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Join legal profession if you believe in its ideals, says CJ Menon

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Singapore's chief justice has sounded a warning to future lawyers to join the legal profession only if they believe in advancing the cause of justice and to serve those who seek it and not because of the lure of financial rewards.

SINGAPORE'S chief justice has sounded a warning to future lawyers to join the legal profession only if they believe in advancing the cause of justice and to serve those who seek it and not because of the lure of financial rewards.

Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon made the point at the admission of lawyers to the Bar on Friday, where he also announced the set up of a committee to provide recommendations to address the problem of an oversupply of young lawyers.

He said that last year's mass call had a record 535 new lawyers admitted to the Bar. This year, there are 509. The number of new entrants to the profession has doubled in the past five years.

But "a surprisingly large number of candidates" have little or no inkling of the law as a profession that finds its place in society in notions of justice, service and doing right - something he described as "disturbing".

"By all means, come if you are attracted to the ideals of the profession. But if it is the lure of financial rewards that draws you, you should look at other options or be prepared for disappointment."

Assuming that each new entrant wants to serve these ideals, CJ Menon said that the fact remains that some 100 graduates from the 2015 cohort did not qualify as full-fledged lawyers. It also does not help that the retention rate, after practice training, can be as low as one-third of the original intake.

The issue of an oversupply is a function of market forces and not one the government should be expected to solve, said CJ Menon, who noted that on the supply side, the list of United Kingdom overseas scheduled universities has been trimmed to 11 from 2016's intake, from 18.

On the demand side, the Singapore International Commercial Court, Singapore International Mediation Centre and Singapore International Arbitration Centre will raise the volume of available work, but it will take time, especially as economies are now facing slower growth.

To alleviate the situation, the Committee for the Professional Training of Lawyers, led by Justice Quentin Loh, Judicial Commissioner Aedit Abdullah and Kannan Ramesh, will review the entire training contract system in Singapore - from when undergraduates are offered training contracts by local law firms, to how they are deemed suitable for retention and employment.

A large part of the committee's focus will be on the substance of the supervised training. To this end, it will examine the desirability and feasibility of regulating this area, as well as the way firms market training opportunities to undergraduates.

Retention policies will be scrutinised to see if it should be more structured and transparent.

Said CJ Menon: "If so, then the possible ways of going about this might include requiring firms to publish their retention criteria, retention rates and other relevant data, such as data on the firm's attitude and commitment to pro bono work."

The committee will also explore the creation and formalisation of alternative structures to provide opportunities for those not retained.

A question raised was whether practice trainees not employed can be retained as paralegals as the first step in the learning curve towards admission to full professional status at a future time. Citing experiences in the UK and Australia, CJ Menon said that redefining the paralegal pool is something to be studied carefully.

In his speech, the chief justice also touched on two other issues - the hollowing out of mid-career lawyers caused by a burnout, and the advent of new technologies in the workplace.

Pointing to a startling observation made in 2014 by Lok Vi Ming, then president of the Law Society, he said that three out of four lawyers would have left the profession within the first decade of the practice.

Last year, there were only 423 mid-tier lawyers, compared with about 1,900 junior lawyers with less than seven years' experience and about 2,500 with over 12 years' experience.

"The demanding working conditions that we see in firms today is but a symptom of the overt commercialisation of legal practice," CJ Menon noted, adding that it is most evident in how perceptions of the billable hour have evolved.

"I should not be mistaken for saying that the business side of practice is unimportant. The real point I am making is that there needs to be a recalibration of priorities which places a higher premium on the genuine nurturing of young talent because this is vital for our collective future."

Law firms, he said, must see themselves as "educational institutions with a duty to train" their young lawyers to the very best version of themselves, so the committee will study ways to improve the quality of supervised training.

As for technology's inroads into the legal practice, CJ Menon said that the profession will undergo a period of uncertain transitioning. He said that the key though, is to embrace it with an open mind and stay nimble and receptive even as technologies redefine roles.