Monday, 18 August 2014

'Lawyer glut’ ​due to spike in overseas graduates: Shanmugam

Law and Foreign Affairs Minister K Shanmugam says it is his duty to flag outcome of oversupply, and his remarks last Saturday was not meant to dissuade people from entering the profession.
By Teo Xuanwei, Channel NewsAsia, 21 Aug 2014

In the midst of confusion and alarm resulting from his warning that Singapore could face an oversupply of lawyers in the coming years, Foreign Affairs and Law Minister K Shanmugam has set the record straight on the cause of a possible glut: The spurt in the number of Singaporeans studying to be lawyers overseas.

Also, his comments made at the Criminal Justice Conference on Saturday — asking aspiring lawyers to temper their expectations in terms of pay and job opportunities — were not intended to put people off pursuing law. Rather, it was his “duty” to flag the consequences of this trend, he said in an exclusive interview with TODAY on Wednesday (Aug 20).

Mr Shanmugam’s remarks have caused some anxiety among law undergraduates and the legal fraternity, as well as triggered public discussion on the issue.

Some questioned how there could be an oversupply after the recent moves — including the setting up of a third law school in Singapore — to produce more lawyers amid a growing legal services sector. Others wondered whether the glut stemmed from the inflow of foreign firms and lawyers after several cycles of liberalisation since 2008.

Mr Shanmugam said that while Singaporean graduates returning from overseas law schools could be the ones bearing the brunt of a possible job crunch at local firms, those from universities here may not escape unscathed. “For those intending to go overseas, what they will take from (my message) is ‘The numbers are huge ... and I need to understand that I may or may not get a training contract immediately’.”

He added: “For those studying law in Singapore ... the likelihood of getting a training contract (upon acceptance by a law firm) is very high here because law firms value (local law degrees) a lot. But because of the law of supply and demand — the starting salaries and increments and so on, used to be very good for lawyers — they need to understand that the market may change based on laws of economics.”


The third law school — to be set up at SIM University — will focus on family and criminal law. Mr Shanmugam said those citing the school as a reason for a possible glut are using a red herring, with the same going for those who felt it could be a result of opening the doors to foreign law firms and lawyers.

“It’s not as if the (number of lawyers) will go down if we don’t have a third law school. It is offering an additional option for those who are going to go overseas, and in a way that fulfils our needs.”

Mr Shanmugam also noted that the inflow of foreign practitioners does not add to the competition, since the vast majority of the 1,182 currently registered here are precluded from practising Singapore law. Hence, they do not compete for training contracts, which are offered only by local law firms.

Instead, the glut could happen because more and more Singaporeans are studying law overseas, he explained. Although the number of recognised overseas universities has remained at 35 since 2006, the total number of Singaporeans reading law in the United Kingdom has more than doubled to 1,142 between 2010 and last year, based on the Ministry of Law’s estimates.

In addition, there were 386 Singaporeans pursuing a law degree in Australian universities last year. The UK and Australia are the main sources of returning law graduates.

Pointing to this trend — driven by the greater affordability of overseas studies — Mr Shanmugam noted that the Government has no control over what people choose to study.

“But I can then tell people, ‘Look, by all means study law. But be careful and understand the market, and if you intend to just study law and then come back and do something else, and you are not going to be too concerned if you don’t get a training contract, fine,” he said.

“But don’t assume that everyone will get a training contract because there is a limit to what the market can absorb. I can’t control what you study, but I think I have a duty to tell you what the market is like.”

Going by Nominal Value Added, the legal services sector has grown from S$1.5 billion in 2009 to an estimated S$2.1 billion last year.

But Mr Shanmugam added: “So I’m looking at the future and I’m telling people our economy is growing at 4 per cent, 3 per cent, 2.5 per cent, so you cannot expect the legal market to grow at 10, 15 per cent per year, whereas the number of students is growing at those kinds of rates.”


Statistics from the Law Ministry showed that from 2010 to last year, the number of candidates passing the Bar examinations has been increasing. While the proportion of overseas graduates who passed the exam has hovered around an average of 28 per cent from 2011 to last year, it is expected to rocket to 41 per cent this year.

TODAY understands that there has been feedback from some overseas graduates who found it difficult to land training contracts.

The number of training contracts offered by law firms each year is determined by market forces. Mr Shanmugam said that his ministry is studying “how we can relax the requirements in a way that more people can get training contracts”.

According to universities here, prospects are healthy for local law graduates. In response to TODAY’s queries, National University of Singapore’s law dean Simon Chesterman said it continues to see strong demand for its graduates. Employment rates for the past two years have remained above 98 per cent.

