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Retention of young lawyers.

By Linus Choo, Legal, Risk & Compliance

This article takes a hard look at the shortcomings of the Singapore and Hong Kong private practice scene in its ability to grapple with the high attrition of associates, and is based on feedback from just under a thousand private practice lawyers.

Retention and management of young lawyers (those aged 35 years and less) has become one of the biggest problems for law firms in Singapore and Hong Kong. They tend to come and go very quickly, often at their first, third or fifth-year mark.
Such a phenomenon typically results in a mid-level talent gap in the firms’ hierarchy, ie senior associates, as those with four to eight years of post-qualification experience drop significantly in number.
This is the reality facing law firms in Singapore today.
Many senior associates move into the commercial arena as in-house legal counsels, or band together with a few of their peers to create small law firms. These are attractive alternatives: join very large companies with more sophisticated management processes or be completely autonomous!
We have also seen an increasing demand by multinationals and government-linked companies over the past two years for increasingly younger corporate (and even litigation) lawyers employed as in-house legal counsels. None of the above bodes well for the legal practice.
To counteract the attrition, law firms generally turn to mid-level lateral hires from other law firms. Another way law firms significantly replenish their headcount is by increasing the intake of pupils.
Despite these efforts, the problem has persisted over the last four years. Long-staying employees are virtually non-existent in almost all large and medium-sized law firms. Few lawyers can now proclaim that they ‘grew up in the firm’. 

The attitude that ‘associates never stay long’ thus pervades and becomes entrenched – to the point of being tacitly anticipated within a law firm. It becomes harder and harder to retain junior lawyers – and most firms have given up.

Why is this so?
From feedback given to us by almost a thousand lawyer-candidates in private practice over the past two years, there are several reasons why the retention of young lawyers is a major problem.
Business goes on
Law firms have grown very adept at handling employee turnover: their excellent file and client management systems allow for day-to-day business to continue smoothly with little or no disruption. Junior lawyers are perceived to be dispensable and replaceable. 

The manager’s closed door
Partners or partners-to-be seldom make enough time for associates, in terms of training, teaching and counselling simply because making time for them is not seen to be something terribly important or practical. Many senior lawyers currently in practice cut their teeth the hard way in the 1980s and early 1990s. They were thrown in the deep end of considerably smaller law practices (typically overwhelmed with work) and eventually learnt to survive by themselves. “The best training is your own training”, as one senior lawyer remarked. This mentality has been passed down to successive generations of lawyer-managers.

Today’s generation of lawyers require ‘higher maintenance’ where instruction, guidance and general ‘hand-holding’ are concerned. Money is no longer a chief motivation. Instead, achievement, recognition and information are now the primary motivating forces for young lawyers (see below). This stereotypical ‘millennial lawyer’ is something all developed economies and affluent societies must contend with. Lawyer-managers feel that they simply do not have time for such high maintenance hand-holding.

Me first, my people later
The management and retention of associates have no direct bearing on the lawyer-manager’s own performance. In other words, the way you manage your juniors is not a critical key performance indicator even when you successfully turn them into productive, profitable fee earners.
A dangerous, but thankfully not widespread practice has seen unscrupulous junior partners quietly taking billed time away from young associates and passing them off as their own. This is done in order to reach fee targets to justify promotion to equity partnership (for the ambitious) or simply to pass them off as their own (for the unmotivated). Most associates choose to suffer in silence because they are either unsure of the normality of such practices or they fear repercussions.
Such actions are detrimental to law firms, especially in the current climate where attrition remains higher than ever. Management (or the lack thereof) remains the critical factor in the exodus of young lawyers.
On a brighter note, there exists at least two large law firms and a handful of medium-sized ones which have fairly successful management and retention records as well as well-established practices. In other words, it can be done.
In Hong Kong, there exists many well-regarded international law practices with very careful training and mentorship of associates. This is done to ensure high client service standards. Once confident that a young associate is ‘up to scratch’, a certain amount of much-welcomed autonomy and independence is granted to them.

Partners or firms with the highest associate turnover rates are ones which adopt a ‘this is a law firm like any other. Seen one, seen all. Been in one, been in them all. Just go do your work’ approach towards mentoring. Partners or firms with the lowest associate turnover are those who are very candid about their own working lives, as well as the expectations, fears and tribulations they have gone through in their careers. They are very open, patient and flexible, and make immense time – almost to a fault – for their associates.

Some managers are reportedly floored when asked by associates, ‘What is my career path likely to be?’ or ‘When and how can I be a partner of the firm?’ Ironically, most associates start off never intending to make partnership – simply because they are not aware of what exactly that entails, besides the opportunity to earn ‘a lot of money’. They simply wish to be ‘good lawyers’ – and this in turn is derived from being certain that they are doing ‘good work’. Associates must be able to detect the intrinsic worth and value of what they are doing.
Therefore, when there is too much perceived arbitrariness or silence on how their performance is rated, or how they are doing in general, confidence in any merit-based performance system will be gradually eroded. Associates become uncertain of how they are being valued for their work, and soon begin to question the worth of their work. 
It must be kept in mind that the legal landscape today is very different from that of the 80s and 90s. Today, the vast majority of newly qualified lawyers commence their practice in very large law firms – of which there are less than 10. Management techniques and internal company culture become more critical the larger the organisation – and these are areas which have long been neglected by many managers.

What can a law firm do to retain their associates?

The following should be kept in mind.

The retention of associates is premised on three critical factors:

1. Achievement. They must be able to derive a sense of satisfaction from their work.​

2. Recognition. They must feel recognised by their immediate superiors for work done.

3. Information. They must be able to know ‘what’s happening to them, their performance, where their department is headed, how the firm is doing generally’.

An associate will almost always leave a law firm because of:

- Lack of the three critical factors above

- Deteriorating relationship with the individual's immediate superior 

- Lack of a visible career path

Any lawyer-manager in a firm should be able to give confident and ready responses to these questions: ‘What is my career path likely to be?’ and ‘When and how can I be a partner of the firm?’ These responses must be capable of substantiation with real-life examples in the firm.

Just as many partners have chosen to remain in practice, the same sense of achievement (and how to attain that) must be verbalised and translated into simple terms for eager and possibly idealistic associates.

It would be impractical to give all associates as much time as they would like to have. However, there must be sufficient feedback on their professional development and progress. Giving them necessary attention will also convey to them a sense of recognition for the value of their work, and in turn they will derive personal satisfaction from their own work.

Retention is not impossible. It’s simply intentional. 

Besides leading Ethos BeathChapman’s Legal, Risk & Compliance practice in Singapore, Linus Choo personally conducts retained legal search assignments to appoint senior legal practitioners into Fortune 500 companies and legal firms across the Asia Pacific region. Connect with Linus.

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