Discussions in progress over changes in approach to S'pore's legal education: Chief Justice

Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon (centre, masked) spoke at this year's mass call, on Aug 23, 2021.
Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon (centre, masked) spoke at this year's mass call, on Aug 23, 2021.PHOTO: SUPREME COURT

SINGAPORE -  The judiciary, the Government and the universities are in discussions over potential changes to Singapore’s approach to legal education to better prepare lawyers for the challenges brought by the tide of technology.

Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon said this on Monday (Aug 23) as he set out the implications of the changing conditions faced by the legal profession and the need to be proactive rather than reactive.

He was speaking at this year’s mass call to admit new lawyers, the second time the annual ceremony is being held via videoconferencing.

In his speech, the Chief Justice said there was a growing sense that lawyers need an appreciation of skills outside the law.

He said the law “intersects with a multitude of other disciplines, which run the gamut from biogenetics to statistics”. “The intersection between law and technology will be a particularly rich area for new developments,” he said.

The Chief Justice noted that cases involving cryptocurrencies and the contractual implications of decisions made by computer algorithms have already come before the Singapore courts.

A “steady pipeline of thorny and interesting legal issues” are expected to be thrown up as complex technologies such as self-driving vehicles enter into the mainstream, he said.

He said this means lawyers will need to take a multidisciplinary approach to the increasingly multidisciplinary problems that will arise.

“This will require us to change our approach to legal and professional education at all levels,” he said. He added that discussions as to how to better prepare lawyers and law students to face these challenges are well in progress.

The Chief Justice noted that the pandemic has brought the use of technological tools into the mainstream of many legal tasks, moving traditional processes to a digital format.

But he suggested that the true potential of technology lies in its ability to radically transform processes altogether.

He noted that two months ago, the Law Society of England and Wales released a report that offered snapshots of how the legal landscape might change over the next 30 years.

The report predicted that artificial intelligence, or AI, will become more capable of carrying out the lower-order tasks performed by junior lawyers today.

It also forecast a growing need for lawyers with a multidisciplinary background and outlook, who can effectively interface between the legal and non-legal spheres.

The Chief Justice urged lawyers not to see technology as a competitor, but as a partner to serve the ends of justice.

Similarly, Law Society president Gregory Vijayendran urged the new lawyers to create value by innovating.

A total of 457 lawyers are being called to the Bar over three sessions on Monday and Tuesday.

They include 48-year-old Linda Lee, who is making a career switch after more than 20 years as an accountant. 

Ms Lee said she has been interested in criminal law since she was a child, when she learnt of people who pleaded guilty out of convenience and served a longer jail time than necessary as they were not properly represented.

She pursued a law programme at the Singapore University of Social Sciences (SUSS), which allowed her to study while keeping her work commitments.

Commenting on the Chief Justice’s speech, she said: “I’ve always believed that legal practitioners should be, and can be, if they desired to, a polymath.”

Another SUSS graduate called to the Bar is Mr Muhammad Aadil Dafir, 36. After graduating with an aerospace engineering degree in 2010, he ran a tuition centre and tutored students as a volunteer.

“As a teacher, I was motivated by my many students who shared various family and social problems. I was inspired to do more for them and their family and the community, to learn and impart legal knowledge to people who need it most,” he said.

Mr Aadil added: “The ability to adapt is pivotal to success in any field, the legal field included. We need to stay fluid and stay relevant or risk being obsolete.”