The panel to review the practice training that is compulsory for those seeking admission as lawyers has a weighty task. This comes seven years after a training contract system was introduced to replace the ancient pupillage system. The Committee for the Professional Training of Lawyers will probe the training process and retention policies of law firms. The issue is pertinent as around 100 of the 650 fresh law graduates here last year did not receive training contracts. Local graduates from NUS and SMU had no problem in getting such contracts, under which they receive supervised training at law firms. But many from foreign law schools struggled to get past the door.
An "oversupply" of law graduates favours law firms, which can have their pick of trainees. However, crimping the admission of new lawyers - when practice training proves elusive - would represent a waste of resources, and could drive up already high fees by limiting the entry of fresh lawyers. A glut of graduates in a field would ordinarily reflect a mismatch between the skills acquired and the job market's needs. However, legal skills can be applied in many ways outside a traditional law firm. Hence, one should take care not to over-regulate the supply when the interest in law is strong among the young.
Ironically, alongside talk of a possible glut are reports that mid-tier lawyers are overworked and prone to burnout. The layman might wonder if work is being distributed efficiently enough within law firms so that experienced staff can be retained and younger lawyers be given more exposure. This ought to be justification enough for larger firms to absorb more young lawyers.
One suggestion is that trainees who are not offered employment contracts be kept on as paralegals as a possible first step towards full professional status later. That could potentially lead to abuses by firms out to seek the services of law graduates at a lower cost. Still, all options should be considered, including short-term employment of newly admitted lawyers to ensure they have sufficient practice while they get a better feel of career opportunities in law and related fields.
Law schools here are differentiating their courses to an extent. The third law school, for example, will focus on family and criminal law. Perhaps they could work with the Law Society to offer short specialised programmes with a practical component for fresh law graduates who are unable to obtain a training contract. Budding legal talent could use this as a stepping stone to go into new areas. Importantly, the society should do more to help students grasp the nature of legal jobs, opportunities to specialise in specific fields, and also the ideals of the profession - what Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon referred to as a passion for "justice, fairness and service". The practice of law should be also viewed as a calling.