Law firms cheer prospect of a bigger talent pool

Law firms here are cheering the prospect of more law graduates entering the market.

With a bigger talent pool, top firms here will get to pick and choose who they issue training contracts to, and eventually hire.

And the spillover will also benefit smaller firms, making it easier for them to attract law graduates, said WongPartnership joint managing partner Rachel Eng.

Her firm is one of Singapore's Big Four law firms, which include Drew & Napier, Rajah & Tann as well as Allen & Gledhill.

WongPartnership offers between 40 and 50 training contracts a year, and this will not change, Ms Eng said. "We do not see an impact for us, only a bigger pool to select from," she said, referring to Law Minister K. Shanmugam's speech at the Criminal Justice Conference organised by the Singapore Management University and National University of Singapore last week.

He pointed out that the number of lawyers is expected to grow by nearly a third in the next three years. But "the market is not going to grow by 30 per cent".

This means law students will face more competition among themselves and may have to broaden their options, said Ms Eng. "When there are more law students and they all need to train with firms, they will spread out and seek opportunities in the small firms as well. That is not necessarily a bad thing."

Providence Law Asia managing director Abraham Vergis, who runs a boutique law practice with six lawyers, agreed. He said "one happy consequence of this situation is that small and medium- sized law firms will have access to supply of young talent".

Smaller firms can also afford to offer lower starting salaries as they will not have to compete directly with bigger firms, who have to keep their wages high as they fight for the cream of the crop.

"What you will see is a widening range in starting salary between small firms on the one hand and large firms and foreign law firms on the other. Salaries will not fall across the board," said Mr Vergis. It is understood that starting salaries in big firms range between $5,800 and $7,000 while the "tolerance" for small firms is about $3,500 to $4,000.

Lawyer Mark Goh, who runs his own firm, said new entrants should lower expectations. "Twenty years ago, all I received from my pupil master was meal and transport allowance, but my goal was to qualify for practice and I saw this as an opportunity," he said.

The spike in lawyers could also mean more of them considering careers as in-house lawyers where a practising certificate is not required, said Singapore Corporate Counsel Association (SCCA) vice-president Neoh Sue Lynn.

"A larger talent pool means that there is now capacity for Singapore to fully develop into a hub for a full suite of legal services," added SCCA president Wong Taur-Jiun. "If we are really staring at a glut, then we should turn 'adversity' into opportunity."

vijayan@sph.com.sg