Many of my friends who are anxious parents ask me whether their kids should go into law. I think I increased their anxiety after they watched Suits and realised that Mike didn’t graduate from Harvard. They see my earring, my irregular hours, my dressing, my regular disappearances from Singapore and nobody really understands exactly what I do even after asking me, and they probably call up some other friendly lawyer friend to double check on everything I have said 😆.
To those whom I have advised, there’s good news. I may seem like I speak through my arse (pardon my French) most days, but I do have my Law LLB Honours degree and practising certificate to this day, I have worked in the Legal Service and discharged my judicial duties honourably (I like to think), I have slogged most of my life in two of the largest law firms in Singapore as a litigator and practised in diverse areas and specialised in some. I have gone into the business world for 4 years in a C suite capacity and thereafter returned to the legal world. I am part of a senior team managing a law network at the regional level – so rest assured at least 17% of what I told you is correct.
And I am old school – I believe in honour, passion, uncompromising ethics, and that line in the sand.
Don’t get me wrong , I am extremely proud about my profession and my brethren. If I seem extreme in my views or flippant about serious issues, forgive the old bulldog. I have been dropped on my head as a child too many times. This has not only resulted in me being facially challenged and disadvantaged very early on in life, but the cerebral shortcomings are only beginning to show.
LAW IS A CALLING NOT A BUSINESS
I am proud of this adage but the nobility of this line of thought is increasingly eroded with time. But not necessarily in a bad way.
The law is a profession and with that comes certain rules and some unique ways in which we conduct ourselves but the reality is that large law corporations in the world today have revenues comparable to a multinational company, and they must come into this century and run their organisations with proper governance, embrace technology and discard archaic practices adopted when we still had wing collars and wore wigs.
Lawyers are notoriously non progressive unlike accountants but that is slowly changing – and the charge is being led by the biggest law firms in Singapore. If you want to practise with the elite, a mindset change must be adopted.
But putting aside the modern business aspects of the law firm today, the Legal Profession is still hallowed ground. Do not enter if you do not have the passion, the ethos, the ethics. The money is good, the prestige is fab but the hours are long.
You need the passion to keep you sane for the next 40 years of your working life. You need to kinda like (or at least don’t mind) reading and writing for the rest of your life, and if you have little or flexible honour or ethics, please do not enter.
“Death before Dishonour” should be your undying motto. I actually have an Ed Hardy T shirt with those words and a bleeding dagger which I quite like.
THE LEGAL PROFESSION IN SINGAPORE
As at 2017, there are about 5200 Lawyers in Singapore give or take a crocodile or two. Of these cohort, about 2300 (45%) are equal to or more than 15 years practice (old fogies), about 1050 (20%) in the 5-15 years practice (young punks) and about 1800 (35%) are equal to or less than 5 years practice (practically babies).
What do these statistics tell you? Nothing except that I seem mildly intelligent and know how to google the law society website.
THE HARSH REALITIES
But let me tell you what is happening on the ground.
The government and the law society have been calibrating this over the years largely through admission numbers in our local universities and recognition (or non recognition) of the degrees of overseas universities (predominantly UK) for those who wish to pursue the practice of law in Singapore.
But whether it’s the glamorisation of the profession through programmes like “Suits” or “Bull” or simply a confluence of the growth in Asia and people think there is great potential for noble professions such as medicine and the law, there seems to be an almost parallel and acute problem in these 2 professions in recent times. The brightest of the bright slog through 4 years of law school or 5-6 years of medical school and additional years of practice training only to find themselves without a job when the time comes for their Starbucks latte moment.
How bad is it for the law graduates today in Singapore ? Some of the biggest law firms get 10 times more applications than the places they have to offer – yes only 1 or 2 in 10 interviewed get an offer.
The rest will try to find a job in a small or medium sized firm but even the jobs in those firms are slowly becoming scarce and unable to absorb the supply.
So there is an even chance that your precious bushy-tailed bright-eyed legal offspring will be without a job, and will still be living in your basement so to speak. Now are you sitting down ?
So what are my nuggets of wisdom (in my lucid moments) to you anxious parents?
MY SON THE LAWYER
Nice ring to it ?
First, abandon your life long dream about your precious child being “ a lawyer or a doctor “. It is their life not yours.
Sit down and have a nice long chat about what they really want, their aspirations, what they really enjoy and think they are good at, and what they want their life to look like.
