New paths for law grads

Despite the Law Minister's friendly advice about a looming over-supply of lawyers, it is unlikely the profession's appeal will be diminished to any extent. A third law school targeted at mature students and with a strong focus on community law is to be started, while the National University of Singapore and Singapore Management University are not cutting admissions. This year, 15 applicants missed out for each law student NUS admitted.

Singaporeans studying in Commonwealth countries alone will notionally increase lawyer numbers by about a quarter over a degree cycle if all of them returned and trained for the Bar. The list of recognised foreign law schools, mainly in Britain, is under review.

There is heavy concentration in corporate legal work, as Law Minister K. Shanmugam and Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon have noted. Young lawyers gravitate to this speciality because of the earnings, but it ought to be said that attrition is also highest among lawyers in the first four to five years of practice. The latest number cited in a periodic review is a high 14 per cent. Corporate law, like external auditing, demands long hours for the lolly it doles out.

Community law, with its variant criminal and family law as well as some forms of civil litigation, could do with an infusion to align with the needs of a cosmopolitan society undergoing rapid transition in mores and an understanding of public law where it touches on rights and liberties.

Singapore's ratio of lawyers to population of under one per 1,000 people is actually thin compared with Hong Kong's. London's ratio is three times Singapore's, to cater to its hub status in finance and insurance.

The supply of legally trained manpower might be better appreciated in a broader milieu of Singapore's needs in two diverse forms: as a business and logistical centre with its attendant demand for high-end professional services of all kinds, and as a growing population of diverse nationalities and ethnicities increases the need for legal support in just about any conceivable situation.

Last year's periodic report of the Committee on the Supply of Lawyers was heavy in its emphasis on community law to address the imbalance in available legal expertise. A tough sell, though necessary. Criminal law for one thing requires an aptitude and a cut of mind rather more exacting than in other branches, except in constitutional law.

Yet there are career alternatives for those law graduates who do not wish to practise - such as in education, financial services, media and the government sector. If talent is spread more evenly across craft demarcations, notions of over-supply will be less worrying, both for individuals and the state.