Already grappling with high stress, mental health issues, and a lack of meaningful mentorship at work, young lawyers today are facing new challenges unique to the time they live in. ALB talks to junior lawyers across the region who share their experiences, aspirations, and obstacles when making their mark in a legal industry reshaped by three years of pandemic and the advent of AI.

    Lawyers are known to be grinders, clocking long hours, abiding by clients' commands, and constantly wondering how to survive. They may be "cash rich" at times, but almost without a doubt, they are "time poor." Despite this, the legal profession continues to attract a slew of talented young graduates, many of whom are high academic achievers determined to make an impact in the real world.

    However, in recent years, the tried and tested recipe for scaling the law firm ladder has been increasingly shunned by the younger generation of legal professionals. In a survey conducted by ALB among lawyers with less than ten years of PQE across Asia, nearly 73 percent of respondents cited "work-life balance" as an important factor when choosing their current position. Over 64 percent of the young lawyers also described work-life balance as "extremely important." Additionally, 57 percent deemed the opportunity to work remotely at least some of the time as "extremely important" as well.

    But many of them raised what they perceived as a misperception that young lawyers are lazy or do not value hard work as much as those who came before them. One respondent believed that "different priorities" was a more accurate way to portray the mindsets of younger talents. Having been battling pressure to conform since stepping foot in the cutthroat world of the legal industry, younger lawyers are increasingly yearning for meaningful guidance and a robust support system at the workplace. This has been reflected in the perceived significance of "mentorship," which 74 percent of respondents cited as "extremely important." A number of respondents were also dismayed by the lack of a clear career progression trajectory, which could be demoralizing even for those ready to give their all and make an impact.

    The survey results have presented a fundamental challenge for today's law firm leaders in striking a feasible balance between pursuing profitability, promoting respectable work ethics, ensuring high standards, and taking into consideration the well-being of the younger cohorts—new to the game and looking to make their mark, but in their own way. Noting the shift in workplace attitudes among younger talents these days, employee engagement specialists believe employers need to abandon the old ways of working and proactively reassess, rethink, and realign with the higher-than-ever expectations of employees.


    The awakening to work-life balance started even before the COVID-19 pandemic, but the three-year global health crisis has put it and mental health awareness under the spotlight. With the workforce collectively entering a stage of reckoning, young lawyers have also become more outspoken about their life priorities. Remote working has seemed to become a vital element in attaining work-life balance for some young lawyers. For example, some associates in the U.S. market would rather brave a salary or bonus cut than heed management's calls to return to the office. Other law firms, such as New York-based Otterbourg, have splashed out $25,000 to each associate to lure them back to face-to-face work. And when the carrot didn't work, Big Law brought out the sticks, with Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom being one of the latest to mandate four days in the office for its lawyers.

    "Work-life balance and hybrid working are crucial aspects that promote the overall well-being of any professional. It has allowed me to maintain a healthy equilibrium between my professional and personal life, and it has reduced stress and burnout while enhancing my job satisfaction," says Yash Kahandole, a senior corporate associate at India's Shardul Amarchand Mangaldas & Co. "Due to hybrid working, I have been able to manage my time efficiently and accommodate personal responsibilities without compromising professional commitments," he adds.


    "Work-life balance is critical to allow lawyers to achieve their non-work-related priorities (be it to build a family or for further studies). Remote working has the potential for law firms to work with the lawyers to accommodate the lawyers' other priorities without the lawyers having to leave the firm."

    • Lyndon Choo, Providence Law Asia


    Lyndon Choo, a counsel at Singapore-based Providence Law Asia, concurs. "Work-life balance is critical to allow lawyers to achieve their non-work-related priorities (be it to build a family or for further studies). Remote working has the potential for law firms to work with the lawyers to accommodate the lawyers' other priorities without the lawyers having to leave the firm," says Choo.

    Although few may dispute the need for a healthier approach between work and personal life, some young lawyers also acknowledge their obligations to clients due to the nature of their occupation. "Being a project finance lawyer, I have seen a time where we had to work continuously for a couple of days for a transaction to get completed on time. During that hard-pressed time, we do justice to the client but leave our second home alone. This will always be a reality where one will have a responsibility towards clients, deadlines to meet, the need to prioritize work, and manage the client's expectations," says Prince Singh, a senior associate at Shardul Amarchand Mangaldas & Co. Understanding management and senior lawyers' preferences for in-person sessions for better collaboration and communication, Singh suggests that leaders try improving trust between colleagues by promoting transparency, adjusting the expectations for work hours, and sharing the target billable hours to visualize impact.

    To address the return-to-office tug-of-war, consultants at Hong Kong-based personnel management firm Human Dynamic Group (HDG) note that it's imperative to identify the root cause of the cognitive gap between young lawyers prioritizing flexibility in work options and management's lack of enthusiasm towards it. "One possible cause of this gap can be attributed to the global phenomenon of productivity paranoia, particularly observed during the pandemic. Workplace leadership may be influenced by a prevailing belief that their staff is not being productive enough, despite the presence of metrics indicating otherwise.

