Some reflections and musings on the Singapore Great Resignation and Great Apprehension
By Geeta Thakerar, Co convenor of SCCA Well Being Chapter
The legal profession in Singapore, as the case elsewhere, is at an inflection point. There are ever increasing 21st century demands. These include inter alia the high expectations of senior legal leaders; legal managers, in both private practice and inhouse alike; the courts; clients; customers and, society in general. There is the delicate tightrope balance, against such pressures, and maintaining a fulfilling family/life work balance.
Following the emergence from the pandemic restrictions, one common theme has been the resizing of firms and inhouse legal teams respectively. This has largely been driven by clients/companies restructuring and downsizing. The knock-on effect on law firms and inhouse legal teams respectively, has translated to job insecurity, additional stresses, anxiety, and behaviours such as quiet quitting with lawyers doing the bare minimum. Creativity and innovation in many cases is stifled with an overhanging cloud concerning job insecurity lurking in the background. Employees in such a situation, are likely to be increasingly anxious, cautious, often coupled with feelings of cognitive dissonance.
There are recent survey reports, with relevant information collated from various markets, indicating that lawyers’ mental health could be in peril. Such reports suggest that lawyers are increasingly experiencing burnout in their jobs. This is has increased particularly during the latter part of 2021.
In addition, the possibility and fear of being made redundant also has had a bearing on not only mental health, but also overall productivity. Constant concern about job security is discouraging and may negatively impact concentration and motivation levels. This in turn may also lead to mental health issues, including stress, anxiety and depression respectively. Additionally, redundancies also can affect those who are not impacted per se, particularly in the form of survivor’s guilt.
Even before the pandemic, lawyers’ well-being was in a crisis mode. There is historic data from many jurisdictions, indicating lawyers potentially suffered much greater rates of depression, anxiety, alcohol, and substance abuse, when compared with the general population.
Bloomberg Law conducted the “Attorney Workload and Hours” survey in late 2021 which was reported in March 2022. This version of the quarterly survey asked 614 in-house and law firm attorneys about their job satisfaction, workload, well-being, job status, and work culture in fourth-quarter 2021. Results revealed that while job satisfaction overall remains relatively unchanged, lawyers grappled with an increase in burnout and a decline in well-being. Lawyers who reported that their well-being worsened, notably, had a lower job satisfaction score, with a corresponding higher incidence of work-related issues. The lawyers who reported a decline in well-being also reported much lower job satisfaction scores. Lawyers who reported a decline in well-being were almost three times more likely to report that they are actively seeking other opportunities.
In Singapore over the last few years, the Law Society of Singapore have recorded an increase in the number of lawyers who have decided to leave the legal profession completely. There was a recent article in the Singapore Law Society Gazette looking at attrition rates within the profession. Additionally, The Singapore Straits Times also recently reported feedback from parents interviewed on the subject. Many parents are discouraging their children from considering law as a profession. The reasons given included too much stress and the prevailing reputation of young lawyers’ negative experiences in the legal profession in Singapore. Such experiences are having a detrimental impact on both the health and mental wellbeing of lawyers.
Data collected by the Law Society of Singapore suggests that as much as 30% of young lawyers have departed the profession in Singapore in 2021. This is a concerning year-on-year increase, particularly when compared with previous years. Some 538 lawyers left practice in Singapore in 2021. This is more than 380 to 430 as per records over the past 4 years. The statistics indicate that the departures were concentrated among junior lawyers, and moreover, those that have been in practice for less than 5 years. This junior category is facing a perfect storm given the combination of a record high number of departures coinciding with a corresponding record low number of law student entrants.
More recently, the Law Society of Singapore announced it is due to undertake a study so as to further assess the root causes of the attrition rate of young lawyers. Singapore qualified lawyers remain in demanded by other industries and reports suggest that the Singapore attrition is much higher than the often-compared UK and USA, respectively. Reports recently also suggest that the exodus of junior lawyers in Singapore, include a number of push factors. These include a combination of unreasonable work hours, toxic work environments, low pay and lack of proper recognition. Many are drawn by better prospects in other legal professional establishments in industry or up-and-coming sectors that let them develop new skill sets with better career development prospects, pay and recognition.
The high turnover is also considered as part of the pandemic era’s deep-reflection by workers on the future, their careers, work-conditions, and long-term goals. Currently, younger lawyers are more focused on sustainability and as a new Singapore lawyer there is the desire to continue to develop as part of an emerging modern law firm. This includes a continued heavy emphasis on remote working, increased reliance on the use technology to collaborate with other lawyers as well as engaging more frequently with virtual meetings with clients. This is creating the emergence of the invisible law firm. The latter not being bound to a physical office, a culture of being less top-down, and the need to be more grassroot focused which encourages building trust and empowerment of juniors to work and pursue ideas with overall lighter supervision.
As Singapore is currently a legal hub for the region and the economy poised to recover and expand, the legal profession needs to be in a strong position to support this recovery/growth. Of note, the legal profession plays a key role with regards to business expansion, and the aid in the issues management and resolution of conflict.
Accordingly, it is of significant importance that the reasons why lawyers are quitting, especially the junior ones, is quickly addressed. Appropriate actions should be undertaken as a matter of urgency.
Meanwhile, the recent corporate dialogue within law firms and legal departments has also opened up to address the negative stigma of burnout, stress, and depression. These are now no longer being associated with weakness. More employers are starting to engage in a positive dialogue in this regard.
As part of building resilience one important matter to reflect on are the number and diversity of attributes that make up the meaningful aspects of who one is. The higher one’s self-complexity, the more resilient one becomes. People who reduced themselves down to one attribute, such as just their job, often can have a feeling of being dehumanized and be like nothing more than a machine or a tool. This in turn may result in increased levels of disengagement, depression, and burnout. Accordingly, it is important to think about diversifying one’s sense of self. This may be achieved by investing in different areas of life and by the creation of diversity there are choices to devote to other areas such as for example hobbies and health. That way when things at work are not going so smoothly, one does not lose one’s entire sense of self.
There is an ongoing call to action. The Singapore Corporate Counsel Association, the Law Society of Singapore, the Singapore Academy of Law, as well as the Association of Corporate Counsel (Singapore Chapter) have numerous initiatives in place for their members. Singapore Corporate Counsel Association set up its Well Being Chapter in late 2017. The Law Society of Singapore for example, have introduced various support schemes over the recent years, including having guidance, mentorship, and counselling services for lawyers. These are, however, reactive solutions addressing the symptoms, not the cause of the problem.
The efforts of Mindful Business Singapore have, with the assistance of various volunteers from the legal profession, also undertaken a Singapore based survey in 2021 of a number of lawyers. The said survey covers both in house as well as lawyers in private practice largely supporters of the Mindful Business Charter initiative. The Singapore survey looked at Singapore based lawyers’ wellbeing. The results and analysis will comprise a Sustainability Report for Singapore lawyers. This is due to be published later this year. There will also be made available selected tool kits, further guidance, suggested action plans and aid memoires to be considered/deployed.
Meanwhile it remains important to keep these conversations going and address concerns as soon as possible.