“We have nevertheless resisted any suggestion that we should increase our intake above the current target of about 250 — in part to avoid saturating the market, but also because we prefer quality over quantity,” added Professor Chesterman.

The Singapore Management University also said the overall employment rate of its first two cohorts of law graduates was 99 per cent and 100 per cent, respectively. Its law dean, Professor Yeo Tiong Min, added: “Given the anticipated market situation, the Minister’s message on having realistic expectations is a very timely one.”

The total number of law graduates produced annually by NUS and SMU has increased marginally between 2011 and last year, from 334 to 369. The third law school is expected to take in 50 to 75 students yearly.

Singapore facing a glut of lawyers
Shanmugam urges law students to temper expectations or pursue other career choices
By Feng Zengkun, The Sunday Times, 17 Aug 2014

Over just four years up to March last year, the number of practising lawyers here leapt by nearly 25 per cent to more than 4,400.

Another 1,500 are expected to join them in the next three years. And there has been a sharp rise in those heading overseas to study law. In Britain alone, the number of Singapore law students more than doubled from 510 to 1,142 between 2010 and last year.

Law Minister K. Shanmugam dished out these numbers yesterday as he warned that Singapore could soon have more lawyers than jobs for them all.

He urged law students to temper career and salary expectations, and maybe even consider other jobs.

Speaking at the Criminal Justice Conference organised by the Singapore Management University (SMU) and National University of Singapore, which both have law schools, he said 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", he said, pointing out that this year, nearly 650 graduates will compete for about 490 practice training contracts at law firms, to get the training they need before being admitted to the Singapore Bar.

"About 150 students will have difficulty getting a training contract, let alone employment after that," said Mr Shanmugam, who is a senior counsel himself. "The study of law provides an excellent training of the mind, so I don't want to be seen as discouraging people... but you have to have a realistic understanding of the market, the economy, the total structure."

While Singapore is trying to "grow the legal market" through initiatives such as the Singapore International Commercial Court to handle dispute resolution, students could go into fields like banking, business, public service and even politics with their law degrees, he suggested.

Rules governing training contracts could be changed to make it easier for more students to get them, "but there is a limit to how much the Government can intervene in the market", he said.

He added that those who do get jobs should be realistic about their salaries: "You see headlines that top lawyers make 'x' million dollars, but there is a huge difference between what the top two or three lawyers make, and what everyone else makes."

Lawyers and academics whom The Sunday Times spoke to admitted that future lawyers should be prepared to face a lot of competition from their peers in the marketplace.

SMU law lecturer Eugene Tan said "the days of law firms chasing law graduates are now over".

"Grades are helpful but students should also hone skills like writing and crafting legal arguments and research to improve their chances of being hired," he added.

Veteran lawyer Chia Boon Teck said law graduates could consider joining multinational companies with large legal departments. "If you want to join a law firm, study very very hard and aim to be among the top few graduates. Also, make as many friends who are lawyers as possible," he advised.

Ms Lynn Kan, who is starting her second year at SMU's post-graduate law programme, said some of her classmates are already considering taking on more internships to improve their prospects. The 27-year-old said: "I've got my training contract already but I was really lucky."

Law schools here not planning to cut enrolment
UniSIM law school still set to open despite expected glut of lawyers
By Amelia Teng, The Straits Times, 21 Aug 2014

DESPITE an expected glut of lawyers in the next few years, the two law schools here will not be cutting enrolment.

Plans to open a third law school at SIM University (UniSIM) will also not be affected, said the Law Ministry (MinLaw) yesterday.

Law Minister K. Shanmugam's recent warning that Singapore could have too many lawyers, and that there could be too few jobs for them in the next few years, has become a hot talking point among undergraduates at the National University of Singapore (NUS) and the Singapore Management University (SMU).

He said last Saturday that the number of lawyers with practising certificates here has leapt by nearly 25 per cent over four years, to more than 4,400 as of March last year. About 1,500 are expected to join them in the next three years, he added.

NUS law dean Simon Chesterman told The Straits Times: "The comments... have inspired a lot of discussion among current law students, some of whom are anxious about their job prospects."

Still, there are no plans to change the 240 to 250 places NUS offers annually, he said, suggesting that any cut will simply push students to study law abroad. "It's important that Singaporeans get the chance to be trained for the profession here," he added.

Students admit it has become tougher to get training contracts.

Every year, about 400 local law graduates, including 150 from SMU, apply for about 500 training contracts offered by law firms. The six-month contracts give would-be lawyers the real world training required of them before they are called to the Bar.

