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Training regime for lawyers to be overhauled

SINGAPORE — For decades, being called to the Bar has been seen as a significant milestone for lawyers, as it means they are qualified to practise law. But stringent changes will soon be made to the lawyers' training regime, upending the conventional process which they go through to qualify to be practising lawyers.

Come 2023, aspiring lawyers need only pass Part B of the Singapore Bar Examinations — which will be made more rigorous — to be called to the Bar. However, admission to the Bar does not mean they are qualified to practise.

Come 2023, aspiring lawyers need only pass Part B of the Singapore Bar Examinations — which will be made more rigorous — to be called to the Bar. However, admission to the Bar does not mean they are qualified to practise.

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SINGAPORE — For decades, being called to the Bar has been seen as a significant milestone for lawyers, as it means they are qualified to practise law. But stringent changes will soon be made to the lawyers' training regime, upending the conventional process which they go through to qualify to be practising lawyers.

Come 2023, aspiring lawyers need only pass Part B of the Singapore Bar Examinations — which will be made more rigorous — to be called to the Bar.

With the new system, being admitted to the Bar means they have only been recognised as lawyers, but that does not qualify them to practise. To do that, they would have to complete a new 12-month training contract.

Currently, aspiring lawyers need to go through the exam as well as a six-month training contract in order to be admitted to the Bar, which also allows them to practise law.

These changes to the professional training regime for lawyers were among the recommendations made by the Committee for the Professional Training of Lawyers convened by Chief Justice (CJ) Sundaresh Menon two years ago. The committee published its report of recommendations on Thursday (Aug 30).

In a separate statement issued on the same day, the Ministry of Law (MinLaw) said it has accepted the proposals in principle. Pointing out that the changes will not affect the majority of students currently in law schools, the ministry said that the improved system will raise the quality of legal training and better equip law graduates with the necessary expertise to meet the demands of the future economy and society.

WHAT ARE THE CHANGES:

1) Completion of a practice training contract will no longer be a pre-condition for admission to the Bar.

2) Part B of the Singapore Bar Examinations, which takes six months to complete, will be made more stringent.

3) Aspiring lawyers have to complete a practice training contract after admission to the Bar. The duration of the contract will be extended from six to 12 months.

WHY THE NEED FOR CHANGES

The committee said that the current regime "creates a legal profession that is both simplistic and linear", and pointed out that it does not "fully recognise and cater to the myriad pathways" that can be pursued within the legal profession.

It added: "But this is not an accurate reflection of the legal profession, which is in fact a diverse and multi-faceted community with space for persons to contribute in a variety of ways, and not just in the strict form of practice as traditionally understood."

That is why the committee proposed removing practice training contract as a pre-condition, a format which is also used in the United Kingdom.

This will allow law graduates to be admitted to the Bar, and still pursue alternative careers such as becoming an in-house counsel or law academic if they are not keen to be practising lawyers, said the committee.

Speaking at this year's Mass Call on Thursday, CJ Menon said that this recommendation recognises that "it is not necessary for those who choose to pursue different pathways to first complete a period of practical training before they start work".

If the proposals are implemented, he noted that it will "collectively result in a significant restructuring" of the training regime.

While there is currently no requirement for individuals who do not want to practise law to be admitted to the Bar, the committee said that doing so will suggest "attainment of a minimum level of professional standards", and provide "indication of competence and skill in practical matters".

Lengthening the practice training contract to one-year will allow aspiring lawyers to develop a strong foundation, added the committee. In other countries such as the United Kingdom and France, the duration of such contracts is two years.

Making Part B of the Singapore Bar Examinations more stringent will also ensure the quality of the local Bar "remains consistently high", said the committee, stressing that it is "not intended as a blunt means of controlling the supply of lawyers".

Though the committee says it is "sympathetic" to concerns that law graduates might have, it said the concerns must be balanced against the objective of ensuring high competency in the legal industry.

MORE ABOUT THE REVIEW

Led by Justice Quentin Loh, a Supreme Court judge, the committee comprised a total of 15 members from the legal fraternity. It was set up by CJ Menon in August 2016 to conduct a "root-and-branch review" of the professional training regime for lawyers with the aim of raising the quality and consistency of training standards. The committee completed its review in March this year, before submitting it to MinLaw.

Though the review comes amid a high attrition rate for lawyers, and shortage of training contracts due to intense competition, the committee stressed that the changes were not meant to address the issue of supply and demand of lawyers.

Its attention was fixed solely on measures to "strengthen the entire professional training regime such that the quality of training remains robust and the process for accessing training opportunities remains fair, regardless of economic conditions".

"Ultimately, these are the means by which the profession can be assured that future generations of lawyers are imbued not only with sound technical skills, but also the right professional values".

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