Thursday 30 May 2013

Singapore to set up third law school

It will focus on criminal, family law due to lack of lawyers in these fields
By Tham Yuen-c, The Straits Times, 29 May 2013

SINGAPORE is to set up a third law school that will emphasise criminal and family law, in a move to address the shortage of lawyers in these fields.

It will be geared towards attracting mid-career professionals who want to make law their new career, said Law Minister K. Shanmugam yesterday.

"Look at this as giving people a second chance," he added.

He cited especially paralegals, social workers and law enforcement officers, people already with an interest in community law.

Initially, the school will take in 75 students and only a few places will be set aside for those with A levels, he said.

The school is among six recommendations made by a committee set up in March last year to review the supply of lawyers here.

The Government has accepted all of them, Mr Shanmugam said at a press conference on the findings of the committee headed by Judge of Appeal V.K. Rajah.

The acute shortage of lawyers in criminal and community law is especially felt by smaller law firms that typically practise in these fields. They struggle to find young lawyers willing to join their firms, noted the committee.

"Only the top students in each cohort gain entry to NUS Law and SMU Law, while those who study law abroad are usually put to substantial financial expense," it noted, referring to the National University of Singapore and the Singapore Management University.

"Anecdotally, most of these individuals do not find that the practice of community law meets their professional aspirations," it added.

The new school was welcomed by lawyers like Mr Yap Wai Ming, director of Stamford Law Corporation. It is a good step in creating a niche for "the people who are committed to this kind of work", he said.

Mr Yap added: "A lot of these people do it for the love of it."

Details on when the school will start and where it will be sited were not available yesterday.

But what is certain is that it will not be at NUS or SMU. Mr Shanmugam noted that both have a law school.

Also, the emphasis on community law does not mean its graduates can practise only in these areas, because they still have to meet the minimum requirements for admission to the Singapore Bar.

Beyond undergraduate classes, the proposed school will offer a conversion course and examinations for those with law degrees from universities not on Singapore's list of approved overseas institutions.

The five other proposals made by the committee include raising SMU's intake of law students from 120 to 180 over the next three years.

The increase is to meet the demand in growth areas such as cross-border as well as local corporate and commercial work.

NUS, which takes in about 240 students a year, has reached its optimum capacity, the committee noted.

Singapore has about 4,400 lawyers, a rise from 3,500 in 2008.

But having more is not good enough, said the committee, which suggested ways to reduce the number of lawyers leaving the profession.

It found that in the first 10 years of practice, the average attrition rate of each cohort is about 14 per cent. The push factors include long hours, heavy workload, the difficulty in reaching the top echelon in a firm and law students having unrealistic expectations of the job.

Review of approved overseas law degrees
By Jalelah Abu Baker, The Straits Times, 29 May 2013

EVERY five years, Singapore will review the list of overseas universities whose law degrees are recognised here, Law Minister K. Shanmugam said yesterday.

This undertaking will be a first since the list was introduced in 1993.

It follows the Government accepting the recommendation of a committee looking into the supply of lawyers.

The committee, chaired by Judge of Appeal V. K. Rajah, found that precise selection criteria were not spelt out as the list was used mainly to constrain the number of law graduates educated in the United Kingdom.

It suggested the list be refreshed to "better fulfil its present function as a qualitative sieve".

The review will be done by the Singapore Institute of Legal Education, a statutory board, which will make its recommendations to the Law Ministry.

The committee suggests that it uses the rankings of The (London) Times Good University Guide, The Guardian University Guide and the Complete University Guide to review the 19 approved UK universities.

It also proposed that the bottom 10 universities, particularly those not among the top 15 UK universities, may be taken off the list. Other universities could be added to the list.

About 1,050 Singaporeans are pursuing undergraduate law degrees at approved universities overseas, with 729 of them in the UK.

The review will also apply, with modifications, to the approved universities in Australia and New Zealand.

'Bias' against criminal and family law
Perception that work is second rate drives new blood away, say veterans
By Tham Yuen-c, The Straits Times, 30 May 2013

THEY work just as long into the night as their corporate peers, and for less money.

