For the legal profession in Malaysia, the seemingly unalterable truth is – do not join the profession unless you are prepared to face the harshness of the working conditions.
However, if you persevere, the returns can be very rewarding and fulfilling.
The National Young Lawyers Committee (NYLC) conducted a survey on the working conditions of young lawyers in late 2011, and the results which were recently released can be found at www.malaysianbar.org.my.
It indicates that there is or will be a mass exodus of young lawyers from the legal profession because of the lack of work-life balance, low pay and bad working conditions.
The survey shows that the average starting pay is RM3,000-RM3,500 in the Klang Valley and RM2,000-RM2,500 outside of the Klang Valley – just enough to support the cost of living.
The average working hours are between 51 hours to more than 60 hours a week. Almost all young lawyers work weekends.
This means that, in the Klang Valley, based on the average monthly pay of RM3,250 (RM39,000 per annum, excluding bonuses) and average working hours of 55 hours a week (2,860 hours over 52 weeks), over a year, first-year lawyers are only paid RM13.64 per hour. It is much lower for pupils.
Outside of the Klang Valley, based on the average monthly pay of RM2,250 (RM27,000 per annum, excluding bonuses) and the same average working hours, over a year, first-year lawyers are only paid RM9.44 per hour.
Some recommendations were made by the NYLC to increase the starting pay and improve working conditions.
Some quarters cynically cried out that young lawyers are making demands despite being of low quality.
They say that young lawyers should not demand higher pay unless they have proven themselves.
Pause for a moment and consider what the survey results really mean. Firstly, it means that the profession, as a whole, is not attractive.
Students, when choosing a degree, will second-think pursuing law. Law students may choose not to practise upon completing their law degree.
Some will be driven by passion, but not everyone has enough passion to endure the initial hardship.
The best minds may instead be more interested in other professions. Why isn’t the profession able to retain these talents?
Generally, Malaysia is not a hub for legal services in the region. The best minds are more interested in practising in other jurisdictions where the work and pay is better.
The profession must improve and be the main legal services hub in the region. But the paradox is, to do so, higher salary and better working conditions are also required to attract and retain the best talents.
Secondly, not having an attractive entry point does not augur well for diversity in the legal profession.
The legal profession should be diverse because lawyers are guardians of rights and liberties of people of all gender, races, backgrounds or classes.
The current starting salary and working conditions, by chance or design, targets only a single demographic – fresh graduates, middle or upper middle class, living with their family, and having little family or financial commitments.
A prospective entrant who has dependants would find it hard to pursue a career in law given the low average starting pay, the long hours and the non-existing weekends.
To quote Lord Falconer: “If you don’t catch people when they’re 15 or 16, when it comes to choosing judges 30 or 40 years later, you won’t have the diversity you need to ensure that judges reflect society”.
Thirdly, with the starting salary and working conditions of the legal profession failing to attract and retain talents and not encouraging diversity, legal access would be significantly affected. Legal access also means having access to a lawyer of your choice.
The survey shows that 28.17% of the respondents in the Klang Valley and 15.29% of the respondents outside of Klang Valley are leaving the profession in the next five years and a further 38.73% of the respondents in the Klang Valley and 48.24% of the respondents outside of Klang Valley are uncertain of their future in the legal profession.
These staggering numbers show that lawyers do not want to be lawyers anymore.
Society will be affected because the choice of lawyers would be limited. There will not be a greater pool of talent to choose from for clients or when it comes to the appointment of judges.
The quality will have to be compromised with whatever the supply is. In the long run, it will be detrimental to the legal system in Malaysia.
The results and the recommendations by the NYLC are not unjustified.
It would be convenient to blame the law schools for failing to produce competent graduates. But employers must look at themselves and ask if they have been contributing to this problem.
The unalterable truth of today must be questioned. For employers who are truly concerned about attracting and retaining the best talents, the survey results and recommendations should be taken seriously.
For those who choose to ignore the survey results and recommendations, do so at your own peril.
By NEW SIN YEW> The writer is a young lawyer. Putik Lada, or pepper buds in Malay, captures the spirit and intention of this column – a platform for young lawyers to articulate their views and aspirations about the law, justice and a civil society. For more information about the young lawyers, visit www.malaysianbar.org.my.
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