This market report is brought to you by The Malaysian Lawyer, co-founded by Lee Shih and Marcus van Geyzel.
If asked to think back to March 2020, when Malaysia first went into “lockdown” or a “Movement Control Order” (MCO), Malaysians may feel like the period of time that has passed has been the equivalent of several lifetimes. Or that it now seems to have gone quickly, and certainly doesn’t seem like it was 18 months ago. Or perhaps that it simultaneously feels like both a very long time and a very short time ago, in that time-bending perspective-warping haze that the pandemic seems to have permanently brought into our lives.
For the Malaysian legal industry, much has happened. If we cast our minds back to those early-MCO days, there was a scramble for lawyers to figure out how to operate outside of the office, without access to printed documents and files.
To be honest, some lawyers still haven’t quite figured it out, but there has been much progress overall. Compelled by the judiciary, lawyers shuffled out of the Stone Age and into conducting video trials online. The National and State Bars successfully convened their AGMs online (after a huge COVID scare from the in-person KL Bar AGM). Law firms rolled out pay-cuts, and freezed hiring, increments, and bonuses. As work dried up in some areas, many lawyers pivoted into new practice areas. Call ceremonies also moved online. Aspiring lawyers had to deal with huge delays to CLP exams and results.
There were lots of new law blogs launched (21 are still active), and law students, lawyers and firms were noticeably more active on LinkedIn (when TML wrote about Malaysian law firms on LinkedIn in 2019, we could only find 8 active accounts; when researching our latest law firm LinkedIn list, we found almost 80!) and Clubhouse (the biggest Malaysian legal Clubhouse club “Malaysian legal community“ has 3,600+ members).
In June 2020, TheMalaysianLawyer.com published the experiences of four people with links to the legal industry across Asia-Pacific to hear about their remote-working experiences (“Lessons from Lockdown: How COVID-19 and remote working have changed the way we work“). If we’re being completely honest, at the time we expected that the pandemic would be done and dusted by the end of 2020, and 2021 would be the year of reopening and restarting the economy. As we now know, it didn’t quite work out that way.
However, with Malaysia now ticking off impressive vaccination rates (at the time of writing, 74.7% of the country’s adult population are fully-vaccinated) and the government regularly rolling-back restrictions, there is palpable confidence that the economy is properly kicking back into gear. It’s an appropriate time to look back on how the pandemic experience has been specifically for the Malaysian legal industry. What changes have taken place? Has the industry transformed in these 18 months? Will these changes leave a permanent mark on the industry moving forward, or will things revert to pre-pandemic norms once the economy fully reopens?
To help us reflect on these issues, we sought the views of several lawyers. None of these lawyers are partners or employers, and some have shared their thoughts on condition of anonymity.
The effects of the pandemic on salaries, and volume of legal work
The first MCO had a seismic effect on the legal industry. Although it didn’t really come as a huge surprise, it still seemed very sudden, and brutal. For many firms, revenue streams seemed to dry up overnight, as clients were also grappling with the uncertainty and held back payments. Efforts to keep billings and collections ticking along were at the forefront of the minds of law firm partners for the first couple of months at least. Managing costs was a big issue, and rumours of paycuts were rife — and were then a reality in many firms. However, some firms found that the pandemic opened the floodgates, and were inundated with new work and clients. In fact. many firms would later report that 2020 turned out to be their best year financially.
One lawyer shared that his firm “implemented paycuts on all lawyers and partners in 2020, and restructured our pay to remove front-loaded bonuses” and that although by the end of the year it turned out that the amount of work was generally unaffected, “in 2021, only a small percentage of our pay was reinstated, and the said restructuring became permanent”. Gurbinder Singh Gill, a dispute resolution associate, said that there was just one paycut, during the first MCO, but “there has been no increment since”. Another associate said that “there thankfully have been no paycuts throughout the pandemic, [but] unfortunately, that also meant no bonuses or increments in 2020”. Another lawyer shared: “I did not encounter a paycut, although the increment and bonus was very minimal by the end of 2020”.
In terms of incoming legal work during the pandemic compared to pre-pandemic times, one corporate associate said that “it has been equally as busy, if not busier”. Wong Yen Ni, an employment and industrial relations associate, said that “there has been a constant stream of work despite the various MCOs and closure of the Industrial Court for an extended period of time” adding that “the busyness does manifest in several different forms though, such as business development initiatives [like] webinars and articles, and [there has been a shift to] more advisory work compared to trial work”. From dispute resolution associate Lim Zi-Han‘s experience, “given that our firm specialises in employment law, our workload increased, especially in the first MCO where we received many forms of advisory work”. Another corporate lawyer shared that “work has generally been a lot busier, and with working from home and not having access to office resources such as secretaries, clerks, and translators, the workload has also been much heavier”.
