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Thursday, Sep 18, 2014

Asian Opinions

Lawyer glut can be a happy problem

The Straits Times | Thursday, Sep 18, 2014

SINGAPORE - The current discussion on the implications of the leap in the number of Singaporeans enrolling in overseas law schools raises larger issues beyond the economic realities of finding jobs in the legal sector.

Today's highly developed legal environment is a far cry from early 19th-century Singapore, when almost anyone could be a law agent and lawyering was a part- time job.

To ensure that only persons with formal qualifications could advise and represent clients, the number of entrants to the legal profession was restricted in the 1870s to those with the appropriate qualifications.

Since then, admission to the profession has been regulated under the Legal Profession Act and the limited places in local law schools serve as an additional control valve.

But with increasing affluence, it is impossible to restrict the number of Singaporeans who study overseas for a law degree that will help them gain entry to the Singapore Bar.

The legal profession promises upward social mobility, which is uppermost in every parent's mind.

Such hopes are difficult to displace, and Singaporean law students today are, in a sense, little different from English legal apprentices in the past who aspired to become gentlemen through the practice of law.

Short of a drastic change to the number of recognised foreign law degrees, a lawyer glut is likely to stay with us for some time.

We should see this as a happy problem, as it offers the legal community an opportunity to examine how best to allocate more resources to enhance the practice of community law, and the larger society an opportunity to appreciate the role of law in society.

As observed in the 2013 Report of the 4th Committee on the Supply of Lawyers and by Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon in his address at the 2014 Mass Call for newly qualified lawyers, there is a critical shortage of lawyers practising community law, such as family law and criminal law.

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