Re-envisioning a lawyer’s life

Stress, long hours of work, emotional and physical exhaustion… This cannot be what we want the life of a lawyer to be!

Legal practice is a demanding profession. It requires a high level of work engagement to excel. However, excessive engagement with constant work overload and conflicting demands may tip the scale and cause burnout, adversely impacting personal health and quality of work.

Well-being of legal practitioners is essential to competence and excellence in the practice of law. Its importance, which has been much neglected in the past, is attracting increasing attention of law societies and bar associations around the world.

Depending on the needs of the profession, some jurisdictions have found it necessary to adopt a more direct assistance programme to raise awareness and improve lawyers’ well-being.

The American Bar Association commissioned a National Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being and completed a report on “The Path to Well Being: Practical Recommendations for Positive Change” in August. The report notes that the current state of lawyers’ health, with a high level of stress and depression, is incompatible with a sustainable legal profession. It concludes with a comprehensive set of recommendations on how to promote the well-being of lawyers for different stakeholders ranging from regulators, law firms, professional indemnity insurers to law schools. In Alberta, the Alberta Lawyers’ Assistance Society (Assist), which is set up as an independent charitable organisation, provides confidential help to lawyers and law students and their immediate families with personal issues including stress, depression, work problems, relationship difficulties and so on. Assist provides up to four hours of professional counselling with referrals to long-term sources of help. In Singapore, the Law Society of Singapore administers a confidential counselling service in conjunction with the Singapore Care and Counselling Centre where members may seek advice and counselling from a qualified counsellor. The Law Society of Singapore will bear the operational costs of the service, with a grant from its insurance brokers where the Singapore Care and Counselling Centre determines that the member requires financial assistance to pay for the sessions.

In Hong Kong, we take a more light-hearted approach in raising practitioners’ awareness of well-being. We provide a framework for members to participate in different kinds of sports, recreational and social activities so that members can connect with people who share similar professional background and common interests as well as problems in a stress free environment. The network fosters a sense of belonging and communal support for one another. Throughout the past year, we organised a wide variety of functions for members including Family Fun Day, Swimming Gala, Recreation and Sports Night, Annual Cocktail, Spring Reception, Cooking Competition, Christmas Party, workshops on leisure subjects like skincare, dessert, coffee, fitness and Chinese seal carving, visits to places of interest like the Court of Final Appeal, practice sessions and competitions for 23 sports and recreational teams, and many others.

No matter what approach we take in different parts of the world, it is good to know that we are all working hard to re-envision what it means to live the life of a lawyer and to inject some positive energy into the distressing portrayal commonly depicted of a lawyer’s life. No doubt a legal professional career will be challenging and demanding as lawyers shoulder great responsibilities, but at the same time, it can be balanced with fulfilment, physical fitness and healthy community and social relationships if we give proper attention to our own well-being.

Lawyers’ well-being not only benefits individual lawyers but also facilitates talent retention which is a major issue for the profession.

The average increase of solicitors in Hong Kong is about 5 percent annually. While the number of admissions maintains a steady growth, the proportion of qualified solicitors carrying on legal practice is declining. The percentage of practising certificate holders out of the total number of admitted solicitors have been dropping in the past decade from 92 percent in 2007 to 88 percent in 2016.

This phenomenon seems to suggest that the legal qualification is still attractive; but after qualification, an increasing proportion may choose not to continue to engage in legal practice.

An interesting comparison that we conducted recently is telling. We tracked the retention data for practising solicitors admitted between 2000 and 2009 for the period 2010 to 2016. The number decreased every year from 2,978 in 2010 to 2,650 in 2016, a total decrease of 11 percent representing an annual decrease of 1.6 percent.

We then tracked the retention data for practising solicitors admitted between 2010 and 2013 for the period 2014 to 2016. The number again decreased every year from 1,828 in 2014 to 1,683 in 2016, a total decrease of 22 percent representing an annual decrease of 7.3 percent among young practitioners admitted for 6 years or less!

Another important dimension to talent retention is gender diversity. Nearly 60 percent of those entering the legal profession are women, yet only 26 percent of partners are female. This pattern of gender participation repeated itself with only a slight improvement over the past decade. The female trainee and female partner proportions were 65 percent: 23 percent and 59 percent: 26 percent in 2007 and 2016 respectively.

The Law Society has been actively looking at ways to assist law firms to retain talent and promote lawyers’ well-being including organising seminars (the latest one was held in October) and commissioning articles by experienced consultants (the latest one published in Hong Kong Lawyer in November). If members have suggestions on ways to promote lawyers’ well-being, please let us know (email: hc@hklawsoc.org.hk).

Secretary-General, Law Society of Hong Kong