Fears of a glut in law graduates, from both local and foreign universities, appear to be turning away school-leavers from the discipline. There is a drop in the number of students who listed law as their first-choice course at the National University of Singapore (NUS) and Singapore Management University. This is not to say that university places for law are going unwanted. On the contrary, in spite of the drop in application numbers, four students put law as their first choice for each place available at NUS. Admission standards remain high. That is as it should be, as an international hub needs to have top legal talent.
However, a shortage of lawyers leads to costly legal fees (felt keenly by mass-market clients), slow delivery of services and burnout among mid-career lawyers who consequently leave the profession. Unfortunately, getting the right supply of lawyers has been a hit-and-miss phenomenon here for decades. Lawyers who want to protect their near-monopoly of legal services would prefer to limit their numbers, while bureaucrats have swung from increasing university intakes to flagging an over-supply of lawyers. But such tinkering would be futile in the future as economic disruptions threaten to visit time-tested professions like law, medicine and accounting.
As businesses go regional or international, they will seek cost-effective ways of addressing their legal needs. Not being yoked to a particular jurisdiction, they might eschew local lawyers, demanding high legal fees billed by the hour, or congested courts and seek simpler means of executing legal matters. Law Minister K. Shanmugam noted recently the pressures to outsource legal work to lawyers in Bangalore, India, who are paid as low as US$25 (S$34) per hour; and banks' pilot schemes under which "cashier's orders and documents don't even need to be exchanged physically".
These are sobering reminders of how market shifts require even established professions to keep abreast of the times. Singapore's law graduates stand to benefit from the changes if they acquire a deeper understanding of the laws and legal systems of countries in the region. They must also appreciate the way technology is changing the way people interact with each other and do business. Such activities do not stop at Singapore's borders, of course. Hence, those contemplating a legal career should not measure its worth by the restrictions imposed to limit the numbers of practitioners. The safeguarding of public health is often cited to justify strict licensing requirements in the medical profession. But the practice of law in the 21st century might call for liberalisation so that diverse business and social needs can be met efficiently. Supply might increase but, given law's umbilical relationship with justice, what matters is that it keeps attracting those with genuine passion and ability.