This is Part 2 of our special market report on the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and the various MCOs on the Malaysian legal industry. Before reading on, you should read Part 1, where we addressed the financial issues (paycuts, volume of legal work, and revenues), remote working, and technology.
In this second part, we report on the impact of the pandemic on office/work culture, how law firms addressed employee mental health issues, and examine how the industry could have done better in dealing with the various challenges, and what the future holds. Again, these findings are not our own conclusions, but are a collection of the views of several lawyers who very kindly took the time to share their experiences with us. Some have asked to remain anonymous.
How the pandemic impacted office/work culture
As we touched on when writing about remote working in Part 1 of this market report, while there were numerous benefits of working from home, many lawyers we spoke to also spoke of some of the downsides, which included an inevitable lack of connection and camaraderie with their colleagues/teams. Similar to the effects of lockdowns on communities, in general, all over the world, the pandemic clearly had an impact on office/work culture in the Malaysian legal industry.
Dispute resolution associate Lynn Pang said that “the firm has been forced to become more self-reliant [in that] we have needed to rely less on our support staff, and be able to function off [only] soft-copies of documents”. She shared that her firm “typically had a very close-knit culture, so working from home has definitely had a negative impact on morale […] it’s just not the same”.
Another dispute resolution lawyer Samantha Siow shared that the pandemic “has impacted greatly” on work culture. Samantha revealed: “Although I have been with the firm for close to two years now, I have not had the chance to speak to every colleague in my office. In fact, I haven’t even [met] some of them. Our firm has also abandoned the monthly drinks for two years now, which was supposed to be a great avenue for everyone to get to know each other.”
One corporate lawyer who started his career just as the pandemic began had a similar experience: “The biggest impact the pandemic has had on my office/firm culture, is the lack of interaction or the opportunity to mingle with my colleagues or supervisors. [This] made it more difficult to grow or learn, especially as I am just starting out in my legal career.”
Another corporate lawyer has also been unable to meet some newer colleagues: “Our firm was put on a rotation basis as a result of the pandemic. This means that I haven’t had the chance to meet some of the new people that have joined our firm, due to clashes in our rotation timetables. I can imagine that it must be difficult for newcomers to join the firm when it is noticeably less vibrant than it was pre-pandemic. Working lunches and after work get-togethers have also stopped for obvious reasons.”
For dispute resolution associate Tasha Lim, “the sense of comradeship is different” and she also felt for newcomers to the firm, as they would not be able to “experience the joys and sorrows that comes with working in an office”.
Steps that law firms have taken to address mental health concerns
All the challenges and uncertainties that the pandemic continually throws up would inevitably have an impact on the mental health of lawyers. While the legal industry would never be regarded as leading the way when it comes to caring about the mental health of its employees, we asked lawyers what their firms have done to cater for their wellbeing.
A corporate lawyer said: “I believe that it is important and time for the Malaysian legal industry to push for employers to consider and support the mental health and wellbeing of their employees. The pandemic has left a lot of people tired and unhopeful, and this has definitely affected the mental health of many employees, and which would in turn, affect their work efficacy.”
Dispute resolution associate Adrienne Sena shared that her firm “has been very malleable to the changes brought about by the pandemic [and] very open to any recommendations we may have that can improve [our] remote working experience”. She further shared: “Recently, my employer implemented an employee wellness programme that provides us the avenue to speak to trained mental health professionals on a strictly no-name basis. This programme is targeted at helping us navigate through our mental and emotional wellbeing amidst these uncertain times which I feel is a great initiative.”
One lawyer reported that his firm had not taken any specific steps “aside from webinars on mental health” but shared that his direct supervisor “does check in with us every now and then to make sure that we are adequately ‘managing our energies’ as she rightly puts it, and carving out time for rest”. Wong Yen Ni, an employment and industrial relations associate, also reiterated the importance of employers paying attention to the wellbeing of its employees: “I think it is important for Malaysian firms to encourage an open discourse around mental health awareness, and to provide some form of support especially throughout the pandemic. This is of course not just a challenge brought about by the pandemic, but it would be good to acknowledge that this period of time is especially difficult for many. Even without the direct support, knowing that your employer values you and your health in general would be a morale booster.”
Dispute resolution associate Kasturi Puvan‘s employer also “conducted an internal webinar with all its employees to raise awareness on mental health, and provided one fully sponsored coaching and counselling session for every staff member”.