Keep an open mind and try to understand their millennial, Instagram muddled minds. Never mind that like snap chat, what they told you not that long ago may change or disappear.
If they are getting into law only because they are trying to please you, they may lose a good part of their life slogging and doing something they actually hate. And there’s lots to dislike.
The stress and pressure can be unbearable. Many of us have experienced tight knots in the gut for many years (so most of us have six packs) and dry retching is par for course when we were much younger.
Having to read reams of documents at 1am in the morning and thereafter draft a long urgent opinion to clients eloquently loses its appeal after a while.
Be honest – if you are doing more than nudging your precious boy to go into this arena, go binge watch Suits and get the law out of your system. Go get sweet popcorn and bring me some.
If they profess to have a real unbridled passion for the law, then make sure they understand what the realities are.
Some of these young upstarts romanticise in their minds that they would be wearing the slick Armani suits and branded ties that Harvey Specter rocks, clutching their designer lattes, and spouting legalese.
But old fogies like us find ways and means to try to get out of our monkey suits. We try to wean off coffee and roll our eyes when we hear someone spouting pompous legalese.
There is some glamour but it is overrated. Come in for the right reasons.
LEGAL SERVICE AND IN HOUSE COUNSEL
What about jobs in the Legal Service or as In House counsel? Both are great options.
I started life in the Judicial Service and those 3 years counts as the most satisfying and fulfilling moments in my legal career. There was a sense of purpose and the learning curve was steep. But it anchored me and gave me a sense of public life and duty.
The legal service today pays as competitively as the upper echelons of private practice and staffs some of our best minds. Singapore has one of the best judicial and legal service in the world stage bar none, and I would strongly recommend it to any new lawyer starting his career in the law.
Lawyers go in house for various reasons.
Some are not attracted to the rigours and sometimes almost impossible demands of private practice and go in house after several years to seek a more balanced life style.
Others are tired of the vagaries of diverse client behaviour and prefer to serve only one client and stakeholder ie the organisation they work for.
One of the advantages of being in house counsel is also that you are totally immersed in the corporate world so to speak, and some see it as a useful step to transition from there to the corporate world, hopefully towards senior management. A recent trend that is emerging is the increasing acceptance of the General Counsel ( the most senior in house counsel in the legal team) to be a potential candidate to move up to senior management in the organisation.
Think Consigliere in a Mafia organisation.
Indeed, I have seen real life examples of Head of legal in private tycoon organisations moving from Head Legal to Special projects, Head Of business development and overseas expansion and, in one instance, to become Chief Operations Officer when that position became vacant.
Have a look at this useful note from the Singapore Ministry of law which highlights the various options open to law graduates
DO YOU GO TO LAW SCHOOL ONLY IF YOU WANT TO BE A LEGAL EAGLE?
If your Instagram warrior gets a place in law school (that means he or she is extremely bright despite his Nintendo fixation and despite his conversations with you being a series of unintelligible grunts) but are not sure if a life in the law is for them, should they nevertheless still go to law school ?
No harm because the law training will give them a sharp, perceptive, critically analytical and questioning mind, which will put them in good stead in the business world.
I know of people who practiced for a couple of years and have gone on to do extremely well in new careers in banking, IT solutions, F n B, and other positions in the corporate world. The legal training moulds them to be confident, focused, analytical, resolute, but god forbid, not a complete quarrelsome a**hole.
But spare a thought for those who truly want to pursue law and need the place. Like I said, do it for the right reasons.
LET THEM BE THE BEST THAT THEY CAN BE
I have four beautiful kids whom I am very proud of.
Two of them have already opted for the corporate world and not law although they considered it.
The third told me she wanted to be a lawyer and she scolds this wolf frequently and quite effectively, so I thought she would make a great lawyer. I arranged for her to have a 2 week secondment in my firm and at the end of the 2 weeks, she told me in no uncertain terms that a life in the law is not for her, and she has her heart now set on dentistry or medicine.
The fourth is still some time away from deciding but right now with my acute analytical mind honed from more than 30 years in the law, it seems that he may become a part time rugby player, part time douche-bag swim suit model and want to make millions filming himself on U tube eating a cheese burger seriously and sensuously.
So none of my kids may go into the law and that’s ok.
Let them live their dreams and just be there to switch off the computer, and remove that plate of half-eaten cheeseburger.