Third law school: Problems to consider

This story was first published in The Straits Times on June 4, 2013

A law academic says legal education should be holistic, and all law students should be taught to give back to the community. This should not be hived off to a third law school specialising in community law.

JUST over a decade ago, Singapore had one national law school which produced 150-200 law graduates each year. Today, there are two national law schools whose combined intake exceeds 350 law students, who, along with a wider pool of foreign law graduates, will make up the almost 500 new lawyers who get called to the Singapore Bar each year.

These dramatic changes to the supply of lawyers to the Singapore legal profession took place in tandem with a national strategy to make Singapore an international hub for transnational commercial law transactions and dispute resolution processes. Even more local law graduates are set to enter the job market in future if the government's plans to set up a third law school are implemented.

The proposal to establish a third law school dedicated to training lawyers to serve the needs of the man in the street, rather than corporate clients, is problematic for a number of reasons.

Firstly, it will be difficult to dispel the perception that it is a second or third class institution because the bulk of its students will comprise mid-career mature students whose academic profiles may not be on par with the stellar pre-university grades obtained by those enrolled in the incumbent law schools. While all these law students will eventually have to pass the same post-graduate Bar examinations, graduates of this third law school may not be regarded as highly as their contemporaries in the incumbent law schools - exacerbating the divide between "commercial" and "community" law practitioners in Singapore and fragmenting the legal fraternity in the process.

Secondly, graduates of the proposed third law school will not be restricted to practising only in non-commercial fields of law (unless perhaps commercial law subjects are excluded from their curriculum!) and may eventually gravitate towards the more lucrative commercial aspects of legal practice after they graduate.

Mid-career mature students who enter this third law school, presumably with families to support and mortgages to service, may have to make up for the financial sacrifices associated with returning to school, making it rational for them to take up higher-paying positions as commercial law practitioners.

Thirdly, the duty to nurture competent and compassionate legal professionals who will serve the needs of the community should be shared, equally, by all the national law schools in Singapore. As institutions entrusted with the role of training future members of a noble and honorable profession, the incumbent law schools should be given the opportunity and means to develop strategies to better discharge this responsibility before it is hived off to a third law school.

If Singapore were short of primary care physicians, would we set up a separate medical school to specialise in training general practitioners and family medicine doctors, while graduates from the existing medical schools focused on plastic surgery and cardiology?

Furthermore, the incumbent law schools already have a tough time recruiting and retaining our best graduates as full-time academic staff members, difficulties which will be faced to an even greater extent by a third law school unless it adopts a different set of hiring criteria.

If the intention is to increase the supply of non-commercial lawyers by providing specialised training to a specially selected group of law students, then it might be more prudent to build such a specialised programme from within the existing undergraduate curricula frameworks of the incumbent law schools.

This would draw upon the decades of expertise in legal education which law teachers in these institutions have accumulated over the years, and could result in a well-structured package of both academically rigorous and practice-oriented modules.

Law students who pursue this stream of legal education - perhaps a "school within a school" - might be expected to develop expertise in the areas of family law and procedure, criminal law and procedure, wills and probate, conflicts of law in family and property matters, mediation and so forth.

The programme can be made more attractive by incorporating elements of clinical legal education and pro bono project work into the formal curriculum. These typically involve multiple aspects of community law facing indigent plaintiffs. Commercially-oriented law students can also be introduced to such community law exposure.

A holistic legal education should expose all law undergraduates, including those who aspire to lucrative commercial law careers, to the legal problems faced by the man in the street.

Many qualified lawyers find it difficult to contribute to pro bono legal work because of their limited exposure to such non-commercial law subjects when they were law students, coupled with their lack of experience handling such matters given the corporate and commercial nature of their daily work.

There are thus obvious synergies to be reaped if all mainstream law undergraduates in the incumbent law schools had access to parts of this community-law focused curriculum to equip them with the foundational skills to contribute back to the community later in their professional lives.

In any case, both incumbent law schools already run graduate law programmes for mature students. These could be adapted to suit the candidates which the proposed third law school wants to attract. In addition to the standard interviews and written tests, the admissions criteria for these mid-career students could be expanded to include professionally-administered personality tests, work-related testimonials, and other indicators which demonstrate their aptitude and commitment to pursuing a community-oriented legal specialisation.

Finally, the shortage of non-commercial lawyers in Singapore is a problem that must be addressed from multiple fronts.

It is not enough to simply boost the supply of young lawyers who practise community-related fields of law when starting out in their professional careers. After a few years of practice, idealism will give way to cynicism, disgruntlement and fatigue if these lawyers feel exploited because they are overworked and underpaid.

Ideally, structured mentorship and career development programmes should be in place, along with access to appropriate coping mechanisms to help them deal with the emotional toil associated with the nature of their caseload.

Larger law firms should also be encouraged to contribute their lawyers' time to community-based pro bono programmes, perhaps via tax incentives to offset the loss of revenue from doing such pro bono work.

The writer is Associate Professor, Faculty of Law at the National University of Singapore and a Fellow at the College of Alice and Peter Tan.

This story was first published in The Straits Times on June 4, 2013

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