At dispute resolution associate Lim Zi-Han‘s firm “the partners hired an instructor for meditation classes in the office”. Lynn said that although her firm “recently had a mental health talk”, she felt that “caring for the wellbeing of its employees seems rare in the Malaysian market”. Tasha agreed, sharing that although it was a “great gesture” that her team “had monthly calls to check up on everyone”, she still thinks “more could be done to check up on everyone’s well-being”.
Unsurprisingly, not everyone had positive things to report on this issue. One corporate lawyer shared: “I don’t feel like I have been given any help in terms of the other aspects of my mental health and wellbeing during the pandemic, especially when it comes to the much heavier workload I have been experiencing, on top of having to learn everything from scratch as I am new to the industry.”
Another lawyer said that his firm did “nothing specifically” to address mental health or employee wellbeing, though “the firm did check up on employees and enquire how things were going on the employees’ end, especially when the pandemic was at its height and there were no opportunities for physical interaction”.
Samantha suggested that “it would be appreciated if law firms could provide care packages to employees or organise relevant seminars like some of the MNCs and large corporations do”.
As it has been almost two years, it’s apparent that the Bar Council needs to do more to increase awareness of the importance of employee wellbeing, rather than leaving individual firms to their own devices. As one corporate lawyer said: “I believe the lack of employers’ support for their employees’ mental health and wellbeing will not be taken seriously, unless encouraged by the entire legal industry as a whole.”
The effects of the pandemic on employability and the job market
One of the big talking points for young lawyers during the pandemic has been the cost-cutting measures implemented by many firms. Rumours swirled about paycuts (which we’ve already addressed in Part 1 of this market report), and the other much-discussed repercussion has been the reported hiring freezes, or reduced pupil retention rates. But as the dust settled on the initial uncertainty from the first MCO, it appeared that the job market may not be as challenging as it seemed.
Adrienne shared what turned out to be a common sentiment: “I’ve heard mixed comments [about the job market]. Some have said that it has been difficult to secure a job during the pandemic, while others have been able to locate jobs pretty quickly throughout.” Kasturi agreed, saying that “the job market seems to be both overly saturated and full of opportunity” and said that it seemed there was a lot of “rotation” where many lawyers left firms for other firms, and then filled the vacancies left behind by other lawyers who left.
From employment and industrial relations associate Arissa Ahrom‘s observations: “Although the job-market appeared to be at a standstill between March [to] December 2020, it quickly picked up at the beginning of 2021, specifically for in-house positions. This is based on my observations of the experiences of many of my peers who are junior to mid-level associates as many of them left [legal] practice to take up in-house roles between January 2021 to April 2021. This was also during the time when most law firms were still freezing recruitment and trying to recuperate from the financial impact of the extensive lockdowns in 2020.”
Tax associate Sophia Choy felt that “pupillage positions are rather scarce, [but] for associates, the job market is still quite employable as I’ve seen quite a few of my friends changing firms”. Tasha added to this: “Pupillage employment may be a little difficult as there seems to be a high supply and low demand. For junior to mid-level associates, I have many peers and colleagues who are able to be employed. So it would seem that there are job opportunities available and people are not afraid to make the change.”
These are Yen Ni’s impressions: “I would say it has not been impossible to land employment in the Malaysian legal market and it appears that law firms and companies have been continually looking to hire both legal associates and in-house counsels.”
Samantha feels that the market has been challenging: “The pandemic has definitely darkened the job market for junior associates, especially for those who have just finished pupillage and are not retained. Some of my peers and pupil mates took months to get a first-year associate job after their pupillage. This is surely an added pressure for those who do not have the luxury of staying home and waiting. As it has been an employer market for the past two years, I have also seen some of my peers just grab whatever offers come their way in order not to miss out on the earning opportunity. As a result, some of them have accepted offers for practice areas in which they are uninterested. Also, based on my own observation, I have seen many mid-level associates (PQE 5-8) leave to start their own firms or move in-house due to a more lucrative package offered.”
Gurbinder Singh Gill, a dispute resolution associate said he has “observed a hiring freeze in smaller firms” and “CLP and Bar graduates who had mediocre results, possibly in their degree, found it harder to secure a place as the medium and larger firms more often than not [are] hiring from the top of the pile”.
A corporate lawyer shared his view that although the market has been difficult, it has bounced back: “During my last few months as a pupil, which was at the start of the pandemic, it was pretty difficult for my peers to secure retention at their respective firms. However, as time went by, I believe most firms were less hesitant to employ pupils and associates. Personally, I think the employability rate for the legal industry is somewhat back to normal.” Lynn agreed, saying that “retention rates for pupils seem to be recovering”.
