The future of the legal profession, like that of the nation, hangs on the ability and willingness of its members to reskill and relearn, Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon said yesterday at a ceremony to admit new lawyers.
He urged the newcomers to develop an understanding of how new trends will transform the law and aspire to develop a practice that is enhanced, rather than undermined, by technology.
A total of 529 lawyers are being called to the Bar over three Mass Call sessions at the Supreme Court auditorium yesterday and today.
In his speech, Chief Justice Menon said that for centuries, the legal profession has been described as a "learned profession". But in an age of constant change, that means a commitment to lifelong learning.
Recent studies have cast doubt on the strength of the correlation between formal education and career preparation, he said.
"We may have devoted years to our university education and institutional training, but that alone will not keep us afloat amid the churn of knowledge, which in part stems from the explosion in knowledge growth over the course of the past half-century," he said.
Giving an example of how technology has had, and will continue to have, an impact on the law, he noted that a machine learning tool has been created in Australia to help parties divide assets and liabilities following a divorce.
He stressed the importance of reskilling, quoting Senior Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam, who said in April that Singapore can be at the forefront of developing national policies for lifelong learning.
Technology is already beginning to displace lawyers from entire areas of practice, especially those involving routine work, said the Chief Justice. He gave the example of a free online service recently launched by a local bank that can generate a will in under 10 minutes.
This will have a significant impact on the demand for wills and probate work, which has been a mainstay of smaller law firms, he said.
The goal, he said, is not to strive to be a software engineer, but to get an effective and nuanced understanding of the interface between technology and the law.
The Chief Justice said lawyers should also expand their learning beyond areas conventionally associated with law and share knowledge with others in the profession.
He urged his audience to develop "soft skills" even as they pursue knowledge and technical excellence. Such skills - communicating and listening well, and showing empathy and giving support to colleagues - have been found to be the most important qualities of Google's top employees, he said.
In his speech, Law Society president Gregory Vijayendran also urged the lawyers to "stay curious".
"There is much to learn. Passion will engender a sense of curiosity. Curiosity may have killed the cat but it will enliven the lawyer," he said.