But the biggest bugbear of many criminal and family lawyers is the perception that their work is second rate, compared with those in the more glamorous and lucrative fields of law.

"Years ago, criminal lawyers were not held in high esteem," said criminal lawyer Subhas Anandan, who is also the president of the Association of Criminal Lawyers in Singapore.

He claimed that the odds were stacked against them, and when they lost cases, they became branded as "second rate".

Although the situation has improved, the perception has stuck, he added.

And this has kept new blood away, veteran lawyers told The Straits Times.

The shortage of criminal and family lawyers here has been flagged as a problem by a committee set up to review the supply of lawyers here, especially in the light of Singapore's growing population.

To plug the shortage, the committee recommended the setting up of a third law school, which would focus on criminal and family law. The recommendation has been accepted by the Government, said Law Minister K. Shanmugam on Tuesday.

In its report, the 4th Committee on the Supply of Lawyers noted that anecdotally, law graduates from the National University of Singapore (NUS) and Singapore Management University (SMU) "do not find the practice of community law meets their professional aspirations".

The deans of the two law schools acknowledged as much.

Said NUS law faculty dean Simon Chesterman: "NUS law graduates are widely regarded as outstanding lawyers. With the range of opportunities available, it is not surprising that many pursue high-end work."

Added SMU law school dean Yeo Tiong Min: "Gravitation towards corporate law is not unique to SMU law students. Many bright law students in other law schools also see their future in corporate law."

Many of the lawyers interviewed said pay was a key factor.

"Crime and matrimonial work don't really pay in terms of earnings. It's one of the main reasons lawyers choose not to do it," said criminal lawyer S. Radakrishnan.

Lawyers involved in corporate work say they charge between $500 and $1,500 for each hour. A major case can bring in as much as $500,000. Criminal lawyers usually charge a lump sum, ranging from the low thousands to tens of thousands on average.

"We don't earn as much because our clients are ordinary people without much money. Even when the rich get into trouble with the law, they tend to go to the bigger firms," said Mr Anandan.

The kind of work criminal and family lawyers handle can also be "emotionally upsetting", which may put younger lawyers off.

"We sometimes have to double up as counsellors and handle the emotional aspects as well as the legal work," said family lawyer Yap Teong Liang, who has been practising for 20 years. "There could be children involved and issues of family violence - we need to take care of all that."

The committee noted that in the first 10 years of practice, the attrition rate is 14 per cent for each graduating law cohort.

The Law Society told The Straits Times yesterday that it was also concerned about young lawyers leaving the profession.

It is a problem the fraternity is hoping to address by promoting work-life balance and giving prospective law students a better idea of what to expect before they sign up for law school.

The situation is more critical in the fields of criminal and family law, since many of those lawyers are in their 40s and 50s, or older, and are likely to retire soon.

Hence the committee's proposal for a separate school, which would take in mostly mid-career professionals who already have expertise and interest in these areas.

Reactions to the proposal have been mixed. Lawyers cautioned that having a school just for criminal and family law may give the impression that those practising in these areas were not as good.

"The question now is how you get more lawyers to practise. You can have your courses, but if people are not interested in the courses, they are not going to sign up," said Mr Yap.

"I think we need to promote the good work which criminal and family lawyers do, and send out the right message that you're no less a lawyer because you practise in these areas."


We don’t earn as much because our clients are ordinary people without much money. Even when the rich get into trouble with the law, they tend to go to the bigger firms.

– Criminal lawyer Subhas Anandan

Ex-cop now a family lawyer
By Tham Yuen-c, The Straits Times, 30 May 2013

When Mr A.P. Thirumurthy decided to pursue a law degree in 1987, he was a police officer earning a few thousand dollars a month.

Unable to study full time, he took an external degree with the University of London, juggling work and studies from 1987 to 1991.

But it was not until 1995, when he retired from the force, that he could go to London to take the Bar exam.

"I had to wait until I got my pension so that I can use it to fund my studies," quipped the 60-year-old.

His one-year stint in London cost him $50,000, a hefty sum for a man who also had a wife and two young children to feed.

Even so, he went ahead.

