Changes for stricter Bar exam and longer training for Singapore law grads pushed to 2024

The structural changes to the professional training and admission regime of lawyers were first announced in 2018. PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - Changes for a more stringent Bar exam and a lengthier training period for law graduates before they qualify to practise law have been pushed back to 2024 instead of being implemented in 2023.

The deferment of the upcoming changes was announced by Second Minister for Law Edwin Tong in Parliament on Monday during the ongoing Budget debate.

On Tuesday, the Ministry of Law said in a statement that the deferment “takes into account the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, and provides more time for industry stakeholders to adjust to these changes”.

The structural changes to the professional training and admission regime of lawyers were announced by Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon in 2018.

A committee he set up in 2016 to conduct a “root and branch” review of the regime had made three key recommendations to raise the quality and consistency of training standards across law firms.

MinLaw said at the time that it had accepted in principle the committee’s recommendations, and that implementation of the key changes would take place from the 2023 session of Part B of the Singapore Bar Examinations onwards. 

The Part B exam is generally held at the end of each year.

Under the current regime, law graduates have to go through a six-month course and pass the Part B exam, as well as complete a six-month training contract with a local law firm, in order to be called to the Bar.

Currently, admission to the Bar is synonymous with being qualified to practise law.

The key recommendations included extending the practice training period to a year and raising the standard and stringency of the Part B exam.

The committee also proposed to uncouple admission to the Bar from the right to practise as a lawyer. This means that law graduates who pass the Part B exam can be admitted to the Bar without undergoing practice training.

These individuals can go into alternative legal careers as in-house counsel, practice support lawyers, law academics, public servants and legal technologists.

To implement the recommendations, a working group was set up, comprising representatives from MinLaw, the Singapore Institute of Legal Education, the Supreme Court and the Law Society.

In 2019, MinLaw conducted a public consultation on the proposals to implement the recommendations.

“The majority of respondents, comprising a good mix of practitioners, in-house counsel, law students and members of the public, agreed with the various recommendations on implementation put forward by the working group,” said MinLaw on Tuesday.

The ministry has, where appropriate, worked with the working group to incorporate the feedback into the Legal Profession Amendment Bill, which will be tabled in Parliament later in 2023, it said.

MinLaw said it will defer the implementation of the key recommendations to apply from the 2024 session of the Part B exam, after careful consideration of feedback from the legal industry that more time is needed to adapt to the structural changes.

Senior Counsel Gregory Vijayendran, who was a member of the committee, told The Straits Times the pandemic has, among other things, impacted law firm revenue and livelihood.

“The profession needs a little more time to get accustomed to these changes from a cost, time and process re-engineering perspective,” said the Rajah & Tann partner.

He noted that, for example, by practically doubling the practice training period, this means doubling the allowance paid to the trainees. This works out to sizeable sums for larger firms that take in more trainees.

He added that law firms need to thrive in their economic recovery efforts.

WongPartnership managing partner Ng Wai King said a delay in implementation will allow law firms more time to review their human capital needs post-pandemic and recalibrate these needs against areas of growth.

He said: “The lengthening of the training contracts will mean law firms have to wait longer to have access to young law graduates who are able to practise. On the bright side, the firms can rethink their training requirements to better equip the trainees during the 12 months.”

He added that a deferment will give the stakeholders in the profession more time to work through the impact of a longer training contract.

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