For dispute resolution lawyer Lim Wei Jiet, “the pace was slower in 2020 because the Courts and practitioners were getting accustomed to online hearings, and most cases were adjourned”. However, his experience was that “by the start of 2021, both courts and lawyers have gotten used to online hearings, resulting in speedy hearings and disposal of cases, which enabled lawyers to bill matters and move on to the next brief”. Wei Jiet also observed that “senior counsels continued to receive briefs for high-end and contentious matters, and [were] relatively unaffected by the pandemic, [though] this is not reflective of all litigation firms, [and] from anecdotal conversations, many are facing great difficulties”.
Fellow dispute resolution associates Lynn Pang and Samantha Siow also reported similar experiences. According to Lynn, “work has been a lot busier since the first MCO [particularly as] Courts and law firms have all moved to online hearings [and] continued adjournments or vacating dates purely because there was a need for physical hearings has now been discouraged by the judiciary”. For Samantha, work picked up in late 2020, and “this year, new briefs have been coming in steadily, including large scale litigation matters and advisory work, [and] we also saw an increase in debt recovery and tax dispute matters”.
Another dispute resolution associate, Kasturi Puvan, did question whether the switch to remote working affected our overall perception of workload. She said that although “generally, the volume of work has been unaffected [by the pandemic], I tend to lose track of my working hours because I don’t keep set office hours, [so I feel] that work has been ‘busier’ because there are no boundaries”. Kasturi added that, when she uses her personal mobile device for work, “it’s quite easy to check and reply to emails, [so] it’s essential to draw a line and create clear boundaries”.
Kasturi’s views lead us nicely into the next sections of this market report, which is to consider the legal industry’s experience of remote working and technology brought about by the pandemic.
The legal industry’s experience with remote working, and whether lawyers would prefer to work from home moving forward
It is probably stating the obvious that the legal industry is relatively “traditional” in the way work is conducted. A familiar scene in many law firms is numerous piles of documents and files, many tied together with ribbons, with the photocopier and printer constantly churning out even more printed documents. It was therefore a mammoth shift for Malaysian lawyers to suddenly have to adapt to being denied access to the office for large periods of time. Work still had to be done, but how would this be possible without access to printed documents and files in the office? There was an outcry, but eventually most lawyers figured it out.
Arissa Ahrom, an employment and industrial relations associate, said that “remote working started off with a lot of anxiety, especially due to the uncertainty of how long such an arrangement would last, [and] the anxiety was exacerbated by not knowing what would happen to the court filing deadlines […] which were fixed during the lockdown”. However, Arissa found that, as “everyone [was] facing the same issues, the courts were very understanding with granting extensions of time”. She also shared that “after easing into the remote work arrangement and devising an efficient routine, I have come to realise that I’m happier and naturally more productive working remotely, [and] believe that most of my peers feel the same way”.
Some of the lawyers we spoke to only became lawyers during the pandemic, and therefore didn’t know what pre-pandemic legal practice was like. This includes Lynn, who said: “I don’t know any other way of working, [as I’ve always had] the option to work from home. I have always worked off soft-copies.” Dispute resolution associate Tasha Lim also feels that the younger lawyers may have found it easier as “perhaps my generation is used to working with just a laptop since student days, [so] it was not difficult to adapt”.
One lawyer felt that his firm “was not fully prepared to have their employees work from home, and therefore it was pretty difficult especially at the start, and I experienced a heavier workload as a result of this… but the firm eventually adapted to the circumstances and working from home became easier”. Dispute resolution associate Adrienne Sena had a similar experience: “The shift to remote working started off rocky, especially during the first MCO in March 2020. However, we adapted to the change rather quickly and now I enjoy remote working as it allows me to save a lot of travel time!”
For Samantha, remote working has been a mixed experience: “In the beginning, I did not enjoy remote working, as I often felt left out of discussions or meetings because I was not working in the office and not being seen by the seniors. It felt like I was unable to connect with my team and reach out to them because I did not have [that] personal touch. Very often, I had to take proactive steps to ask for work. Gradually, I [got] used to remote working after multiple lockdowns.”
The work-from-home arrangements proved to be a blessing for those with families, with Wei Jiet sharing: “Remote working provides greater flexibility to me, saves commuting time and as a father to a newborn/toddler, I have utilised such opportunity to spend more valuable time with family.”
Despite the flexibility and other benefits experienced from the remote working arrangements, lawyers have mixed feelings about whether they would prefer to work from home or in the office moving forward.
Kasturi outlined why she enjoys working remotely: “Honestly, I personally enjoy working from home. I save so much time, money and I’m productive and focused when not in the office. No need to sit through painful traffic jams or wake up extra early in the morning to avoid those traffic jams. I also avoid spending a substantial amount of money for petrol, parking fees, toll, and lunches bought out. All these essentially leads to increased productivity for me and with that the benefits of working from home impact so many things on a big scale that it’s sure to become the best path forward.” A corporate lawyer also said that “it is extremely important for me to have the flexibility to work from home, especially since COVID is and will be something we will have to live with”.
