Saturday, 1 September 2018

Law graduates to face more stringent Singapore Bar exam and lengthier practice training from 2023

Stricter Bar exam and lengthier training to qualify to practise law
By Selina Lum, Law Correspondent, The Straits Times, 31 Aug 2018

Law graduates will face a more stringent professional Bar exam from 2023 as well as lengthier training before they can qualify to practise law.

The "significant restructuring" of the professional training regime for lawyers was announced yesterday by Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon during this year's mass call, a proceeding that formally admits lawyers to the Bar.

The recommendations, which have been accepted in principle by the Ministry of Law (MinLaw), were made by a committee he appointed two years ago to conduct a "root and branch" review of how undergraduates are offered training contracts by local law firms, as well as how they are assessed to be suitable for retention and employment.

Under the current regime, law graduates have to go through a six-month course and pass the Singapore Bar exam, known as "Part B", and then 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.

However, the new regime proposes to uncouple admission to the Bar from the completion of the practice training contract.

This means law graduates who pass Part B can be admitted to the Bar without the need to undergo practice training.

These graduates can go on to alternative careers, including being in-house counsel, law academics, practice support lawyers, public servants and legal technologists.

"This proposal recognises that a person who has studied law can contribute to society without becoming a practising lawyer, and that it is not necessary for those who choose to pursue different pathways to first complete a period of practical training before they start work," CJ Menon said in his speech.

Those who want to practise law will still need to complete a practice training contract, which will be lengthened from the current six months to one year. This will allow trainees to develop a strong foundation for a sustainable and fulfilling career, said the Chief Justice.

At the same time, the standard of the Part B exam will also be raised, to keep the bar high, and the scope reviewed to include topics relevant to lawyers practising in the current environment, such as technology.

The committee, chaired by Justice Quentin Loh, was formed against the backdrop of a shortage of practice training contracts in the industry.

However, the committee said in its report, completed in March, that it focused its attention on strengthening the training regime, rather than addressing supply and demand issues and interfering directly in the market.

According to MinLaw, one in five of those who were called to the Bar last year did not go on to practise law. About 690 law graduates, from both local and overseas universities, enter the job market each year. Last year, more than 90 per cent secured training contracts, said the ministry.

In his speech, CJ Menon also exhorted the newly minted lawyers to be passionately curious about developments outside the law, to be courageous in treading new ground and to find creative solutions through technology.

He also spoke about the importance of role models, singling out former Law Society president Peter Cuthbert Low for his courage to represent unpopular people, his commitment to public service and being an inspiring mentor to young lawyers.

More than 450 lawyers will be called to the Bar this year over three sessions.

Stricter Bar exam: Training spots can go to law grads keen to practise
By Selina Lum, Law Correspondent, The Straits Times, 31 Aug 2018

Last year, one in five law graduates, despite spending half a year training at a law firm after passing their Bar exam, did not go on to become a practising lawyer.

Juxtapose this number with reports in recent years of a shortage of practice training contracts at law firms, and then the latest proposal makes good sense. It should free up contracts for those who really want to practise law.

Currently, after passing the Bar exam, law graduates have to complete a six-month practice training contract before they can be called to the Bar and be qualified to practise law. But for some law students, getting called to the Bar is not a chance to practise law, but simply to ensure they "complete" their legal education.

Yesterday, Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon announced proposals to significantly change how lawyers are trained, the key of which is to separate admission to the Bar from the training contract. This means law graduates can be called to the Bar without training at a firm.

For those who do want to practise law, they will take the next step of going through a training contract, which has been lengthened to a year.

Professor Simon Chesterman, law dean at the National University of Singapore, said that while the school provides rigorous training, "the reality is that not every law student wants to practise".

"The new regime will enable such students to complete their legal training, get called to the Bar and then choose the path that suits them," he said.

This may include jobs in the legal field such as in-house counsel and academics, as well as corporate careers in other industries.

