Tan Chong Huat And Alvin Chen For The Straits Times

Lawyer glut can be a happy problem

Lawyers who were newly admitted to the Bar gather to remember the moment with a photo in August 2014. -- PHOTO: EDWARD TEO FOR THE SUNDAY TIMES
Lawyers who were newly admitted to the Bar gather to remember the moment with a photo in August 2014. -- PHOTO: EDWARD TEO FOR THE SUNDAY TIMES

The current discussion on the implications of the leap in the number of Singaporeans enrolling in overseas law schools raises larger issues beyond the economic realities of finding jobs in the legal sector.

Today's highly developed legal environment is a far cry from early 19th-century Singapore, when almost anyone could be a law agent and lawyering was a part- time job.

To ensure that only persons with formal qualifications could advise and represent clients, the number of entrants to the legal profession was restricted in the 1870s to those with the appropriate qualifications.

Since then, admission to the profession has been regulated under the Legal Profession Act and the limited places in local law schools serve as an additional control valve.

But with increasing affluence, it is impossible to restrict the number of Singaporeans who study overseas for a law degree that will help them gain entry to the Singapore Bar.

The legal profession promises upward social mobility, which is uppermost in every parent's mind.

Such hopes are difficult to displace, and Singaporean law students today are, in a sense, little different from English legal apprentices in the past who aspired to become gentlemen through the practice of law.

Short of a drastic change to the number of recognised foreign law degrees, a lawyer glut is likely to stay with us for some time.

We should see this as a happy problem, as it offers the legal community an opportunity to examine how best to allocate more resources to enhance the practice of community law, and the larger society an opportunity to appreciate the role of law in society.

As observed in the 2013 Report of the 4th Committee on the Supply of Lawyers and by Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon in his address at the 2014 Mass Call for newly qualified lawyers, there is a critical shortage of lawyers practising community law, such as family law and criminal law.

From a sociological perspective, it has been argued that the number of lawyers in any society depends on the social role that lawyers are expected to play.

We now have more potential lawyers, but if they do not intend to practise either family or criminal law, the legal profession will not continue to grow optimally and we will face the twin problems of a stagnant profession and unaddressed social needs.

It is thus timely that a number of measures, including the establishment of a third law school, are being taken to encourage prospective lawyers to practise community law. The challenge is to ensure that they stay the course.

The 4th Committee had recommended a more streamlined selection process to ensure that only candidates who show a genuine interest in the practice of community law be admitted to the third law school.

Also, the teaching pedagogy in this school would focus on incorporating elements of practical or vocational training.

We would suggest that these recommendations be complemented by mentorship programmes with senior practitioners and placements in law firms practising community law.

In addition, community lawyers will need more support in performing their work, given the financial constraints they operate under as well as the complex legal issues that may be raised in community law cases.

One example is the recent landmark decision by the Singapore High Court which set a default benchmark sentence for negligent driving that causes death.

That case considered the legal culpability of negligent drivers, the need for general deterrence and whether past court decisions should be overruled retroactively or prospectively. These are difficult issues for the Bench and Bar to ponder.

The third law school, the existing two law schools and other relevant stakeholders should work together to establish a centre to conduct research into community law issues.

Research findings should be readily made available to community lawyers as well as the courts to assist in producing a fully informed outcome in each case.

Some concerns about the glut of lawyers stem from a fear that more lawyers may mean more lawsuits. An over-litigious society is obviously undesirable.

One long-term solution is to educate students on the proper function of the law in society and why law has an important role to play in addressing social needs.

With the increasing emphasis on promoting Singapore law, it may be time to consider whether law should be formally taught as a subject at our junior colleges. In the United Kingdom, law is offered as an A-level subject.

As for fears that this may encourage even more students to take up law at a time when the profession has problems absorbing the numbers, the fact is that the study of law not only develops critical thinking skills but also offers a gateway to other professions.

So while Singaporean law students today should be realistic in assessing their chances in pursuing a legal career, those who wish to practise community law as a life-long vocation should be given as much support as possible.

At the same time, in view of the central role of law in Singapore society, it is crucial to inculcate a proper understanding of the law in our younger citizens, so as to minimise the risk that more lawyers will result in an over-litigious society.

The first writer is managing partner, and the second writer is head, professional services support, both of law firm RHTLaw Taylor Wessing LLP.