This press release, just released today (17 August 2006) has given some food for thought:
The Government has accepted the key recommendations of The Third Committee on the Supply of Lawyers chaired by the former Attorney-General Chan Sek Keong. The recommendations include: …
Allowing Graduates with Second Class Lower Division Honours degrees to practise law: The Government also agreed in-principle with the Committee’s recommendation to allow Singaporean citizens or PRs who graduated from Overseas Scheduled Universities with Second Class (Lower Division) Honours to practice, provided they possess certain relevant work experience or qualifications. To ensure that the quality of our lawyers is maintained, in addition to the requirements (3 years relevant work experience or having the qualification as solicitors of Hong Kong or England & Wales), they will be interviewed by the Board of Legal Education (which will consider factors such as the actual results they obtained and the nature of their work experience). The Board of Legal Education will announce the details in the next two to three months.
For newer readers who may not know much about me, I am an overseas law graduate from one of the recognised law schools in the UK. Unfortunately, I obtained a Second Class Lower Division (Honours) degree instead of a Second Class Upper, which meant that I and almost half the cohort of other Singaporean graduates in my university were unable to practise Law in our own country.
I wrote a letter of appeal to the Minister of Law, but received a negative reply. I heard that the Minister wasn’t even in Singapore at the time, so it could have been a standard rejection template. Anyway, I understood from my seniors that appeals were rarely granted and that the last successful applicant was a girl who fell ill and therefore did not do well for her exams.
In any case, life had to go on. Some of my schoolmates stayed on to take the London Bar exams, in the hope of working in a UK law firm. Very few were able to do it – even those with Second Class Uppers.
By that time I had noticed an attractive job ad for a new Singapore Press Holdings newspaper called Project Eyeball. Right after coming back from my graduation, I went for the interview and got the job as a web designer and writer. I discovered that I loved this type of work and the rest is history.
My friends who are currently working in large law firms are probably earning twice my salary by now. But if I let material facts like that bug me, I’d have gone mad a long time ago. I still like my work and the people I work with. There are different ways of serving my country and I’m pretty happy with the way things are working out at the moment.
As stated in the extract above, to return to the legal workforce, I need 3 years’ relevant work experience or be called to the Bar in Hong Kong, England or Wales, and be interviewed by the Board of Legal Education. I don’t have that much work experience in law firms but anyway it seemed a bit like a Catch-22. Judging from the job ads I used to pore over, most law firms and in-house legal departments generally preferred to hire candidates who have a Second Class Upper degree and have been called to the Singapore Bar. If I wanted to rejoin the legal community, the best option for me would be to apply to take the London Bar exams.
A couple of friends with Second Class Lower degrees have managed to find in-house work and they should have a good chance of going back to a local law firm, if they wanted to. Some other friends with Second Class lower degrees who have been called to the London Bar, and have legal work experience, also stand a good chance of moving to a Singapore law firm.
When this policy is implemented, there may be a mad rush of applications from the last decade (since the Legal Profession Act raised the standards). More recent law graduates would still have the law freshly in their heads, whereas older fogies like me would have to read the textbooks all over again.
In the last six years since graduation, many of us have moved on. Some of us are in Government jobs. Others who did get their Second Class Uppers, got called to the Singapore bar and worked in Singapore law firms, are either still working as lawyers, have taken time off and travelled the globe, or totally changed their jobs. One ex-lawyer friend of mine has opened a childcare centre. We’ve read of many others in the newspapers who have set up their own businesses, such as selling gelato. I think many of us are actually happier this way.
With the new policies, the net will be cast wider. But ultimately if the workplace environment for lawyers remains highly stressful, there will still be high dropout rates. There is still the cost of interviewing, hiring and training new lawyers, and even then some knowledge is lost through experienced lawyers who have left the firm.
All in all, if anyone asks me today if I’d want to become a lawyer in Singapore now that I have the chance – I’d probably say no.
[Update: This post has been linked on SingaporeSurf. View similar opinions by other blogs on this topic.]