    This paranoia around productivity can lead to scepticism towards flexible work options, as management may fear a potential decline in productivity if employees have more freedom in their work arrangements," says HDG. "The crux of the matter lies in addressing the foundational principles of productivity and performance management in the workplace," which involves re-evaluating and challenging old practices related to productivity and fostering a results-oriented mindset instead, according to HDG.

    Management should also nurture a culture of openness and trust by involving employees in the firm's decision-making processes, thus cultivating a sense of ownership and accountability among the workforce. Ridhima Khanduja, HR and talent advisory APMEA practice leader at Kincentric Malaysia, believes firms need to be flexible and agile to meet the evolving needs of their employees by finding innovative ways to encourage collaboration among remote workers while ensuring that the workforce remains aligned with the culture, expectations, and business goals of the company.


    Coping with heavy workloads and stringent client demands, working in law can sometimes feel disorienting, even for seasoned practitioners. But for young lawyers first dipping their toes into society, many find some of the behaviours of their supposed mentors to be unhelpful at best. For example, several junior attorneys told ALB that they have often borne the brunt of the "I've been through this, so should you" mentality exhibited by some senior lawyers, which, in their opinion, exemplified the kind of toxicity that has been dogging the legal industry.

    "The 'I've been through this, so should you' attitude is a common one in many industries. This attitude can be harmful to younger professionals, as it can make them feel like they are not being heard or respected. It can also lead to a culture of exclusion, where younger professionals feel like they do not belong," says Khanduja of Kincentric Malaysia. HDG labels the "during my time" mentality as "immature" and "bullying" in nature. "The negative impact of workplace bullying on an individual's morale and overall performance is evident. When juniors are consistently assigned low-value tasks, subjected to excessive work hours, given complex cases or research assignments without proper guidance, or sidelined without justification, their motivation and engagement gradually diminish. This can lead to demotivation, disengagement, and a decline in performance, hindering the progress of promising junior lawyers," it says.

    "A lack of a supportive relationship with senior lawyers can make certain things harder to achieve. Without a mentor, it can be challenging to gain insights into the unwritten rules and nuances of the legal profession. The absence of guidance from experienced lawyers may result in missed opportunities for professional development."

    • Yash Kahandole, Shardul Amarchand Mangaldas & Co

    As a result, young lawyers are craving stronger than ever, a meaningful, conducive, and healthy relationship with a veteran lawyer who possesses a solid technical skillset, deep industry knowledge, and profound life wisdom they can call a mentor. "A lack of a supportive relationship with senior lawyers can make certain things harder to achieve," says Kahandole of SAM. "Without a mentor, it can be challenging to gain insights into the unwritten rules and nuances of the legal profession. The absence of guidance from experienced lawyers may result in missed opportunities for professional development.

    Moreover, without a mentor, building a strong network within the legal community can be more difficult, limiting opportunities for career advancement and professional connections," he explains. Singh, Kahandole's colleague at SAM, adds, "Mentors can help guide us through difficult decisions or unexpected situations. Generally, they offer advice on navigating tricky conversations with clients and superiors, provide their inputs on the complex transaction structure, and may even open doors for networking opportunities that would have been impossible without their expertise and connections." Singh also emphasizes that mentorship does not have to look the same everywhere and that the mentoring relationship should be based on mutual comfort and compatibility.

    Abraham Astral Rantesalu, an associate at Indonesia's Prisma & Co Law Firm, feels that sometimes the age gap between senior and junior lawyers could be too wide for close ties to be forged. Additionally, Rantesalu mentions that the attitude and behaviour of junior lawyers in making requests regarding mentoring to a senior lawyer, namely whether the request has been made politely and in a good and correct manner, also play a role.

    In addition to mentorship, Choo of Providence says the visibility of a career track and a sense of ownership are among the criteria that help him decide whether a firm is the right fit for him in the medium to long term. "These factors may not be present in law firms with a high turnover rate and where lawyers join to gain experience and a 'badge of honour' before they look to join a different firm. For such firms, they may need to consider the image they have in the industry and if this image and mode of practice are something that the management is comfortable living with," says Choo.

    To tackle the crux of the issue, HDG points out that it's essential to recognize that a good lawyer does not necessarily make a good leader or manager in a law firm. Therefore, "Investing in leadership development programs is crucial to shaping a company's culture. These programs should focus on cultivating empathy, effective communication, and a supportive management style. By equipping leaders with coaching skills, they can effectively guide and nurture young talents along their career journey, fostering a positive and inclusive work environment," suggest the consultants.

    HDG also suggests that law firm leaders or senior partners spearhead transparent communications and practice what they preach to demonstrate the values and behaviours they expect from more junior employees.

    Moreover, firms are advised to adopt proactive HR strategies that include implementing regular employee evaluations to provide feedback and identify areas for career growth. However, the effectiveness of proactive HR practices in place could also risk being undercut or neutralized by disengaged leaders, warns Kincentric Malaysia's Khanduja. "Organizations should identify such leaders and act by providing them with intentional, concentrated, and impactful developmental experiences to build engagement-enhancing skills. Talent focus is equally important as employees want clarity on their progress and are looking for growth," she adds.