Overall, it appears that although there was some uncertainty in the early days of the pandemic, the job market is not as tough as some make it out to be. This could also depend on the practice area. As Zi-Han shared: “Many firms (and also huge corporations) are looking for lawyers that specialise or are experienced in employment law, given employment advisory work is on the rise.” Dispute resolution lawyer Lim Wei Jiet also added some perspective that, regardless of any uncertainties in the job market, “if a candidate with quality or exceptional credentials comes by, law firms are always willing to accommodate”.
General comments on the legal industry as a whole
We also asked lawyers for some general comments on how they think the pandemic has affected the legal industry, as well as how law firms and the Bar Council could have responded better.
Adrienne observed that “the pandemic has indeed placed the legal practice in Malaysia outside of its comfort zone and made us ‘pivot'”. Lynn feels that “from a litigation perspective, it has forced people to rely more on emails [and] overall, it has forced people to move into the 21st century almost overnight”. In Tasha’s view everyone in the industry would be affected, in different ways: “The impact would be perhaps stronger for small to medium firms in terms of files. In some areas of practice, the work has dwindled. Big firms would be affected with the issue of having higher costs — [more office] space, and more employees.”
Kasturi noted a shift in the market: “There has been a rise in the number of boutique firms opening up. Former partners in larger firms are leaving to open up their own practice at a much higher rate than before. [This] creates new job opportunities. However, in terms of clients and a legal market, it does increase saturation which may lead to even more competition.” She feels that this increased competition has led to a lot more undercutting in terms of legal fees, as many medium to large firms lowered their rates to continue attracting work, but this meant that smaller firms were forced to lower their fees even further to compete.
Yen Ni thinks that “online hearings or trials are less daunting or stressful for junior litigators, which I think is a blessing for us juniors to ease into handling these things on our own”. While Wei Jiet agrees that the courts going online has had a big impact on the profession, he points out that these repercussions are not all positive: “It also means lawyers have missed out on the experience of mingling and socialising with their colleagues at the Bar in Court premises, which is an important element of building one’s network, especially for junior lawyers.”
Several lawyers were unimpressed with the Bar Council pushing for all lawyers to be classified as “essential workers”, and pressuring the government to allow lawyers to return to the office. One corporate associate said: “Personally, I did not think it was necessary for the Bar Council to push for commercial lawyers (dispute resolution or corporate lawyers) to be classified as ‘essential workers’ and made to go to the office, especially at the time when the pandemic was at its worst. I thought the legal industry could have done better to support and encourage those who were employers, to value the lives and mental health or wellbeing of their workers, in allowing them to continue to work from home.” Sophia agreed: “Lawyers are essential [to society], but to classify them as an essential service without any specific guidance [was] unnecessary. Not to sound mean, but as lawyers, we cannot sound too entitled [and demand] privileged treatment.”
Kasturi feels that the Bar could have done more to assist the underprivileged in the community, at a time when they were in dire need of help: “Many poorer people were disproportionately affected by the first MCO. Unable to work and collect money, businesses also failed to pay their workers. This meant these poorer people could pay rent, or pay their loans. When courts went online, not all of them could afford legal representation, [and] they were further disadvantaged. The Bar could have offered assistance to this group of people during the pandemic or at least offered practical legal advice as to [how to manage payments], which we see a lot of firms give to big businesses.”
There is also a very obvious generation gap that has been exacerbated by the pandemic. Zi-Han says that “employers should not have that ‘old fashioned’ mindset that if you are not physically present, you are not working [and the] Bar Council [could have done more] to shift everyone towards remote practice or implementing more technology in practice”. Sophia thinks that “there is a lack of empathy on the part of senior lawyers to adopt the work-from-home culture”. Samantha also observed that “some firms and lawyers are still reluctant to conduct online hearings and insist on a physical hearing”.
Similarly, Wei Jiet noted that “many members of the Bar opposed the idea [of online hearings] vehemently, citing a whole host of reasons which I found hard to accept, [but] fortunately, the judiciary stood its ground, and we have not looked back since”. Gurbinder agrees that there has been a reluctance to adapt, but thinks that something can be done to alleviate this: “I’ve seen many run scared as a result of the [various challenges of conducting online trials and remote working] and would rather delay briefs until post-MCO. As such, I propose that [these fears] be combatted through crash courses and self-help groups, and that practitioners are compelled to conduct matters remotely to allow for the doors of justice to continue to be open [unless there are] good reasons otherwise.”
