Too many lawyers? Or too few?

-- ST ILLUSTRATION: MIEL
-- ST ILLUSTRATION: MIEL

Some say too many lawyers are being minted, resulting in a rush for training places in law firms. Others point out that there's a shortage of family and criminal practice lawyers. The truth is: It doesn't matter. Law grads can excel in banking or politics - and in the theatre.

"The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers." Most lawyers are familiar with Dick the Butcher's line from Shakespeare's Henry VI, Part 2. Most also appreciate its double significance.

Typically the line is invoked in jest - a shorthand example of the many jokes about lawyers that accuse our profession of being something that society would be better off without. (What's the difference between a jellyfish and a lawyer? One's a spineless, poisonous blob. The other is a form of sea life.)

But Shakespeare was also highlighting the role that lawyers play as the guardians of stability and order, standing between society and the unruly mob. If you want chaos or to start a revolution, getting rid of the lawyers is a reasonable first step.

I was reminded of this during the recent discussion over whether there is a "glut" of lawyers in Singapore, as Minister for Law K. Shanmugam suggested in August.

The problem, as presented, is that not every Singaporean graduate with a law degree is getting a training contract, and not all those with training contracts are getting permanent jobs as lawyers.

To address this problem, a variety of solutions has been proposed. No one is suggesting mass slaughter, but most proceed from the assumption that there are too many lawyers entering the market. (What do you call 500 lawyers on the bottom of the ocean? A good start.)

One such solution to the problem is to restrict domestic supply.

The National University of Singapore currently admits around 250 law students; Singapore Management University recently agreed to expand its intake from 120 to 180. Would cutting back on these numbers ensure that a higher proportion of graduates secure training contracts from the 500-odd on offer each year?

Perhaps. But these numbers are dwarfed by the Singaporeans who decamp to England and Australia each year to pursue law and then return in search of a job. Those study-abroad students now outnumber the locally trained lawyers entering the market. Any restriction of domestic supply would almost certainly increase the overall proportion of Singaporean lawyers who did not in fact study law in Singapore.

Cutting back on that second market would have an impact, but the list of Overseas Scheduled Universities whose graduates can practise law in Singapore is not easy to change.

For Australia, the list is tied to Singapore's free trade agreement with Canberra. For England, there is more flexibility, but any restriction would need a long enough lead-in to ensure that students who have commenced their studies can still take advantage of rules currently in place.

A third alternative to limit supply would be to use a bar exam as a choke point, raising standards and increasing competition. Extreme examples of this can be found in Japan and Korea, where the passing rates were recently 25 per cent and 5 per cent respectively.

Yet this is an inefficient means of regulating the market. In essence, it means that someone who has spent three or more years of his or her life training for a profession may never be allowed to practise it.

A glut or shortfall?

THERE is, however, a fourth approach, which is to ask whether there is really a problem at all.

The question of how many lawyers a society needs depends on a number of factors. These include the litigiousness of that society - that is, how frequently its members sue one another or the government - as well as the role that legal services play in the economy.

Singapore is not particularly litigious, though it appears to be growing more so. (God and the Devil are having a fencing dispute between Heaven and Hell that escalates until God says he will take the Devil to court. "Ha!" scoffs the Devil. "Where are YOU going to find a lawyer?")

Far more significant is the role the legal sector plays in the economy. In Singapore's case, the legal sector is the cornerstone of Singapore's status as a financial services hub, as a regional and international base for local and foreign multinational firms, and more recently as a centre for arbitration.

A strong legal sector is both an enabler for other sectors of the economy as well as an economic engine in its own right. Moves to create the Singapore International Commercial Court will increase the contribution made by the legal sector.

Viewed through this lens, Singapore arguably has a shortage of lawyers. Such was the conclusion reached by the Fourth Committee on the Supply of Lawyers, of which I was a member, in May last year.

In absolute terms, when compared with global cities like London and New York, the number of lawyers is not high.

Singapore has just under one lawyer for every thousand people. Hong Kong has a little more than one per thousand. In London, the equivalent number is 2½; in New York, it is more than eight.

So there is space to grow as the legal services sector expands as part of the economy. (What's the difference between a lawyer and a vulture? The lawyer gets frequentflier miles.)

But there is also a shortage in key areas, notably the kind of retail legal practice that does not play a major role in GDP but is essential to any decent community: criminal defence, family law, probate and so on.

If present trends continue, the shortage of lawyers in these areas could make it harder for Singaporeans to have access to justice if they are charged with a crime, experience difficulties at home or want to write a will.

The rising absolute number suggests that the present "glut" could be a short-term problem. There is certainly no cause for reducing the number of law spaces in Singapore - if anything, these could increase.

Setting aside institutions like Oxford and Cambridge, both our local law schools provide better training for the practice of law in Singapore than second-tier English institutions and their Australian counterparts.

The "problem", then, is the number of Singaporeans who go abroad to study in the hope of securing a job as a lawyer upon returning. At present, only around 70 per cent do, compared with well over 90 per cent of graduates from both NUS and SMU.

On the need for lawyers who practise what Attorney-General V.K. Rajah has termed "community law", it is incorrect to suggest that local institutions somehow discourage students from this path.

Indeed, the fact that NUS Law Faculty member Debbie Ong has just been recruited to the bench for two years is testimony to the importance of the university's family law team. Similarly, the launch of the Amaladass Professorship of Criminal Justice at NUS last month highlights our ongoing commitment to criminal law. In addition, all of the students at both NUS and SMU now do a minimum number of pro bono hours, often planting the seed for a future career in these areas.

Tinker, tailor, soldier, lawyer?

NEVERTHELESS, it is true that many graduates from NUS and SMU have lots of options open to them and tend to gravitate towards the more lucrative field of corporate law. The very best may also consider joining the Legal Service or academia. It is hoped that the new third law school will supplement the ranks of lawyers who choose community law as their focus.

There are other matters to consider, of course, such as the number and the nature of training contracts. Should law firms be obliged to take on a certain number of such trainees? Should this extend to international firms also? Could we increase the number of trainees that a solicitor can supervise beyond two, at least for senior lawyers? Lowering the cost to firms might also encourage them to take on more trainees, at least ensuring that more law graduates get called to the bar.

But a bigger-picture question is whether it is so bad that some people with legal training will not end up practising law at all.

Though we strive to ensure that all our graduates who wish to practise law are able to do so, my colleagues and I fully expect a good number to choose a different path. There are two basic reasons for this. The first is that very few 18-year-olds have fully thought through their idea of a career path. People change and their goals and aspirations change also.

The second is that law is great training for many other careers - ranging from banking and management to those who join the police force or go into politics or the arts. This is borne out by the experience of other mature markets like the United States and Australia, where a large proportion of law graduates routinely go into other industries.

Indeed, law graduates already constitute a sizeable portion of Singapore's theatrical scene. And though none has yet achieved the prominence of Shakespeare, I take some comfort that none has followed the Bard in suggesting that the path to a better world begins with killing all the lawyers.

stopinion@sph.com.sg

The writer is the dean of the National University of Singapore Faculty of Law.