NUS (Singapore's only law school) progressively reduced its student intake each year, shrinking downwards to about 150 at its lowest point (and incidentally being more elitist than ever before).
The Supreme Court shrunk its list of approved foreign universities whose law degrees would be recognised in Singapore. This sharply reduced options for Singaporeans who hoped to go overseas to get a law degree.
Rules were amended to raise the bar for practising lawyers. New law graduates from NUS had to have at least a 2nd Lower to practise in Singapore. New law graduates from any of the approved foreign universities had to have at least a 2nd Upper.
Quite independently of these changes, two other big things were happening at the same time.
Firstly, Singapore set itself some very ambitious goals for its banking and financial industry. None other than Lee Hsien Loong himself was chosen to be the man to make this happen (he became Chairman of MAS). The banking sector opened up and foreign banks were given more room than ever before to operate in Singapore.
Secondly, ex-Chief Justice Yong Pung How launched some powerful plans to clear backlogs in courts' cases; speed up the litigation process; invest in technology and turn the Singapore courts into the most efficient court system in the world.
I believe that no one then really foresaw how all these seemingly separate initiatives were going to impact each other. But what happened subsequently is now well-known and obvious to those in the profession.
The supply of homegrown lawyers steadily shrank, even as the financial industry became larger and more sophisticated and its demand for legal services grew sharply. Lawyers, in terms of numbers, became a limiting factor for the industry's growth. In terms of expertise too, lawyers were a limiting factor - due to lack of numbers, they could not sufficiently specialise. Many had a broad understanding of the financial industry, but few had in-depth expertise in specific areas with the financial industry.
Meanwhile, in the courts, the pace of litigation sped up so much that lawyers couldn't cope. Calendars became fully crowded out (and it is physically impossible for a lawyer to appear in two courts at the same time). More than ever before, litigation lawyers had to work in teams, anything from 4 to 12 lawyers per case, and this led to the systematic deaths of the traditional one-man and two-man law firms. They would have hired more lawyers, but the supply of new lawyers was steadily shrinking.
Lawyers' salaries climbed sharply. But they had to work harder than ever before. In turn, working hours shot up fiercely and the attrition rate was extremely high. Many quit legal practice for a better quality of life, causing a vicious cycle of further shortage. You may have read in the media stories about how lawyers are not renewing their practising certificates anymore; how Chief Justice Chan Sek Keong is desperately encouraging young lawyers to come back to litigation; and how many lawyers quit high-paying jobs in law firms to sell secondhand cars; go into teaching; start bakeries; be actors and yoga teachers etc.
Some true stories of how hard lawyers have to work almost sound like the stuff of urban legend. Once upon a time, a pregnant partner, M, of a big law firm went into labour at the time when she was trying to close a big transaction. M instructed her secretary to get a laptop and meet her at the hospital. Later, while lying on the hospital bed and giving birth, M continued to type on her laptop until she could not type anymore - she then dictated notes (in between her moans and groans) to her secretary who did the typing for her. I cannot now remember which happened first - the birth of the baby, or the closure of the deal. But I know that the baby turned out ok.
In recent years, the Singapore government has begun to tacitly acknowledge its mistakes. It all seems to have started with Lee Kuan Yew's daughter publicly saying that the government has mishandled the supply of lawyers AND doctors. Since then, the government has been trying to reverse gear. These are the latest attempts:
What's the moral of the story? The Singapore government DOES screw up big-time in its micro-management readings of the needs of the economy. Lawyers are one example. Other examples have been doctors (undersupply) and engineers (oversupply).Aug 17, 2006
New law school to raise supply of lawyers
SMU starts course next August; NUS to up intake; easing of rules for grads from foreign universities
By Ben Nadarajan & K.C. Vijayan
A SECOND law school will open at the Singapore Management University (SMU) next year, while the National University of Singapore (NUS) will increase its intake of law students, in an attempt to boost the number of lawyers in the country.
The new school will take in its first batch of about 90 students in August next year. At the same time, NUS' law faculty will also raise its annual enrolment from 220 to about 250 students.
The requirement for graduates from recognised foreign universities to practise here has also been lowered to a second-lower honours degree - although they will have to fulfil a host of stringent requirements.
Between 1997 and last year, about 300 law graduates were unable to practise because of the lower grade of their overseas degrees.
These recommendations were submitted to the Law Ministry last month by the third Committee on the Supply of Lawyers, which was headed by then Attorney-General Chan Sek Keong, who is now the Chief Justice.
The committee estimates that these changes will add 150 lawyers to the Bar each year from 2010 onwards.
Yesterday, Law Minister S. Jayakumar accepted the initiatives, saying they were necessary to bridge the widening gap between demand and supply plaguing the profession.
The number of lawyers has dipped slightly in recent years. There are now about 3,490 lawyers, compared with 3,537 in 2000.
Professor Jayakumar said there would be an increasing demand for lawyers in the next decade and the current crop was insufficient to meet this need ...
So if you are making your next career move based on the government's prediction of the next "hot" area or the next "dead" area, just be aware that the government has a record of getting things wrong. Life sciences and the biomedical industry is what comes to my mind. It may indeed be the next big boom. Or it may not.
Technorati: Singapore; law; legal profession.