SINGAPORE — While aspiring lawyers may get more time to learn the ropes as their practice training period will be doubled from six months to a year, lawyers told TODAY that there are some concerns about the cost firms may incur.
Traditionally, most law firms do not bill clients for work done by trainees, but the extended training period means they may have to start charging them.
However, the longer training period means that trainees would have more time to see through cases such as disputes which are rarely resolved in six months.
Last Tuesday (Oct 3), the Ministry for Law (MinLaw) tabled the Legal Profession (Amendment) Bill. If passed, lawyer-hopefuls will see some changes to the processes involved in passing the Bar.
Decoupling admission to the Bar from the completion of a practice training contractIncreasing the practice training period from six months to a yearGranting trainees limited rights to practise after six months of training
“The Bill, when passed, will strengthen the professional training regime for lawyers in Singapore and better equip law graduates with the necessary skills and competencies to meet the demands of the future economy and society,” said MinLaw in a press release on Oct 3.
While law students and graduates believe the amendments would help them be better prepared for the profession, they are concerned about the financial impact this could have.
They pointed out that trainees typically earn a gross salary of between S$2,000 and S$2,500, which they said is too low.
One student also said that the training period does not take into account medical leave, which means that trainees who fall ill will have to make up for the days that they are sick.
INCREASED EXPERIENCE, LONGER RUNWAY
Lawyers welcomed the proposed change to double the practice training period, as it gives law graduates a longer runway to learn essential skills before they are formally qualified.
Mr Marshall Lim, partner at Martin & Partners and former deputy public prosecutor and deputy senior state counsel, also said that the extended training period is in line with “the realities of legal practice”.
“For example, disputes are rarely resolved in six months, and practice trainees may therefore miss participating in important milestone events in a case they have been assisting with, if they move on from the firm after completing their practice training,” he said.
“Given these practical considerations, a longer practice training period would be beneficial for law graduates who ultimately aspire towards practice in a law firm.”
Mr Mark Teng, the executive director of That.Legal LLC, said the longer training means law firms can make a more accurate assessment about whether they wish to retain a trainee.
Currently, firms have to make an assessment at the four-month mark whether they wish to retain trainees after their training ends.
“From our firm’s perspective, it takes a trainee about four months to learn the basic ropes, and it is arguably unfair to subject the trainees to retention assessment until after the four-month mark,” said Mr Teng.
“The old system’s expectations on both firms and trainees are arguably unrealistic and therefore yield unpredictable or arbitrary retention results.”
He added that if a company chooses not to retain a trainee, the trainee would have more lead time to seek alternative employment.
When it comes down to the dollars, Mr Teng echoed other lawyers’ sentiments that firms will have to evaluate whether to charge their clients for their trainees’ work.
The longer traineeship period may mean a longer duration of not being able to charge clients for work done by a trainee, he explained.
While there is no legal prohibition against charging clients for work done by a trainee, he said that firms have to consider the “reality of today’s cost-conscious client”.
The amended Bill also allows trainees to explore different practice areas and is similar to the requirements in the United Kingdom. However, there are two camps when it comes to this amendment, said Mr Chooi Jing Yen, a partner at law firm Eugene Thuraisingam LLP.
“Some people feel like forcing trainees to train in fields that they’re not so interested in is not so productive. But of course, a different view is that as a lawyer, you should be well-rounded and at least know the basics of each practice,” he said.
Besides different practice areas, law graduates who wish to pursue other career pathways beyond traditional legal practice can also be called to the Bar with the introduction of the lawyer (non-practioner) role.
“It fulfils the aspirational goals of law graduates to be formally admitted into the legal profession, even if they choose not to pursue legal practice in the traditional sense,” said Mr Lim.
“It also ensures that law graduates attain a minimum level of professional standard by passing the Bar examinations, which would benefit them and their prospective employers even if their chosen career is not legal practice in a law firm.”
IMPACT ON FINANCES
Law students and graduates who spoke to TODAY had mixed feelings about the Bill. While they acknowledged the additional time to build up their skills, some questioned if it balances with the financial sacrifices and the delay in their careers.
Mr Firli Farruk, a first-year law student at the Singapore University of Social Sciences, worked as a paralegal for four months before starting his undergraduate programme. During this time, he found that six months are not enough for trainees to fully grasp the depth of the legal system.
“There’s only so much you can learn in six months. This will give an opportunity to delve deeper and enhance your skill sets,” said Mr Farruk, who is also a credit control executive for Norton Rose Fulbright LLP.
“While this will raise the quality of lawyers entering the workforce, it can also delay their entry and have a hit on our finances. I do think the 12-month period is good but I hope law firms pay us fairly for our time.”
For law graduates from overseas universities hoping to be called to the Singapore Bar, the additional six months of practice traineeship further drags on the process.
They are required to have six months of relevant legal training before they can sit for the exams required for the Bar.
For a 26-year-old law graduate from an overseas university, this has added pressure on him to ensure he passes his exams in the first half of the Bar requirements. Should he fail, he may need to go through the year-long practice traineeship next year.
“With the longer practice training period, there’s more obstacles for people financially,” said the lawyer-hopeful who declined to be named.
Mr Syazwan Ramli, 24, fourth-year law undergraduate at the National University of Singapore, said that while the extended traineeship period is in line with that in other countries like the UK and Australia, the pay for trainees is not.
Like the others who spoke to TODAY, Mr Ramli noted that some firms are looking to increase trainee’s salaries. However, he is unsure if all firms would, and if it would be a “reasonable” amount.
He suggested that trainees be paid the average starting salary. This ranges from S$3,500 to S$5,600, depending on the course of study, according to the 2022 Joint Autonomous Universities Graduate Employment Survey.
Pointing to information on the Singapore Institute of Legal Education’s website, Mr Ramli noted that medical leave is excluded from the computation of the practice training period.
This means that students have to make up for any sick leave taken while under training.
“It’s almost inevitable for someone to fall sick throughout a year,” he said. “I think that sick leave should be included when the practice training period is extended.”