Some others were more keen to return to the office. Adrienne shared: “I would be happy to resume working in the office post-COVID and am not too fussed with having the flexibility to work remotely.” Samantha thinks “some activities are much more effective if done in person, such as coaching and training from seniors”. Wei Jiet agrees, saying that for litigation lawyers, “having physical meetings at the office may be unavoidable in contentious and complex disputes, [where] the team would often require spontaneous unscheduled discussions on how to approach a trial or hearing, making on the spot amendments, […] being at one spot physically just makes things a whole lot easier”.
It would also seem that the downsides to remote working may also be felt harder by those who are more junior in the profession, as they would miss out on invaluable learning experiences that may only be possible in person. As Yen Ni shared: “I found myself missing the social aspect of working in a physical office. As much as I appreciate the flexibility to work remotely, I would not prioritise it at this stage of my career.” Zi-Han agreed, saying: “Remote working is okay, but I miss my colleagues and being able to walk into the partners’ rooms to have discussions and just brainstorm on strategies.”
Ultimately, it seems clear that lawyers appreciate the benefits of remote working, but would ideally want a flexible or hybrid arrangement post-pandemic. One corporate lawyer said that “having the flexibility to work remotely is definitely an upside”. In Samantha’s view, she “would appreciate the flexibility to work remotely post-Covid” but is “okay either way”. Arissa said that she hoped “that the firm permanently adopts a flexible working arrangement post-COVID in which output is not measured against hourly input in the office”. Wei Jiet said that, in the short term at least “what law firms are likely to do is to schedule the attendance of lawyers and staff on a rotation basis to ensure the number of people in the office do not exceed a certain figure”.
This unavoidable shortcoming of remote working in terms of weakened personal connections and camaraderie obviously is an important consideration for many lawyers, and we will share more views on that aspect in Part 2 of this market report.
How lawyers have adopted technology during the pandemic
While many firms, especially the medium to large-sized practices, did already have the necessary technology hardware and software, these were mostly underutilised in pre-pandemic times. The saying “necessity is the mother of invention” proved to be true, even with the most traditional and stubborn within the industry.
For Samantha, there wasn’t really a big shift in terms of technology, as her team “has always been digitising our files and storing the essential documents on the cloud, and we have all the necessary software”.
Sophia Choy, a tax associate, said that her firm “has been acquiring more online resources, such as cloud-based sharing”. Lynn also shared that her firm has shown “a conscious effort […] to move towards buying more (or only) eBooks from now on”. Gaythri Raman, Managing Director of LexisNexis Southeast Asia confirmed this trend, saying that sales of e-books for YTD August 2021 compared to YTD August 2020 in the Malaysia and Singapore legal markets increased 20% and 50% respectively.
A corporate lawyer shared that the pandemic has accelerated the adoption of technology which was always available anyway, making the due diligence experience much more efficient: “[Clients have adopted] the concept of having a ‘virtual data room’ for conducting due diligence exercises. Prior to COVID, we had to spend days in the client’s office flipping through documents and trying to rush through the day as we only had a limited amount of time to access the client’s office. Now that we have secured and password encrypted databases, we can access due diligence documents through these virtual data rooms”. Wei Jiet has also had to pick up new skills in his litigation practice, as “online court hearings require you to point out and highlight documents and cases in a smooth manner via the share screen function”.
Like employees in many other industries, lawyers have also had to become familiar with Microsoft Teams and Zoom. Yen Ni shares: “Since COVID/MCO, our team has started using Microsoft Teams as our main mode of communication where we share drafts or discuss matters with our partner in charge. We will have a specific chat group for each matter with the partners and associates, which helps us consolidate and keep track of previous drafts, meeting minutes, discussion notes, or random thoughts related to the matter. I’ve also found it very helpful to be able to scroll through my chats or list of matters, and be quickly reminded of its status.”
There’s no doubt that there have been all sorts of changes brought about by the pandemic, and 2020/2021 has been very tumultuous. This would inevitably have an effect on the office/work culture and the day-to-day experience of being a lawyer, with an obvious impact on mental health in an already stressful profession. There are also questions about what the future holds for new law graduates, and the industry as a whole. We delve into these issues and more in Part 2.
This is The Malaysian Lawyer’s landmark market report on the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on the Malaysian legal industry. The Malaysian Lawyer is co-founded by Lee Shih and Marcus van Geyzel.
To help us reflect on these issues, we sought the views of many lawyers, including Adrienne Sena, Arissa Ahrom, Gurbinder Singh Gill, Huey Lynn Pang, Kasturi Puvan, Lim Wei Jiet, Lim Zi-Han, Samantha Siow, Sophia Choy, Tasha Lim, Yen Ni Wong, and several others who chose to remain anonymous. We are very thankful to all of them for taking the time to share their views with us.
Please read and share the report widely, and for readers who have their own legal blogs, we would love to see you publishing your own views on the industry, or your response to the contents of this report. The legal industry would surely benefit if we could all keep the conversation going. If you have any experiences or thoughts to share, please feel free to do so in the comments.