Lynn feels that the industry should find a middle ground, and “have a greater respect for one another”. She says that there is probably a way to accommodate all parties: “Whether you think we should go back to the days of working in an office all the time, or move towards online hearings forever, I do think everyone has a different experience. Some of the lawyers, if given the choice, will prefer physical hearings if possible, and there’s nothing wrong with that.”
What does the future hold?
With all that being said, with all the experiences and learnings everyone in the legal industry has had in these very unique circumstances, what will happen once the economy is fully operational and restriction-less again? Will legal practice really be that different? Or will we very quickly return to pre-pandemic norms? We asked lawyers about their predictions on how the pandemic will shape the Malaysian legal industry in the short, medium, and longer-term future.
Adrienne thinks online trials will play an important role in the immediate term, but that refinements are needed: “Assuming that COVID-19 is here to stay, my hope is that in 2022/23, there will be less resistance towards conducting trials online. This is probably specific to the Industrial Court, but I do feel that aside from law firms equipping themselves to conduct online trials, there should be some discussion on how Claimant employees who may lack the necessary technology to conduct remote hearings, particularly self-represented employees, can be assisted to conduct online trials.”
Wei Jiet also thinks that there is a lot of work to be done regarding online trials: “The legal profession in general is not yet prepared for online trials. There are no guidelines on how to preserve the integrity of evidence adduced. In some countries, it is the norm [to have] 360-degree cameras or having two cameras in the room to ensure that the witness is not coached in any way. Or there would be an appointment of invigilating solicitors to sit in the same room.” He also shared that litigation lawyers may need to learn new tricks or skills to adapt to online advocacy: “Litigation wise, lawyers need to be creative and bold in adopting new advocacy techniques in presenting one’s case in Court. There are many ways to use online hearings to one’s advantage that would be difficult to pull off in physical hearings, such as the use of visually-grabbing diagrams or moving images to advance one’s case in a manner which captivates the attention of judges.”
While Lynn notes that “we need to move towards getting rid of hardcopies of documents [and] the need for physical service is just antiquated” and one corporate lawyer shared that his firm “has definitely put a greater emphasis on technology, and has been thinking of ways in which our work can be digitalised, and which software they should purchase to optimise such digitalisation”. Zi-Han thinks that “as the situation improves, practice will go back to everyone’s comfort zone, [and] older lawyers will go back to pre-pandemic [norms] because they do not want to change”.
Several lawyers shared the view that we will see more firms operating primarily online, particularly in light of the Bar Council’s recent decision to reverse its ban on law firms operating through virtual offices. Yen Ni says that the recent decision “will also create space for more flexible and cost-effective ways to run legal practice”. Samantha thinks that the ability to operate via virtual offices should see “an increase in mid-level lawyers setting up their own practices due to the flexibility and low-cost avenues for law firms to run their businesses from anywhere”. Kasturi agrees, saying: “The online firm will rise. We will have firms now run completely online. From conferencing with clients, to issuing invoices to attending trial, everything will be online. It will make the need for a physical office irrelevant.”
However, Kasturi did sound a note of caution that the increase in online activity may have a downside. She observed that we have already seen an increase in online advertising, and there were many legal blogs and websites launched during the pandemic, though many have since become inactive. But this could be a bad thing: “The industry will overpopulate the internet with appearances but no real substance. The whole purpose will be flashy advertising because this is the only way to get noticed. Each new advertisement becomes less impactful but is still needed, because if you fail to advertise, you have no chance to get new clients. This oversaturation will become more dire in 2023.”
Overall then, it has been quite the rollercoaster ride, and there are probably a few more twists, turns, and loops to come. Arissa probably summed it up best, saying: “My hope is for the traditional and conservative ways of the legal practice in Malaysia to continue to be more open to adapting and changing with the times. The multiple lockdowns have demonstrated at the very least that it is not necessary to physically appear in Court and wait for hours, only to attend a five-minute case management. The past year has been a positive catalyst in forcing the practice to finally embrace technology for efficiency.”
While the realists will agree with Gurbinder’s sentiment that “those who do not adapt will be left behind, and those who do adapt will thrive” we will end this market report with an important reminder from Tasha: “While it is important to adapt and survive, it is important to live and breathe as well. Hopefully, everyone remembers to treat themselves a little more kindly during this period where it is so easy for one to feel burnt out.”
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.