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Two career tracks in S'pore Legal Service

[SINGAPORE] A growing legal service and the need for more specialist and expert legal skills are prompting a sea change in the Singapore Legal Service (SLS).

In April, the Republic's Legal Service Officers (LSOs) will have two separate career paths to choose from - the judicial track and the legal track. This will afford officers greater specialisation in their careers, compared to the more broad-based exposure they are getting in the current integrated service.

This was announced last night by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong at the Legal Service Dinner, after discussions he held on the matter with Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon, Attorney-General Steven Chong and Minister for Law K Shanmugam.

"We agreed that within the present framework of one Legal Service under the LSC (Legal Service Commission), we should provide for greater specialisation," PM Lee said yesterday.

"Therefore, we will make several changes to the present system. First, LSC will introduce two separate career tracks for LSOs up to Grade 3, which will be the 'legal' and the 'judicial' tracks.

"Eligible officers can elect to specialise either along the legal track or the judicial track. And they will then be posted to jobs within either the Legal Branch or the Judicial Branch (of the SLS), and to stay in that branch, to build experience and hone specialist and expert skills," he added.

The SLS, in its current form, is an integrated model consisting of the legal branch and the judicial branch.

The legal branch of the service is made up of Deputy Public Prosecutors and State Counsel in the Attorney-General's Chambers (AGC) and the Legal Counsel/Officers in the various Legal Service departments in specific ministries and statutory boards.

The judicial branch is made up of District Judges, Magistrates, Coroners and Registrars at the State Courts (formerly known as the Subordinate Courts) and the Registrars at the Supreme Court Registry and the Justices Law Clerks in the pool.

"We started off with an integrated model: one Legal Service, with personnel decisions vested in the LSC, chaired by the Chief Justice, with the Attorney-General also on the LSC.

"From time to time, we have studied the question whether to split the Service into two: a Legal Service and a separate Judicial Service. But up to now, we have always decided to stick to the integrated model, because we had too few officers to support two separate services and we believed that LSOs would have better career paths in one single integrated service," PM Lee said.

But, with 587 LSOs now - a tenth of all practising lawyers in Singapore now - compared with 45 when Singapore became independent in 1965, there is enough critical mass for the Legal Service to consider greater specialisation. But this is not the only reason.

Mr Lee said: "It is timely for us to review the position again in the light of changing circumstances. First, because our Legal Service is now much larger, officers can specialise without conscribing their career prospects. Second, the scope and complexity of work, whether in the government, in the AGC, or in the courts, has grown enormously.

"Hence, we need more specialist and expert skills than ever before."

For example, the scope of legal work in ministries is now much wider than before - drafting new laws, seeding new capabilities, negotiating foreign trade agreements, etc. The AGC specialises in new areas, through new divisions such as its Economic Crimes and Governance Division. The courts also take on more complex work.

To oversee the two career tracks, PM Lee announced the establishment of two new personnel boards under the LSC - the Legal Branch Personnel Board and Judicial Branch Personnel Board.

These two boards will replace the current Special and Senior Personnel Boards. They will also manage LSOs in the respective branches, and oversee career development pathways in these tracks.

But PM Lee emphasised that "even as we promote more specialisation, it is critical that the Legal Service operates as an integrated whole".

"The specialisation into two tracks is for the middle ranks of the Legal Service. Junior officers starting out on their careers will still be posted to different departments and across branches, to develop them in different fields of legal work and to learn about their strengths and interests so that they can make an informed judgment when they decide to specialise."

He added that senior LSOs - those Grade 2 and up - will still be managed by the LSC. This is because, at that level of seniority, there will only be a few officers, and it is necessary to continue with the integrated model, to provide better career options and flexibility in deployment to meet the needs of the SLS.

"These changes are part of our continuing journey to build a first-class Legal Service. But, ultimately, what matters - beyond even a proper and well-turned HR system - is the spirit and dedication of the LSOs, to carry out your duties and uphold the rule of law without fear or favour, to defend and advance Singapore's interests in a more complex and challenging international environment, and to work together as a team, always fighting for Singapore and Singaporeans."