Too many lawyers, not enough jobs: Singapore’s legal brain-drain

Photo: sbamueller/CC BY-SA 2.0

Increasing numbers of overseas-educated lawyers are heating up competition in Singapore’s legal services job market and pushing down wages. New measures to tackle the issue suggest cleaning up the pool of qualified candidates and promoting opportunities for fresh graduates to gain more experience. 

By Dimitra Stefanidou

Singapore has too many lawyers. Over the last two years, 1,044 new law graduates joined the Bar of Singapore. This is a huge increase on the average of 250 a year that entered between 2006 and 2011.

One of the reasons behind this is that many students are choosing to study abroad, where universities do not have not strict limits on the number of students that they accept each year. “There are now more Singaporeans studying law in England than in Singapore. It is the students at second-tier English law schools that are finding it hardest to get training contracts,” explained Professor Simon Chesterman, Dean of the National University of Singapore’s Faculty of Law.

The problem for these students is that huge numbers of fresh law graduates, both from Singapore or overseas universities, are looking for opportunities with legal firms. There are not enough jobs to go around, and this oversupply is driving down the wages of the jobs that are available. According to the latest Joint Graduate Employment Survey, the median gross monthly salary for law graduates from Singapore Management University last year was 4,731 SGD. In 2014 it was 5,025 SGD.

A lack of contracts

With so few jobs around qualified applicants are being left without a contract to conduct the basic practical training they need. In 2014, 650 graduates were trying to obtain one of 490 training contracts and in 2015 one of just 550 said Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon. However, even the ones that eventually do manage to get into a firm now feel insecure about their future.

“Anecdotal evidence suggests that at some firms the retention rate can be as low as one-third or half the original intake of trainees. While this might not be representative of the entire field, it at least provides a glimpse of how the situation can be grim for many aspiring lawyers”, said the Chief Justice.

To tackle the problem, Chief Justice Manon announced the set-up of a committee to examine the current situation and brainstorm solutions. This group includes Justice Quentin Loh, and Judicial Commissioners Aedit Abdullah and Kannan Ramesh. Other members will be from the Ministry of Law, law firms and the Attorney-General’s Chambers.

The primary goal is to revise the criteria under which law firms offer graduates training contracts, as well as the qualifications needed to get a job. “Ultimately, the objective of the study is to find ways to ensure a high degree of consistency and transparency in the applications process so that graduates coming out of law schools are afforded a fair opportunity to secure a training contract,” Mr Menon said.

Law Society president Thio Shen Yi, also a member of the committee, explains further, “What we can do is make sure there is more transparency so that those looking for training contracts will find the right sort of training contracts, and that those looking to do corporate law don’t end up doing litigation or vice versa.”

Unpopular solutions

Several ideas are on the table. One of which is that fresh law graduates could work as paralegals until they manage to obtain a training contract. The graduates themselves are no fans of this solution; they say it will deprive them of the necessary skills and qualifications they get from working as practising lawyers. For example, a paralegal cannot give legal advice to a client, whereas a lawyer can.

The other solution is to set limits on the number of graduates who complete their studies abroad. In the future, Singaporean authorities will not allow graduates of half of the 19 UK law schools to be recognised as graduate lawyers and join the Bar.

However, despite the difficult situation for many young Singaporean lawyers, there are reasons for optimism. The establishment of the Singapore International Commercial Court (SICC) earlier this year has created new job opportunities. This new body, together with the Singapore International Arbitration Centre (SIAC) and the Singapore International Mediation Centre (SIMC), have promoted the growth of the legal services sector. This, in turn, supports the internationalisation and export of Singapore law.

Also, many young lawyers who have no choice but to move and work abroad will extend their knowledge. Many will look to practice in Hong Kong instead, obtaining unique experience in many sectors such as international business. Those lawyers will stand out from the others due to their specialisation and provide significant help in Singapore when they return.

As Professor Walter Woon from the National University of Singapore highlighted, “I suspect that the brain-drain would be worse without the prospect of working for an international law firm in Singapore. The young and the restless will move abroad to get the international exposure; the presence of leading international firms in Singapore gives us the opportunity to lure them home.”