20 January 2018
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Rookie lawyers want to be more than ‘source of labour’ for bosses

29 Dec 2017
Kelly Ng

Expose rookie lawyers to more proper legal work rather than treat them as “merely as sources of labour”, and be more nurturing and patient when communicating with them, senior members of the Bar have been urged.

The call came from the Young Lawyers’ Task Force commissioned by the fraternity’s professional body in 2016 to suggest ways to address problems young lawyers face — a group with high attrition rate.

Led by lawyers Paul Tan and Yeo Chuan Tat, the task force, through focus groups with those who have been practising for less than three years, found that fledgling lawyers feel they are just “thrown from task to task”, get inadequate guidance, and have to manage “unreasonable” demands from their bosses.

In its 24-page report published on a portal for members of the Law Society of Singapore (LawSoc) this week, the task force concluded that “law firms and senior members of the bar should not merely view young lawyers as economic vectors but as professionals to be nurtured and developed in the best traditions of the Bar”.

Addressing the grouses of rookie lawyers and enhancing their professional training can also have an “incidental positive effect” on the attrition woes that have riddled this group for years, it added.

Over the last two years, the issue of young lawyers working under increasing strain was flagged as a concern by Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon during his addresses at Mass Call ceremonies — to formally admit lawyers to the Bar. In his latest speech in August, CJ Menon urged law firms to “make it a priority” to ensure that safeguards are in place for lawyers who may be struggling.

In the task force’s report, young lawyers’ views on how they were treated in office was one of five areas of improvement.

While they accept that long hours and hard work are par for the course in legal practice, young lawyers voiced their concerns with “unreasonable” demands or “avoidable” stresses from bosses, such as being given instructions late at night and being expected to turn around the work by morning, or being expected to stay back after office hours or come in over the weekends “when there may be no pressing need”.

“These (concerns) are usually accompanied by comments about supervisors being tetchy or quick-tempered when under pressure themselves,” the task force found.

It recommended that while it is inevitable that personal schedules sometimes have to make way for demands of the work, supervising lawyers should not take rookies’ availability for granted.

It added: “Senior lawyers should also take to heart their serious obligation to conduct themselves and to communicate in a manner befitting their seniority and leadership in the profession and the firm.”

A satisfactory training experience must include good mentorship, either by supervising lawyers or their assistants closer in seniority to the trainees and are more likely to be “available on a day-to-day basis”, said the task force. It recommended that supervising lawyers share feedback for each piece of work that the trainee has done.

Trainees should also have opportunities to take on pro bono work, which allows them to “‘cut their teeth’ on real cases quickly”, it said.

The length of training contracts can be doubled to a year, it proposed, so that apprentices can gain more exposure in various practice groups.

Young lawyers surveyed also expressed their preference for “face-time” with supervisors and more regular feedback, with some noting that the only indication of their calibre often came only when the firms they trained at decided to retain them.

“Supervising solicitors must not view trainees merely as sources of labour, but as future members of the Bar,” wrote the task force in its report.

For young lawyers who have already earned a place in their firms, mentorship was also a key area with room for improvement.

Noting that such elements cannot be enforced by “hard legislation”, the task force recommended that firms adopt structured feedback systems which include at least two face-to-face appraisal sessions per year. Alternative platforms, such as ombudsmen, can also be considered to take into account concerns that young lawyers may not feel comfortable disclosing to their direct supervisors.

In response to queries, a LawSoc spokesperson said the welfare of young lawyers and trainees “is a top priority” as “they are the future of the profession, and an important resource that we must invest in”.

He added that the report has also been given to a committee formed in 2016 and chaired by Justice Quentin Loh that was tasked to “undertake a root and branch review of the entire training contract regime in Singapore” in the face of a supply glut of law graduates. This 14-member committee is expected to release its findings soon.

In the meantime, the LawSoc is looking at how to implement the task force’s recommendations on areas such as professional development and treatment of associates. One way, for example, could be through sending “guidance notes” to law firms.

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