The IBA Young Lawyers’ Committee’s Training Series: Session three, ‘Career models for young lawyers and the qualities of a future partner’

Monday 13 December 2021

Patricia Cristina Tan Ngochu
Romulo Mabanta Buenaventura Sayoc & De Los Angeles, Manila

Technology, innovation, and a shift in legal consumers’ buying practices have reshaped the way legal services are delivered and have impacted the career trajectories of young lawyers seeking alternatives to the traditional law firm model. In this session, moderated by Patricia Ngochua (Romulo Mabanta Buenaventura Sayoc & De Los Angeles), panellists Andrew Ang (WongPartnership), David Xu (Zhong Lun), Sky Yang (Bae Kim & Lee), and Akiko Sueoka (Mori Hamada & Matsumoto), discussed what these new career models are, examined how law firms have been responding to these career model changes, and identified the qualities, traits and skills required of young lawyers looking to make partner.

While non-traditional legal roles have and continue to evolve, the law firm model continues to be the dominant delivery channel for legal services in China and most of the Asia Pacific region. David Xu pointed out that while new working tools have emerged, particularly in the field of AI translation, ‘alt-legal’ and ‘legal adjacent’ roles have yet to break into the mainstream in China. Sky Yang noted that in South Korea there is a gradual yet constant stream of young lawyers moving to tech companies and platform businesses in recent years. Akiko Sueoka made a similar observation with respect to the situation in Japan. Andrew Ang cited actual examples of an associate who left WongPartnership in Singapore to found a legal tech start-up, another associate who became the firm’s in-house legal tech manager, and of another associate who tried her hand in the firm’s marketing and client services department. When pressed as to what these new career models mean for the traditional law firm partnership model and whether the law firm was a ‘dinosaur facing extinction’, Andrew Ang was quick to point out otherwise, but emphasised the need for law firms to evolve to keep up with these changes.  

Law firms across the region have adapted by creating new roles for those with legal backgrounds other than the traditional partner and associate roles. Akiko Sueoka cited her firm’s professional support lawyers (PSL) as an example. She explained that PSLs are qualified lawyers whose main function is to provide knowledge management and support services to client-facing lawyers. Sky Yang mentioned that Korean firms have been monitoring these career model changes with great interest, and have responded, among others, by investing in technology or AI-based business models such as the Korean legal portal LawnB.

Similarly, firms have been taking proactive, institutional steps towards bridging the generational and gender gap between lawyers, especially when it comes to retention strategies.

Andrew Ang viewed the generational gap as not so much a clash of values, but a difference in priority among lawyers from different generations. Sky Yang added that firms should accept the generational differences in values, and deal with young lawyers’ needs for flexibility in their careers by seconding or supporting their migration to client companies.

The panellists also noted that the number of female partners across their respective jurisdictions is increasing. However, to encourage more female associates to stay on the partnership track, flexibility in terms of working hours, the kind of work, and assurance that they would still be considered for partnership despite a work hiatus, are key to their retention.

David Xu observed that the most important retention power firms have over associates is to keep their career tracks open, and to give them the skills and training required to build their own books of business, and to advance their careers.

The panellists then proceeded to discuss how the qualities, traits and skills required of young lawyers aiming to make partner should develop. Andrew Ang stated that there was no magic formula, but that it was important to know oneself and one’s competition, as well as to know what the technology can, and cannot, replace. Sky Yang emphasised the need for good communication skills, flexible thinking, patience and persistence. Akiko Sueoka noted the importance of understanding your client’s needs and providing good service, while David Xu stressed the need for effective team leadership and management skills, good business sense and marketing skills.

As to how young lawyers can build their own portable books of business, Akiko Sueoka articulated the need for young lawyers to promote themselves professionally by writing articles, speaking in seminars, providing excellent service, as well as to cultivate their connections and network in person or through social networking sites. David Xu agreed that network building is important, and that it should be undertaken by young lawyers even before they make partner.

Sky Yang and Andrew Ang then proceeded to share their experiences on how they made partner. Thereafter, the session concluded with Akiko Sueoka encouraging young lawyers to study and work overseas for their personal and professional growth should the opportunity present itself.