'They are literally raising the bar': Changes to Singapore Bar exams draw mixed feelings

'They are literally raising the bar': Changes to Singapore Bar exams draw mixed feelings

File photo of Supreme Court exterior 2
File photo of the exterior of Singapore's Supreme Court.

SINGAPORE: Proposals that will change how law graduates qualify to become practising lawyers from 2023 drew mixed reactions from law students and associates, with some welcoming them while others felt that the changes may deter some students.

Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon announced on Thursday (Aug 30) that law graduates will have to complete a year of practice training with a firm, double the current six months, after passing the Singapore Bar examinations from 2023.

Another significant change will be the raising of the standard of Part B of the exams. Part B is taken by graduates from local and overseas universities, while Part A is a requirement only for overseas graduates.

These changes are the first significant ones to the professional training regime for lawyers since 2010, when the Practical Law Course was revamped into Part B of the exams, according to the Ministry of Law.

Some have welcomed the recommendations. Professor Simon Chesterman, dean of the National University of Singapore's Faculty of Law, said that the more stringent requirements should ensure that the students who wish to enter practice are prepared for the challenges and opportunities that await them.

"At the same time, law firms should use the longer training period to offer a solid grounding for the next generation of lawyers, with diverse experiences and supportive mentorship," he said.

Mr Shashi Nathan, the regional head of dispute resolution and partner at law firm Withers KhattarWong, said that the changes are "very welcome" for both law firms and young lawyers.

"It helps law firms because we now know that with the enhanced exams and the one-year training, you're going to get higher-quality young lawyers come into practice," said the 51-year-old, who has been practising law for 25 years. "Now, we find that young lawyers, after six months, they are still finding their feet. But a year of training, exposure and mentoring certainly give you the equipment and the arms to go to war."

As for the more difficult exams, Mr Nathan said he did not think there was anything wrong to expect the highest quality for lawyers in Singapore, as practice itself "is becoming more difficult".

He said he felt there still is a glut of lawyers, and "I think part of the recommendations may have come from (that)".

ARE STRICTER EXAMS A WAY TO LIMIT NUMBER OF LAWYERS? 

Law students that Channel NewsAsia spoke to referred to the 2014 glut of lawyers experienced in Singapore, and hinted that the new moves could be to avoid this.

In response to media queries, the Ministry of Law said that the number of overseas law graduates returning to Singapore peaked in 2014, at about 350.

"The number has since fallen by about 25 per cent to about 260," said the ministry spokesman. "About 690 law graduates, both overseas and local, enter the job market each year."

Last year, more than 90 per cent secured training contracts, which is currently required for them to be called to the Bar.

When asked if the new changes are in response to the 2014 oversupply of lawyers, the Committee that recommended the changes told Channel NewsAsia: "The Committee was established to undertake a holistic review of the professional training regime for trainee lawyers in Singapore. The central theme of the Committee's recommendations is training to ensure that the needs of the public are well served and lawyers are equipped to face future challenges, regardless of economic conditions."

Whether or not the moves are calculated to limit the number of practising lawyers, some law students feel they may deter some from becoming lawyers.

The changes will not affect Mr Daryl Yang, 25, a current Yale-NUS student who will likely be called to the bar in 2020, but he said the longer training period may deter those who "are not entirely sure that they want to practise law from trying in the first place".

He added that one year might be too long, saying that trainees are paid significantly less than associates.

While Mr Yang found it encouraging that the legal fraternity was "recognising the diversity of the role of legally trained people beyond practising lawyers", he said: "I'm not sure if the standard of the Part B examinations directly translates into the abilities of a practising lawyer, so I'm not sure if it necessarily raises the standard."

HOW POPULAR ARE ALTERNATIVE LAW CAREERS?

In response to queries from the media, the Ministry of Law said that one in five law graduates who were called to the Bar in 2017 did not go on to practise law.

Professor Chesterman said that "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. They can then use their legal training in other sectors of the economy," he said.

Lawyer hopeful Jason Hong, 25, who graduated last year from Durham University, said that among his friends, those who do not want to become practising lawyers are a minority.

Mr Hong, who failed his Part A exam recently and hopes to pass it later this year, welcomed the extended practice training.

As an overseas law graduate, he had to undergo relevant legal training, which is similar to practice training.

He found this useful, as he "learnt a lot more than I would in law school because so many things are different in practice".

"I think the extra time, while it may be daunting to some, is a really good learning experience," he said.

Asked about the more stringent Part B exams, Mr Hong laughed and said: "For me, it's already very hard to pass Part A."

However, he added: "You have to give and take when it comes to things like this ... they are literally raising the bar. So they want to get the best."

Source: CNA/ll(hm)

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