His 27 years as a police officer investigating white-collar crimes, working with prosecutors on court cases, and testifying in many of them, put him in good stead.

"I knew the problems that criminals face, and had the advantage of having worked on the ground," he said.

Even after 10 years as a family lawyer, Mr Thirumurthy, who has been running his own law practice, is happy taking on the small cases. "I enjoy my work, and working with my clients, helping them solve their problems."

The third law school, which will take in mid-career professionals, will be helpful to those like him, he added.

"It was very tough when I did it years ago.

"My kids were growing up, I had to spend a lot of time on my studies and my work, and it was a sacrifice.

"The school will make it easier for people to do the same thing," he said.

Legal dramas on TV spurred her interest
By Ian Poh, The Straits Times, 30 May 2013

Friends of Ms Diana Ngiam had their doubts when the 25-year- old decided to practise criminal law.

She admits it can be less well paid compared with other fields of practice, while women in the job can also face uncomfortable situations when interviewing alleged male sexual offenders.

But she has stuck with an interest that had been growing ever since she watched legal dramas on television as a teenager.

"Many friends around me wanted to pursue commercial litigation or corporate practice, and cautioned me to think twice about going into criminal law," said the first-year associate at law firm RHTLaw Taylor Wessing.

"But accused persons deserve their day in court no matter how guilty people may think they are. They need someone to be their voice."

Ms Ngiam set her heart on this path after a summer internship in 2008. She holds bachelor's and master's law degrees from King's College London, and was called to the Bar here last July.

Her day-to-day work involves research and time in court. Behind the scenes, there are also clients to meet and their expectations to manage.

Ms Ngiam likes the "human- to-human contact" that the practice provides. "Sometimes, our system forgets that accused persons should be presumed innocent until proven guilty... Fulfilment is being able to help them. It's not necessarily about getting an acquittal for the client, but rather the fairest outcome."

From financial law to baking
By Maryam Mokhtar, The Straits Times, 30 May 2013

Ms Vanessa Tan gave up her four-year career in financial law to set up a bakery - and admits the move was far from being a piece of cake.

"It was the hardest thing I had ever done because it was all I knew for years," said the 29-year-old owner of Plain Vanilla Bakery, which sells an assortment of cupcakes at its two shops in Holland Village and Tiong Bahru.

Ms Tan started off at international firm Latham and Watkins in 2007. Toiling almost daily in a "client-oriented" industry, she recalled one exhausting deal which involved her not leaving the office from Monday until Thursday.

"It started off challenging, and along with being in a new working environment, kept me motivated," said the University College London graduate, who worked in the firm's London and Singapore offices.

The 4am deadlines and constant "intellectual discourses" kept her adrenaline going, but things changed when Ms Tan found her life partner here.

"Suddenly there was somebody else, it wasn't just about me any more. I asked if I could see myself starting a life and family and doing this in the long run," said Ms Tan, who got married last year.

She added that there was a lack of female role models in the legal industry - women who successfully juggled having a family with their hectic schedules.

Ms Tan left her job in 2011 to set up her business, channelling a decade-long love for baking that allows her to "really connect with people and have it simple" - unlike her previous job which sometimes left her feeling "distanced" from clients.

"Running a bakery is tough and there are long hours, but I feel like there's a sense of control."

It took four years to learn I'm no lawyer
By Oo Gin Lee, The Straits Times, 2 Jun 2013

My heart skipped a beat when my hand grasped air instead of wood.

Then I realised that the next rung on the wooden ladder I was climbing to board a ship had given way. I was only 24, one year into my work as a lawyer, and facing a real prospect of tragedy at sea.

I had come to arrest the ship which my client had a claim against, which meant making my way to the ship's bridge and sticking the court papers on its windscreen.

To this day, I still believe that nothing short of divine intervention helped me to pull myself up and board the ship.

Before I became a tech journalist, I was a lawyer and then a law lecturer for seven years. My mother was extremely proud and my future looked bright. I had achieved many a parent's dream of having a doctor or lawyer for a child, despite spending more time playing video games than mastering the laws of contract and tort at the National University of Singapore.

