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More local law firms willing to take in trainees, but without pay

This comes amid glut in law graduates in Singapore; unpaid trainees are often grads who read law overseas
Monday, June 19, 2017 - 05:50

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Mr Tan of RHTLaw Taylor Wessing says his firm typically has different schemes for the trainees it takes in, while TSMP Law's Mrs Yuen Thio says firms that previously did not take in trainees have started doing so, partly to do their bit for graduates who cannot otherwise get contracts.

Singapore

FOLLOWING the glut of law graduates in Singapore, more local law firms are taking in practice trainees who are unable to secure placements elsewhere - on the condition that they do not receive an honorarium during their stint.

Both foreign and local law graduates are required to complete a six-month practice training contract at a Singapore law practice before being called to the Bar.

Senior partner Tan Chong Huat told The Business Times that his firm, RHTLaw Taylor Wessing, typically has different schemes for the practice trainees that it takes in.

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Trainees in the first scheme are those that the firm intends to retain - "mature students" or those with a "very good track record". Trainees in the second scheme have their pay varied and have not been identified for retention. The last scheme comprises trainees who were unable to find a place at other law firms to complete their training.

"They come around and say, 'Can you offer us a place here?' Mostly these will be business associates' referrals," said Mr Tan. "So we take them on and they might just have no pay."

Honorariums for training contracts can range from S$800 to S$1,600 a month, according to a listing on the Law Society of Singapore website.

Another senior partner practising at a large local law firm said that for the past two years, his firm has taken in one or two such trainees per year. But these arrangements are kept private between the trainee and the management to avoid stigmatisation, and the trainees perform the standard rotation work and are exposed to the same kinds of cases as ordinary trainees, he said.

These unpaid trainees are often graduates who read law overseas; returning overseas graduates might face difficulties securing a training contract if they had not previously interned at law firms here.

"How we, as a firm, hire trainees nowadays is nearly always through (structured) internships. We very seldom hire trainees through direct applications," said the senior partner, who spoke to BT on condition of anonymity.

Students reading law at the National University of Singapore (NUS) and the Singapore Management University (SMU) are encouraged to pursue internships during semester breaks. While NUS Law does not make internships mandatory for students, SMU requires undergraduates undergoing its bachelor of laws programme to complete 10 weeks of internship with either a law firm or a legal department, or a combination of both.

The issue of the glut of lawyers here has become a hotly debated topic in recent years. While the number of students accepted yearly by NUS and SMU's law schools has remained fairly constant, the annual number of returning overseas law graduates rose from around 210 in 2011 to around 310 in 2015, said the Ministry of Law (MinLaw) in response to queries from BT.

The increase in students reading law overseas prompted MinLaw in 2015 to axe eight UK universities from the list of foreign universities approved for graduate admission to the Singapore Bar. The move was implemented from Academic Year 2016/17 onwards; there are now 11 UK universities on the list.

In the meantime, it appears that returning graduates will continue to struggle to get a training contract placement. Statistics from MinLaw show that from 2011 to 2015, around 70 per cent of overseas-trained graduates secured training contracts, compared to around 90 per cent of local graduates.

In response, the Singapore Institute of Legal Education in December 2015 made changes to the number of practice trainees that a senior practitioner can supervise, easing the quota from two to four.

"There has been an influx of law graduates in the past few years and not enough training places to absorb them all," said Stefanie Yuen Thio, joint managing director of TSMP Law Corporation. "Firms that previously did not take in trainees have started doing so, partly to do their bit for law graduates who cannot otherwise get contracts."

Small-sized firm Exodus Law Corporation typically has two to four trainees working with it at any given time, though the firm's managing director Daniel Xu said that it does not need more than two trainees.

The firm gives its trainees an allowance of S$300 to S$500 a month to cover their basic expenses, depending on the applicant's previous work experience.

"I am not paying the best allowance in town. I am one of the lowest among the rest, but I can't afford more," said Mr Xu. "As far as I'm concerned . . . I'm doing a form of National Service - providing these graduates with an opportunity to complete their training so that they can go on and become lawyers in the near future."

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