Tell a Singaporean parent that their kid will become a lawyer when they grow up if they attend tuition classes at a special career prep centre charging $5,000 a month and I guarantee more than a few parents will sign their offspring up.
Lawyers earn monthly salaries that significantly exceed those of the average Singaporean, with fresh-faced first years earning an average of $5,000.
Yet the legal industry experiences embarrassingly high attrition rates, with 3 out of 4 local lawyers leaving practice within the first 10 years. If attractive salaries aren’t enough to keep them in practice, something must be wrong.
I quizzed a bunch of Singapore lawyers, who shed some light on what it’s really like being a lawyer in Singapore.
Terrible work-life balance
The general consensus amongst the young lawyers I spoke with was that law pays well enough, but the high salaries come at a price—awful work-life balance. While there are (admittedly rare) exceptions, most lawyers work a minimum of 10-12 hours a day, with many working until the wee hours of the morning in the weeks before an important deadline.
Nigel, 29, spent Christmas 2014 working. So it’s no surprise he doesn’t have too many good things to say about the work-life balance his job affords him.
“I hate being chained to my phone even when I am on leave,” he says. “It’s like I don’t deserve a break. I despise the fact that clients have no respect for my personal time and even the bosses expect work to be done over the weekends and while on leave.”
Geraldine, a corporate lawyer in her early 40s, has been in practice for more than 15 years. These days, she works on a part-time basis for a mid-sized firm. But life wasn’t always so easy.
“During my first four years in practice I was working in one of the big four firms. I used to work until 2 or 3am every single day. It was tough at first but after a while I got used to it. My body was tired and run down every second but somehow I just managed to get through each day out of habit. Now I look back to that period and I tell myself that if I could survive that I can survive anything.”
There are a lucky few who do think work-life balance is possible, but they are in a very small minority and they know it.
Teresa, 26, says, “I don’t think my answers will be very representative of the legal profession…. I think work-life balance is possible so long as people are efficient during office hours. I regularly leave at 6-7 as I don’t waste time going for long lunches and coffee breaks.”
Most lawyers surveyed agreed that the learning curve is steep during the first five or six years, when many drop out to due to stress or poor work-life balance.
“I’ve been a litigation lawyer for 3 years already and I still feel bloody clueless,” says, Brian, 30. “When you first start practising, you’re basically thrown in the deep end, and most of the time you have to figure things out on your own because your boss is too busy and stressed out to hold your hand.”
For adrenalin junkies, this can be a dream come true—if they have the stamina for it. Louis, a 27-year-old foreign lawyer based in Singapore, actually enjoys poring over contracts.
The corporate lawyer says, “This is not a job that everyone can do well. You have to be very, very precise. I love business law, which is why I have the stamina and focus to work for long stretches of time. But if you don’t have a deep interest in the law, this job can be hell.”
The money’s good, but maybe not good enough
After 6 to 12 months of training, during which they receive a stipend that usually ranges from $1,500 to $3,000, brand new lawyers start earning $4,500 to $6,000++ right off the bat.
But surprisingly, most of the lawyers I spoke with said they didn’t consider their salaries that high, taking into account the hours they worked.
Nigel concedes that the salary looks generous compared to those of his peers in other industries, but says bitterly, “I don’t get paid enough for the sacrifices I am expected to make. Beyond a certain limit, no amount of money can compensate for health and family time. Some people think being a lawyer is glamorous. But there’s nothing glamorous about being chained to your desk on a Friday night or leaving the office at 3am on a weekday.”
Do they recommend lawyering to aspiring students?
Yvette, 37, who’s in her twelfth year of practice, has this to say to aspiring lawyers, “If you can find a firm that offers good work-life balance, it’s actually not a bad job. While it’s not easy to find such a firm, if you are clear about what you want in a career you will eventually find something that suits you.”
“Take up dentistry instead,” says Nigel. “You get paid a decent salary but you leave at 6 on the dot.”
*Names have been changed to protect the identities of respondents.
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