    The rise of generative AI tools such as ChatGPT has presented quite a scare to junior attorneys, many of whom are grinding through the early stages of their careers by performing the type of grunt work that can now be finished in seconds. And with more and more law firms adopting these AI tools into their operational systems and legal work, the moment seems inevitable when managing partners couldn't help but make the cost-benefit analysis of elementary-level legal staff. Young lawyers, to say the least, are staring at a fundamental shift in their positioning and function in a firm.

    "The adoption of generative AI tools has had a significant impact on my work and has changed the prospects of my career development in several ways. These tools have improved efficiency and productivity by automating repetitive tasks, such as legal research, standard due diligence processes, and document drafting," says Kahandole of SAM. "From personal experience, a 'DD Tool Kit' can be a real game-changer when it comes to identifying the key red flags while doing due diligence, which can help in managing time better on crunched timelines," he adds.

    While reaping the benefits of AI, young lawyers refuse to be threatened by robots. They remain optimistic about their career prospects, stating that the practicality of these generative AI tools has not yet lived up to the hype. "The present tools are not quite matured enough to impact legal work significantly," says Choo of Providence. "The perils of relying on ChatGPT for legal research are well-reported in the U.S., where non-existent cases were cited in submissions. There have also been reports of instances of litigants in person doing the same in Singapore." Rantesalu of PRISMA&Co. adds, "AI itself does not have an assessment of the fairness, conscience, and soul that a lawyer has in dealing with a problem. Disturbances that may arise from the existence of AI are a breakthrough related to intellectual property rights, which intersect with copyrights, patents, and trade secrets."

    "The legal profession is one of those professions that continue to rely on interpersonal aspects," says Singh of SAM. "I believe that if required, AI and lawyers would coexist organically by lawyers embracing technology and AI reviewing and absorbing large amounts of information systematically and efficiently, consequently leading to the delivery of higher-quality work product." Rantesalu adds, "The support I need from my employer is to have supervision for me and my co-workers in the use of AI so that they always evaluate if AI is needed, as the development of a legal framework when conducting legal analysis."


    When asked about some aspects that deserve more attention in law firms, many respondents highlighted diversity and inclusion, or the lack thereof, in their workplace. "While progress has been made, there is still work to be done to ensure equal opportunities for individuals from underrepresented groups," says Kahandole of SAM. Employee engagement consultants point out that building a culture of inclusion is necessary if leaders want to attract and retain higher-performing talent.

    "Building a workplace where employees are highly engaged and motivated is not just about rewards and remuneration. More importantly, it is about an inclusive culture that starts from the top down. It is also important to remember that integrating or driving an inclusive culture is not a one-time fix but a holistic change to the mindset of the people and workplace. This includes reimagining leaders' engagement language and actions that will translate to the desired experience," says Khanduja of Kincentric Malaysia.

    HDG also agrees with the importance of developing inclusive leadership skills among partners and senior lawyers, which it deems crucial for fostering a supportive and collaborative workplace culture where all voices are heard and valued.

    In addition, SAM's Kahandole underscores mental health as one of the most acute challenges faced by the legal profession across the board. Choo of Providence concurs, stating that the issue affects lawyers at all seniorities, from Big Law partners to more junior associates. To encourage sustainable careers in the law, the profession needs to have open discussions about burnout and other common mental health issues and take steps to remedy these issues.

    HDG also acknowledges mental health issues as one of the key areas often overlooked. "The prevalence of burnout, high stress, and mental health issues among young professionals should be addressed through proactive measures like stress management programs and creating a supportive environment. It is important to balance workloads across teams and individuals to prevent junior lawyers from becoming overwhelmed," it tells ALB.

    To help the younger generation of lawyers navigate a myriad of hurdles in a time fraught with disruptors and uncertainties, consultants point to leadership skills as the key to shaping a healthy and productive workplace where talent feels seen, listened to, and valued. "Creative leaders inspire and empower employees, encouraging them to innovate methods and processes while fostering personal and professional growth. Empathetic leaders understand and acknowledge their team members' needs, emotions, and thoughts, building trust and fostering a greater understanding and connection within teams. Additionally, leaders who actively listen provide undivided attention when employees need it, enhancing problem-solving and fostering psychological safety in the workplace," notes HDG.

    "Overall, addressing work-life balance, remote work options, and prioritizing D&I initiatives is crucial for employers to enhance talent management outcomes. It is important to appreciate employees, provide coaching for skill development, conduct evaluations, and foster inclusivity through empathy and effective communication," it adds.

    In conclusion, Khanduja states, "The focus should shift from 'everything is out of control' to understanding what you can control, what makes a difference in your organization, and leaning in on actions in these areas." She emphasizes that creating an engaging work experience is not simply a matter of doing one thing well but a culmination of consistently doing several things well over time.