed, as has fintech, and there is a lot of demand for these lawyers as clients seek advice in these areas, especially given the rapid regulatory changes,” says Chan. He expects attrition to continue unless most law firms adopt hybrid working arrangements.

Alain Charles Veloso, a Manila-based partner at Quisumbing Torres, also expects attrition to continue and sees corporate and transactional lawyers moving in-house. Many lawyers in the Philippines are resigning to pursue further studies, join the government, move in-house or engage in other endeavours such as starting their own firm or business, says Veloso. “This is driven by lawyers having less appetite for a stressful and high-pressure work environment with long working hours, and striving for more work-life balance.”

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