My first four years as a litigator were unforgettable. Law had seemed glamorous on television and in the movies, but the reality was a far cry from what I had envisioned.

I was thrown into the deepest end right from the start. Halfway through my pupillage, the senior litigator in the one-boss, five-man law firm I was in quit. The boss decided, quite erroneously, that I was ready and made me take over all of my senior colleague's cases and files, more than 100 in all. I put up a brave front and somehow survived the next three months, and was eventually called to the Bar.

Over the next four years, I worked for three law firms and even struck out on my own for a year. I job-hopped, but the nature of my work was the same: I was a small-time litigator handling divorces, defending the accused, writing wills for dying men, helping car workshops with insurance claims and taking just about any case that came my way. My clients were mostly regular Joes, people you see on the bus and wouldn't give a second look.

I had hoped to join one of the big firms, but since I finished only above average in my law class, that didn't happen - the big guys took in mainly the best graduates and, it seemed, the pedigreed.

The rest of us ended up in smaller firms and had two choices - to do conveyancing (dealing with people buying or selling property) or litigation (everything else under the sun). Mergers and acquisitions, hostile takeovers, corporate litigation and other sexy legal stuff did not usually happen at the smaller firms.

There were no swanky offices for me, and I worked out of offices in the Chinatown area most of my lawyer life.

But I was not put off. As a rookie litigator, I found the excitement to be addictive. Juicy affidavits of divorce clients were better than a Jackie Collins novel. In one memorable case, my client had been prostituted by her husband who demanded to be in the room when the sex took place. Another client had separated from his wife on the advice of his pastor, only to catch her in bed with the clergyman.

One man who had sought advice about suing his son's school on a safety issue suddenly called, saying he had been arrested and needed to be bailed out. To my utter surprise, the gentle, soft-spoken dad turned out to be a serial carjacker with 40 previous offences.

In a small firm, rookies are often hired to help the partners with the legwork while senior guys close the rainmaking deals. They can spare some time to guide the rookie, but within months, you are expected to be an independent operator.

This means meeting and gaining the confidence of new clients , obtaining documentary evidence and witnesses, appearing in court and arguing cases, and explaining to the client why it wasn't your fault the judge ruled against him.

If morals demand that you be truthful at all times, litigation work can prove challenging, especially when you have to choose between telling the judge the truth and protecting your client.

It is a tough life. So it was no surprise to me when recent news reports highlighted, yet again, the high attrition rate of lawyers. The job is stressful, the hours are long, and doing family and criminal law cases does not pay as well as the high-flying corporate work.

In my case, it wasn't the hard work, stress or challenging work that made me decide in the end to quit practising law. Nor was it that close shave at sea.

It was the heartache.

In every litigation case, there is a winner and a loser. The euphoria of winning is addictive, but the emotional disappointment of losing a case - especially one you believe you should have won - can be difficult to bear.

Regular Joes often put their lives on hold to embark on a case they feel they have no choice but to fight.

When one of my clients - a crane operator in his 50s - broke his leg in a road accident and eventually lost his claim at trial, his pain was unbearable. He said he was on his motorcycle when a car swerved into his lane, and when he skidded and fell, his leg got caught in the back wheel of the car. The driver claimed otherwise, that he was stationary and the rider came from out of the blue. Two passengers in the car vouched for him.

I believed my client's version, but the judge was not persuaded. My client had been out of work for months and poured his life savings into fighting the case. He not only had to pay my bill, but also fork out more for the insurance company's lawyers. It was a heart-rending case.

Over the course of those four years, the juicy affidavits lost their appeal for me, as I handled too many cases of women mistreated by husbands and needing help.

I was barely 30, and it proved too heavy a burden knowing that people's lives were in my hands all the time. I realised I was not prepared to harden myself for the long haul.

I have now been a tech journalist for more than 13 years, but have never regretted my four years as a lawyer. I learnt a lot about the law, life and myself in that time. I like to think legal practice taught me how to be a good human being. Most of all, I learnt it was not for me.

These days when young people tell me they want to be lawyers, I tell them to go for it, but be aware that the real thing is nothing quite like the movies.


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