For those who do want to practise law, the more stringent requirements should ensure they are prepared for the challenges, Prof Chesterman said.

Law Society president Gregory Vijayendran said: "The hope is that by the time they get into practice... they can hit the ground running, and that their learning experience in the practice training contract is richer and they come out the complete package."

Lawyers say this could free up training spaces for those who do intend to practise law.

Senior Counsel Cavinder Bull, chief executive of Drew & Napier, believes law students will decide earlier whether they want to be in practice if they can be called to the Bar without "taking the long route".

Mr Shashi Nathan, regional head of dispute resolution at Withers KhattarWong, said that not requiring a training contract makes admission to the Bar independent of market conditions - which play a role in how many training contracts firms can offer.

Experts: Changes signal high standards to practise law
Stricter exam, longer training will open up spots for those who really want to practise
By Amelia Teng, Education Correspondent, The Straits Times, 1 Sep 2018

Raising the training standards of law graduates will make them think harder about practising law and open up training contracts for those who really want to practise, said those in the industry.

Among the recommendations announced on Thursday, law graduates will have to sit a more stringent professional Bar exam, known as Part B, from 2023 and receive training for one year, instead of the present six months, before qualifying to practise law.

Law graduates who pass Part B can be admitted to the Bar without undergoing practice training. The recommendations were made by a committee formed two years ago to relook training for lawyers.

TSMP Law joint managing director and Senior Counsel Thio Shen Yi said the move sends the signal that "if you want to practise, there are high standards to meet, and it requires a more significant commitment". "So think long and hard if you want to make a career as a practitioner, and do it for the right reasons," added SC Thio.

National University of Singapore (NUS) law school dean Simon Chesterman said the move is about rationalising the market for training contracts by making the process more efficient.

"Those who seek a training contract should do so because they want to practise law, and firms should use it to give them the skills they need," he said.

Competition for training contracts at law firms has been a talking point in recent years, amid concern about a surge of locals going abroad to pursue law degrees.

The number of British law schools whose students can be admitted to the Singapore Bar has since been cut from 19 to 11.

Last year, one in five law graduates, despite spending six months training at a law firm after passing their Bar exam, did not go on to practise law.

First-year NUS law student Stanley Woo, 21, said: "Not everyone studies law with the intention of practising it. I know some in law school who are interested in fields like teaching, or are here because they didn't get into medicine."

Mr Gregory Vijayendran, president of the Law Society of Singapore, said the changes could also pave the way for different pathways for law graduates. "Some of them who view law education as a discipline of the mind and an analytical skill may choose to ply their trade in other fields," he added.

Ms Angeline Joyce Lee, president emeritus of the Singapore Corporate Counsel Association, said the recommendations recognise the role of practice support lawyers who do more back-end work.

"We have a good pool of legal talent who may not want to continue practising but we don't want to lose them to other industries," she said.

Law dons rebutted concerns that making Part B stricter would mean higher failure rates.

Singapore records a nearly 100 per cent pass rate for the exam, while New York and Japan have pass rates of 68 per cent and 20.7 per cent respectively.

Singapore University of Social Sciences law school dean Leslie Chew, a Senior Counsel, said: "Raising standards in Part B is good because we need to ensure future law graduates are better trained to meet the complexities of practice."

Some have questioned if having lengthier training means lower pay for a longer time. During training, law graduates can earn between $800 and $2,000 a month.

Mr Vijayendran said a longer training period will let them have more training so that they can hit the ground running.

SC Thio said the new system would allocate resources more productively, and may even alleviate the high turnover that law firms experience.

"Law firms, on their part, must commit to imparting proper and systemic training, and not treat this as an extended period of relatively cheaper labour," he added.

Said Professor Chesterman: "It is vital that the law firms take up this challenge and ensure that the training period is meaningful, with mentoring and support, as well as exposure to different areas of practice."

Law Ministry Accepts Recommendations to Strengthen Professional Training of Lawyers -30 Aug 2018

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