By Tan Dawn Wei
Despite the economic meltdown that has shaken the world and plunged global law firms into darkness, young lawyers will have a bright future given Singapore's dynamic changing legal landscape.
That was the assurance given by Chief Justice Chan Sek Keong and some of Singapore's top legal eagles to law undergraduates in a forum at Supreme Court yesterday.
In his keynote address to about 200 students studying overseas and here, the CJ said the crisis has blighted corporate practices around the world.
But the situation looks to be improving in Singapore. 'The legal service sector does not appear to be in a recession here,' he said.
Local firms have given the assurance that they do not view retrenchment as an appropriate way to cut costs, he added.
Rather, they have redeployed and retrained their lawyers to capitalise on emerging opportunities.
It was a view shared by the forum's panel of seven representatives from top law firms, academia and the public service, chaired by Senior Counsel and Law Society president, Mr Michael Hwang.
The forum was organised by the UK Singapore Law Students' Society.
Discussions centred on the impact of changes from proposals made by a high-level committee that reviewed the legal services sector in 2007.
Some changes have already taken place, like the launch of a Qualifying Foreign Law Practice scheme that gives licences to foreign firms to practise Singapore law.
Six such firms have started operations since May and June.
Requirements for admission to the Singapore Bar have been modified, easing the way for overseas law graduates to practise here.
Other changes coming up include a more structured pupillage programme and an Institute of Legal Education, which will oversee continuing legal education and vocational training for lawyers.
While these revisions are aimed at addressing the shortage of lawyers and attracting talent, future lawyers will also have new challenges on their hands.
Solicitor-General Koh Juat Jong said Singapore is opening its doors increasingly to law graduates from countries besides Britain, like the United States, Canada, New Zealand and Australia.
She also told the students that their future competition may not be fellow Singaporeans, but those from China and India, two 'emerging markets for lawyers', she said.
There are some 3,700 lawyers with licences to practise Singapore law, while there are 880 foreign lawyers registered to practise foreign law.
Of these foreigners, 10 per cent are from India and 5 per cent from China, she said.
More will come here but more Singaporeans will also practise foreign law as the country becomes more globalised.
'Stay Singaporean but think global,' she told the students.
Mr Andrew Lim, partner at Allen & Gledhill, said young lawyers will need to equip themselves with broad-based legal knowledge as clients increasingly need advice on a sphere of laws spanning different jurisdictions.
But there is also a need for lawyers specialising in local litigation, said another panellist, Senior Counsel Alvin Yeo of Wong Partnership.
Judges here are drawn from local litigation as they need to understand the Singaporean psyche, customs and culture.
'If there are not enough Singaporean lawyers attracted to local litigation, where would our judges come from?' said Mr Yeo.
Mr Lu Zhengyou, 20, who has been accepted to read law at both National University of Singapore and University College London, said he feels comforted by the optimism shown by the CJ and senior lawyers.
'It does look like prospects are good for law students like us,' he said.
This article was first published in The Straits Times.