Final-year NUS law student Lam Zhen Yu, 24, said: "Most of our seniors received contracts by the end of the third year in school. Now, some year-four students haven't secured contracts yet." Many send resumes to as many as 20 firms or go for several internships to increase their chances of being selected, he added. Some also worry about the extra competition when the law school at UniSIM opens.

But MinLaw noted that NUS and SMU graduates have "done well" in getting training contracts. Between 2009 and last year, nearly 94 per cent secured them compared with 70 per cent for returning overseas graduates.

The key issue, it said, was a mismatch between supply and demand. While there are more than enough corporate lawyers, there is a shortage of those practising family and criminal law. UniSIM's law school, with its community law focus, will help bridge this gap, MinLaw said yesterday.

New law graduates The Straits Times spoke to said many chose to work in corporate and commercial law not just because of the higher pay, but because they were not ready to handle the "emotional demands" of community law.

"You need to have some form of calling to deal with work involving families, divorce and crime," said a 25-year-old who graduated from SMU's law school this year.

"And the unfortunate fact is that, sometimes, they can't afford to pay you."

Law firms cheer prospect of a bigger talent pool
By K.C. Vijayan, The Straits Times, 21 Aug 2014

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."

No extra hurdles for overseas law grads
But list of recognised foreign varsities is being reviewed
By Amelia Teng, The Straits Times, 23 Aug 2014

OVERSEAS law graduates who earn a second-lower honours degree will continue to be allowed to practise in Singapore without having to cross extra hurdles, despite a predicted glut of lawyers here.

But a review of which foreign universities should be recognised is being finalised, and the findings are expected to be released soon.

Law Minister K. Shanmugam recently warned of an oversupply of lawyers in the next three years, and attributed this to the sharp rise in Singaporeans going abroad, mainly to Britain, to pursue law.

In Britain, the number of Singapore law students more than doubled from 510 in 2010 to 1,142 last year. In 2009, a rule was relaxed to allow foreign-trained lawyers with second-lower honours to take the Bar exam without extra years of legal work experience. Previously, they needed two years.

The Law Ministry told The Straits Times yesterday that there are no plans to change this. Instead, a committee chaired by Attorney-General's Chambers chief counsel David Chong has been reviewing the list of recognised overseas universities.

The list, which currently has 35 universities such as the University of Sydney and University of Liverpool, has been unchanged since 2006. A spokesman for the Singapore Institute of Legal Education, a statutory board tasked with the review, said the committee will submit its report in the near future.

The previous president of the Singapore Corporate Counsel Association, Ms Angeline Joyce Lee, said this review was important as universities where legal education standards are not as robust should be re-evaluated.

"Standards are high in reputable institutions like London School of Economics and University of Bristol, but I'm not sure about others," said the lawyer, who was part of the 4th Committee on the Supply of Lawyers that released its recommendations last year.

The rising number of law graduates from abroad has made it harder for them to get a six-month practice training contract - a requirement for entry to the Bar. The contract allows them to get on-the-job training at a law firm.

Every year, there are around 500 contracts on offer. Most go to the 400 or so local law graduates from the National University of Singapore (NUS) and Singapore Management University, leaving the rest for their foreign-educated peers.

One 23-year-old who graduated from the University of Warwick last year told The Straits Times she had to apply to more than 40 law firms before securing a contract.

A 22-year-old from the University of Nottingham, who also did not want to be named, said she has yet to get one despite applying to more than 10 firms. "Many were full when I called them. They said they were taking in mostly local graduates."

NUS law dean Simon Chesterman told The Straits Times that demand for a law degree is high here. He said the faculty received 4,000 applicants for 250 places this year.

"The numbers going overseas cannot be easily controlled as more parents and students can afford it," he said. "But that doesn't guarantee you a job in the profession. Students have to manage their expectations, unless they have a first-class honours degree from Oxford or Cambridge."

MP Hri Kumar Nair, who is the chairman of the Government Parliamentary Committee for Home Affairs and Law, said those who want to practise law "should not be restricted from pursuing their dream".

But they also have to be realistic. New students may find that the "market may have changed" upon graduation. But the study of law, he said, is also a "gateway" to other professions, such as banking, management and politics.

CJ advises new lawyers to do criminal, family law
More competition, fewer guarantees and less room for negotiation for lawyers entering legal practice now
By Cheryl Faith Wee, The Sunday Times, 24 Aug 2014

Singapore's newest lawyers have been urged to begin their careers in family and criminal law to hone their skills, instead of heading straight for corporate law, which is getting more competitive than ever.

The legal community yesterday welcomed 430 newly appointed advocates and solicitors at this year's mass call to the Bar, up from 411 last year and 363 the year before.

