Updated: Feb 1, 2021
In collaboration with Raja, Darryl & Loh. (Insights of this article has been provided by Mr Vijey Mohana Krishnan)
Global economic downturns, deaths that tally to millions and unconventional changes to people’s lifestyles. These form only some of the plethora of the implications triggered by COVID-19. The magnitude of this pandemic has undoubtedly ruptured most industries and the legal industry was not spared either. Such unprecedented times have required law firms to adopt unprecedented measures to survive and outlive the continuing effects of this pandemic. This narrative has understandably provoked some sense of uncertainty among aspiring lawyers on what to expect when entering the legal industry. As such, this article will address two key issues; how the legal industry has been transformed and how law firms have tailored their operations to grapple with social restrictions, and the concerns of aspiring lawyers on what they can do to better compose themselves as they set out to make their mark in the legal industry.
The greatest observable change is how law firms have digitized their platforms in both legal practice and even in administrative aspects of the firm’s operations. Transitioning towards a work-from-home (WFH) construct, has required meticulous planning because these are unchartered waters for most law firms. This is especially because the management of law firms understand how a long-plan must be comprehended to ensure their survival. While unfortunate, it will take a while before lawyers can practice from their firms as they once used to. Therefore, this has necessitated heavy investments into software programmes and upgrades to facilitate smooth workflow procedures.
As far as legal practice itself goes, some comforting news is that certain areas of practice are still thriving. Firms that offer services in specific practice areas are faring better. For instance, ‘acquisitions and restructurings’ have been rampant during the pandemic due to companies adopting new business strategies in light of the new normal. This keeps corporate lawyers excited and on their toes for their next big case. Perhaps navigating the risk associated with legal practice is something that aspiring lawyers can mitigate by having a clear goal in mind as to which area of law they intend to practice.
Despite the trend of firms worldwide considering a gradual shift towards working from home because they find that it increases productivity and is more mental health friendly, existing young associates in Malaysia have expressed their discontent with WFH. Most of them are inclined towards traditionally working from office. Two reasons why is because firstly, the connection and relationships shared between colleagues hinges on how advanced the firm’s virtual systems are. This makes communication tougher among one another as information can no longer be conveyed by simply walking over to a colleague’s cubicle or office and having a conversation. Secondly, there is a general disliking towards virtual hearings because the human touch and emotions that stems from wanting to help your client is downplayed. Clients affected by the pandemic may also possess different expectations than they conventionally did before. This requires proactiveness in anticipating their needs given the highly fluctuating economic conditions we are now in. However, young lawyers are still resilient and even focus on tiny details during virtual hearings such as lighting and position of their webcams. Even case management softwares are being utilized as they are helpful in being organized prior to submissions. But when posed with the question of whether such a construct would continue being adopted long after COVID-19 disperses, the interviewee stated that it will be a process largely driven by need, though it would be unlikely since a large number of lawyers actually prefer working from the office. A silver lining that aspiring lawyers can take from this is that they are not being thrown into the deep end like existing lawyers have been because most of them have already gone through online classes in law school. Hence, they are to some extent, familiar with how to navigate online systems and will be less susceptible to being agitated by such a drastic change.
The Covid-19 pandemic has seen a fair number of layoffs and pay cuts across the legal industry, which begs the question of whether young and aspiring lawyers should anticipate and be satisfied with a lower pay due to tougher economic conditions. The interviewee stresses the need to acquire the right skills through training and seeking opportunities, and this remains the same with or without a global pandemic. It seems that aspiring lawyers would have to focus on their long run career development by seizing every good opportunity available to them, with short term returns being a lesser priority.
The legal industry is also not immune to cut downs of the workforce during this pandemic, with expectations of lower rates of employment for law students seeking pupilage. While the legal industry recovers from this financial shock in the upcoming years, it is a given that competition will remain strife. With this in regard, the interviewee advises students to strive their hardest in proactively learning and finding opportunities, as well as attaining achievements that will make them stand out as the best and brightest.
In our pursuit of improving commercial awareness, students are constantly trying to understand how commercial law firms maintain client relationships as key in providing exceptional client services. Along that line of analysis, students have been trying to understand how the pandemic has impacted the attitude that clients have towards their legal representatives, such as changing expectations or demandingness. Providing us with an insight into this matter, it would be fortunate to know that the interviewee does not identify any significant changes in this respect, but firms have been proactive to anticipate clients’ needs.
A big aspect that law students look at in seeking out their future career is a firm’s tech-savviness. Now more than ever, firms need to adapt and evolve in terms of technological advancement. When asking what Raja, Darryl & Loh has planned in relation to post-Covid contingency plans that will help the firm in years to come, the interviewee had great enthusiasm for the firm’s efforts going into software and hardware upgrades. Raja, Darryl & Loh is also reviewing and improving their workflows and processes, advancing in the direction of providing better integration between teams and a seamless working experience for its lawyers.
The pandemic has also seen a conversion to digital or virtual means of conducting interviews. Following this change, we asked the firm whether they might consider a permanent shift for the less significant interviews. However, it seems that they really look forward to knowing their candidates in person, pointing towards their attention to each employment decision and looking at candidates beyond the context of their mere experience or achievements. For the foreseeable future, physical meetings will still be preferred because it makes for a much better opportunity for a candidate and a firm to know each other.
Essentially, aspiring lawyers have much to reflect upon before applying for a job in a law firm. The competition is great especially because of the scarcity of jobs available due to the pandemic. Nonetheless, young aspiring lawyers are capable of bringing something valuable to the table as each one of them possess unique skills that will uplift Malaysia’s legal industry to the next level.
Writers: Adnan Yunus, Teoh Yun Xin