Singapore faces legal crisis as lawyer numbers slump

Singapore could suffer from a dearth of practising lawyers as the country witnesses its first drop in numbers for five years.

Figures released by the Law Society of Singapore show a 0.4 per cent decrease in the number of lawyers seeking to renew their practising certificates. This year 3,524 lawyers renewed their certificates compared with 3,537 last year, but when this drop is considered along with the lack of the usual 100-lawyer increase, the figures start to look more worrying.
The Second Committee of Supply Lawyers, led by the attorney-general Chan Sek Keong, estimates that approximately 250 more lawyers are needed annually until 2010 in order to meet the increasing demand for lawyers.
A statement issued by the Ministry of Law concluded: “For Singapore to become a premier financial centre and a regional telecommunications hub, there is a need to increase the pool of lawyers in order to provide the necessary support services.”
Of those not renewing their practising certificates this year, the majority are between three and seven-years qualified. Factors contributing to the declining numbers are thought to be the continued appeal of other jurisdictions in the region and a rise in the number of in-house opportunities available over the past two years.
Managing partner of Herbert Smith's Singapore office Mark Newbury said: “It's well documented that lawyers from Singapore can get more money in other locations such as Hong Kong. People see there being more exciting opportunities elsewhere.”
In 1993, the Singapore government was active in revising the rules for entry to the profession – a decision that became effective in 1997. Places at the National University of Singapore (NUS) to study law were duly capped and the number of overseas graduates joining the market was limited to 15 designated UK universities.
These restrictive provisions were not synchronised with the liberalisation of the country's legal market. In opening up the domestic legal services sector and permitting overseas firms to form joint ventures and alliances with local firms, a demand has been created for more lawyers.
The government has relaxed certain aspects of its regulations to help boost the lawyer count. Policy recommendations accepted by the government include increasing the intake of law students at NUS and granting recognition of law degrees from 19 UK, four Australian and two New Zealand universities.
Despite this government initiative, the shrinking size of the profession could continue for a number of years before the measures now in place begin to take effect.