The expansion in the number of lawyers means the newcomers will enter a market where the generous salary packages and multiple job offers their predecessors enjoyed will be harder to come by, said Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon.

This is also because other major legal centres around the world, such as New York and London, are cutting back in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, he added.

A week ago, Law Minister K. Shanmugam highlighted how Singapore could face a glut in supply of lawyers in the next three years as more aspiring lawyers pursue a law degree here and overseas.

During yesterday's ceremony at Nanyang Technological University, the Chief Justice said the legal industry is adjusting from one of "undersupply" - when there were more jobs than law graduates - to one where supply and demand are more balanced now, especially in commercial law.

"This means that you will not be running with the wind to your back," he told the new lawyers hoping to enter corporate and commercial practice. Instead, they can expect "more competition, fewer guarantees and less room for negotiation".

This is a trend that is happening not only in Singapore.

After a period of sustained growth in New York and London "in the later decades of the 20th century", the pace of recruitment there has slowed down.

Singapore, which benchmarks lawyers' salaries with those paid by New York and London firms, is no exception to these market forces, especially given how "we also compete in a South-east Asian market where starting salaries are generally lower".

Instead the Chief Justice challenged the new lawyers to take the plunge into family and criminal law - where there is a shortage - and cut their teeth there.

While he admitted that there may be a "good deal less glamour" in these areas of the law, there is no better place than community law for young lawyers to get into the thick of the action, said the Chief Justice.

New lawyers The Sunday Times spoke to said while the market may be getting tighter now, it is their juniors who will feel the pinch.

Mr Asik Ali Sadayan, 26, a Singapore Management University graduate, said: "My juniors have told me that it has become a lot harder to get training contracts. It was easier for my batch and we did not feel the competition as much."

Every year, about 400 local law graduates, along with a growing number of foreign-educated ones, apply for about 500 training contracts offered by law firms.

The six-month contract gives would-be lawyers the real world training they are required to complete before they are called to the Bar.

In his speech yesterday, Law Society of Singapore president Lok Vi Ming said his organisation is considering various initiatives to ensure that every graduate eligible for a training contract will get it.

Other new lawyers told The Sunday Times that they had their hearts set on corporate law, and would prefer to give back to society through pro-bono work - something the Chief Justice said was important for lawyers to be involved in.

Not only does such work keep lawyers connected to the community, it also helps them to avoid thinking that their worth is reflected by how much they bill and little else.

10 years in jail, now a lawyer
By Chang Ai-lien, The Sunday Times, 24 Aug 2014

Darren Tan, 35, is finally a full-fledged lawyer.

He reached that milestone yesterday when he was called to the Bar during a mass ceremony at Nanyang Technological University.

It was a far cry from his shaky start in life when drugs and gang activities led to over 10 years behind bars and 19 strokes of the cane.

"This is the culmination of what I've been working towards for the last 10 years," he told The Sunday Times. "It's like waking up from a dream and finding out your dream has become reality."

His life of crime began at the age of 14, and he was in and out of prison for offences that included robbery and drug trafficking.

It was only when he was 25 and behind bars for the third time that his transformation took place. He found God, and decided to make something of himself.

He resumed his studies with help from the prisons programme, re-learnt English, a language he had forgotten, and aced his A levels, scoring four As and a B, including an A1 for General Paper. He was still in prison when he applied for law school, and became the first student with a criminal past to be admitted to the National University of Singapore law school.

Now, he has a job waiting for him. He did so well during his six-month practice training at TSMP Law Corporation that the firm has given him a permanent position as a commercial litigation and dispute resolution lawyer.

The firm's joint managing director, Mr Thio Shen Yi, said that while he had initially decided to take a chance on Mr Tan, it had only been a six-month risk.

"He still had to earn his job. And he has," said Mr Thio. "He is sincere; he has street smarts, maturity and EQ. You can see his transformation through his actions, and this resonated with us because we're very much a firm that believes in giving back to the community.

"If I had ever thought there was any risk of the firm's reputation being besmirched, I would not have taken him on."

Said Mr Tan: "This is my first real job. I enjoy what I'm doing and the bonus is I get paid for it. I'm learning new things every day."

He spends long hours at work, but tries to leave early every Monday. He and former inmate Kim Whye Kee, an artist, have set up an outreach initiative, Beacon of Life, based in Taman Jurong, to help at-risk boys and youths. On Monday and Saturday nights, they play football.

Mr Tan dined with Britain's Prince Edward in a 16th-century castle earlier this year, when he was invited there to speak about the National Youth Achievement Award which he has received, and how its programmes could benefit others.

Mr Thio is hoping to rope in Mr Tan to work on the Yellow Ribbon Project to help former prisoners, a scheme which his firm supports.

