According to our research the majority of respondents (80%) were comfortable with their daily billable hours target. Very few described their daily target as “too high” and fewer still (collectively, 9%) considered their billable hours target to be “excessive”. Of this minority, most were senior-level lawyers (senior associate and above) based in mainland China, Malaysia and Singapore. One respondent from a domestic Singapore firm said: “Our firm recently increased the number of hours that senior lawyers were expected to spend on non-billable activities, but also increased our billable targets, but it seems this only applies selectively with a number of senior partners (and their protégés) having their targets reduced substantially.”
Surprisingly, 11% of respondents said that their billable hours targets were too low. This response was common among Korean lawyers. “I find my targets to be way too low. 50% of the hours I’m ask to bill can be classified as intellectually demanding while the rest can just as easily be done by a first-year law student,” complains one lawyer who indicated four years PQE.
Another lawyer from Malaysia notes: “I have a low target compared to some of my peers… which is why I don’t really mind, but some more challenging work from time to time would be great.”
The majority of respondents (67%) claimed not to be looking to move firms at the moment. Out of this group, the highest number of respondents came from Korea, Japan and Malaysia, substantiating studies which suggest that these markets are among the most stable legal employment markets in the region. 21% of lawyers said they were either looking for employment at other law firms or to change careers altogether. Of this unsettled group, the majority came from mainland China (48%) followed by Singapore (16%) and India (14%).
In respect of the high number of respondents in India looking to swap firms, one lawyer there commented: “Most Indian law firms below the top three or four are in recruitment mode, so it’s no surprise that some are looking to move … it’s happening quite freely at the moment.”
38% of all respondents indicated they were open to the idea of a career change. Of this number, 62% indicated that a move in-house was the most likely, 15% favoured a move into the public sector, 10% favoured academia and 16% said they would consider leaving the legal profession. The latter figure is up markedly on previous years (2008 was 4% and 2009 it was 6%). This may easily be accounted for with reference to the well-documented effects that the financial crisis has had on job satisfaction levels, yet it’s worth noting that women outnumbered men in this category by almost 2:1.
Female lawyers contacted by ALB say that the over-representation of women in this category has to do with the sometimes limited opportunities presented to them for career advancement, more than anything else. “Men and women both have family responsibilities and at most firms I’m aware of there are initiatives in place to accommodate lawyers with a busy family life,” said one lawyer who was formerly a partner in charge of HR issues at an international law firm in Hong Kong. “In my experience, women want to leave the profession because they are not given the same opportunities for career advancement as their male colleagues.”
Another female lawyer commented that although not institutionalised, a culture of gender bias widely exists, especially in international law firms. “No HR head at law firms will tell you that gender bias doesn’t exist at some level,” said the lawyer, who is currently a partner at a law firm in Singapore. “But because the issue has been given more media coverage the forms of gender bias have become less overt. The cultural issues surrounding gender bias in Asia, overlaid with the fact that law firms at the best of times aren’t the most women-friendly organisations, means that these issues will always exist to some degree,” said the lawyer, noting that international law firms were often “far worse” than domestic law firms.
Nevertheless, a number of respondents employed by international law firms did note that their employers’ attitude vis-à-vis these issues was improving. This was indicated as much by just who they voted for in this year’s Employer of Choice survey.
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