The report by Ben Lewis a few weeks ago in Asia Law that Singapore law firms are being forced to offer unique employment benefits to retain lawyers as demand outstrips supply in this booming region got me thinking and pondering whether there is possibly a better way . . . .

Do lawyers really dress and party like this? Sean Larkan Photo

At top Singapore law firm Rajah & Tann, lawyers can let off some steam in lounges equipped with Nintendo Wii game consoles, pool and foosball tables, and electric massage chairs. Around the corner at rival Drew & Napier, a “Ministry of Fun” coordinates a social calendar that, according to the firm’s Web site, includes trips to Thailand as well as “glamorous dinners and crazy parties where everyone from directors to trainees, boogie. . . . . “

Factors at play seem to be:

  • Scarcity of jobs & high attrition to other countries and outside law
  • Fewer law graduate recruits
  • A drop of nearly 50%  in 7-12 year experienced lawyers in the region

Blamed (by lawyers) are:

  • Unpredictable, long hours, especially compared to in-house counsel
  • Remuneration lower than near-neighbours Hong Kong (despite 20% increases in recent years)

Blamed (by firms) are:

  • Unrealistic expectations (regarding work hours for instance) on the part of young lawyers

My thoughts for law firm leaders on these developments:

  • The legal profession around the world has a habit of getting itself into such tangles – as firms we tend to follow one another like sheep – if one firm (especially a brand name firm), does something, like offer particular employment benefits, we feel we have to follow in an identical or similar way.
  • And of course young lawyers don’t miss a trick – they use these developments to negotiate their version of the ‘ministry of fun’. And so the spiral continues.
  • It is sometimes wiser to quietly take stock, bite the bullet and work out an effective people strategy for the long term, which will counter whatever the future market throws at it.
  • The problem of course is that this is challenging, it takes time, and it also invariably requires changed behaviours by partners.
  • What is happening usually points to low levels of engagement (will lawyers stay, say and strive?) which is seldom impacted positively by a changeable feast of ‘perks’, especially the kind listed above. In my experience these benefits translate at best into temporary and superficial engagement.
  • Firms should rather look closer to home (and in the mirror) for some real causative factors and for examples from other parts of the world, many of which have had to cope with similar stresses (booming Perth, West Australia, for instance) – at management practices and cultural issues:
    • Are partners and leadership taking a real, individual interest in and showing respect for the professional and personal well-being, growth and development of their staff? Are they accountable for this – are their consequences if they don’t scrub up?
    • Are they aware of what truly builds engagement in a law firm?
    • Are they operating their partner-lawyer teams effectively?
  • After a few years of this ‘our perks are better than their perks’ merry-go-round, firms will be concerned to see that fundamental issues such as engagement, loyalty and trust have not in fact built.
  • They will then have to start working on the ‘next great thing’ or knuckle down to the real issues, hopefully having learned the lesson that it is the fundamentals that need work, not the short-term cosmetics. In the former both the firms and lawyers win hands down, in the latter, only the lawyers, and usually only in the short term.