"He will be able to give us direct insight into where the need is greatest," he said.

The Singapore Academy of Law, which has supported the Yellow Ribbon Fund since 2011, is in talks with Mr Tan to be part of its upcoming corporate social responsibility programme, which aims to get more in the legal fraternity to join forces to help former offenders.

An only child, Mr Tan has a girlfriend and lives with his parents in a four-room flat in Jurong West.

With a steady pay cheque, he can finally help with family expenses and has promised to take his parents and godfather on a cruise.

His father, Mr Tan Chon Kiat, 67, who does not work, and mother, Madam Ong Ai Hock, 62, a production operator, could not be prouder.

Said Madam Ong: "I didn't think he would have these opportunities but he has changed his own future. I used to be very worried for him, but now I'm very happy.

"It goes to show that if you work hard, the past is the past."

Looking forward, her son said: "I have a mantra of sorts - 'Be good in what I do and do good with what I do'. I used to take drugs because there was a void in my heart and my life. Now, I have something to get hooked on apart from drugs. My life is a good enough substitute."

Surge in law grads: Foreign degrees 'more affordable'
Competition for jobs likely to rise as more locals head overseas to read law
By Amelia Teng, The Straits Times, 6 Sep 2014

MS RACHEL Leong, 24, is not the only one in her family to go overseas to study law.

Her older sister graduated from the University of Liverpool in 2005. Ms Leong finished her own degree at the same British university in 2012, and, their brother is now studying there.

They are part of a surge of locals going abroad to pursue a law degree. In Britain, the number of Singapore law students more than tripled from 350 in 2008 to 1,142 last year. The number going to Australia has also risen - from 303 in 2011 to 386 last year.

Because of this rise, returning graduates are facing far more competition - a point stressed by Law Minister K. Shanmugam recently.

He said the legal industry is not growing as fast as the number of students heading overseas to study law, which means a growing proportion may not get a job as a lawyer here.

Between 2009 and last year, 70 per cent of returning overseas graduates secured training contracts - a requirement before being called to the Bar.

"Families have become more affluent and they set aside more for their children's education," said Ms Angeline Joyce Lee, the previous president of the Singapore Corporate Counsel Association, and a lawyer for 23 years.

"And if their children do not meet the entry requirements for our local universities, they would consider overseas. Law remains a highly respectable profession that is coveted."

Starting salaries for young lawyers have also risen. Last year, top law firms were offering monthly pay packages of between $5,800 and $6,400, up from $5,200 in 2010. The average starting salary for local graduates last year was $3,200.

This has prompted many parents and students to believe that a law degree is a worthwhile investment. Overseas degrees have also become relatively more affordable in recent years, although tuition fees at British universities have been rising.

Ms Leong paid £8,700 annually but her brother is paying £10,000 (S$20,000).

But the pound has weakened, making studying in Britain cheaper. The fees, which would have cost Singaporeans about $30,000 in 2007, now cost around $20,000 due to the strengthening Singapore dollar.

Local household incomes have also increased by at least 10 per cent since 2007.

"My sister was one of three Singaporeans in her course. When I was there, it was about 10," she said, adding that the figure has risen to more than 20 in her brother's batch.

The number of foreign universities approved by the Government for the study of law has grown from 15 in 1994 to 35 now, giving students more choice.

National University of Singapore law dean Simon Chesterman believes the number of students going abroad to study law may not "continue to rise - and could fall", given that prospects are getting tougher.

"Parents may now think twice about spending money on a law degree abroad," he said. "Students have to manage their expectations, unless they have a first- class honours degree from Oxford or Cambridge."

But former Hwa Chong Institution student Lee Wei Sheng is sticking to his decision to read law overseas.

The 18-year-old, who completed his A levels last year, hopes to earn a spot at Cambridge or one of the other British universities.

"If I get a place, I will work extra hard so I can do well, especially now that I know there's so much competition and the talent pool is a lot wider," he said.


Original list of approved universities in 1994
15 in Britain, including University of Cambridge, University of Leeds and the London School of Economics and Political Science
Later additions 2001
- Britain: School of Oriental and African Studies at University of London, University of Liverpool, University of Sheffield, University of Warwick
- Australia: Monash University, University of Melbourne, University of New South Wales, University of Sydney
- New Zealand: University of Auckland, Victoria University of Wellington
- Australia: Australian National University, Flinders University, University of Queensland, University of Western Australia
- Australia: University of Tasmania, Murdoch University
- US: Harvard University, Columbia University, New York University and University of Michigan
The Singapore Institute of Legal Education, a statutory board tasked with an ongoing review of this list, will submit its report soon.

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