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Greater diversity in pathways to Singapore Bar among new ideas for legal education system: Chief Justice – CNA

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SINGAPORE: More diverse pathways to admission to the Singapore Bar and a review of how law students are currently trained are part of a suggested “timely” reimagining of Singapore’s legal education system, the Chief Justice said in a speech on Monday (Jan 6).

Speaking at the Opening of the Legal Year 2020, Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon shared these views, which were gleaned after months of discussions last year with various sectors of the legal community across 16 focus groups comprising 160 people.

“It may be valuable to introduce greater diversity in the pathways that lead to admission to the Singapore Bar,” said the Chief Justice.

This will encourage those with backgrounds in fields like computer science or STEM-related fields – in Science, Technology, Engineering or Mathematics – to join the legal sector.

This also means that professional training courses and qualifying examinations may need to be reviewed to ensure they are able to equip all new lawyers with the necessary skills.

Sharing some possible ways to achieve this, while stressing that they are merely ideas at this point and have to be tested for viability, CJ Menon said Singapore’s law schools could consider offering a wider variety of pathways to the Bar through their courses and degrees.

“Apart from direct entry through undergraduate law degrees, these pathways might also permit mid-career individuals with non-law backgrounds to enter the profession,” he said.

One suggestion is a new four-year degree programme, with both academic and practical components, comprising two years of core legal education, a year of professional training, and a final year of study in a complementary discipline such as business, accounting or computer science.

To ensure that all new entrants meet required standards, they could sit for a common Bar examination.

REVIEW UNDERGRAD LAW SYLLABUS 

Stakeholders in the discussions also widely supported the idea that it is timely to review the undergraduate law syllabus, to focus on growing areas like cross-border insolvency, international arbitration, e-commerce and financial services.

Other suggestions include offering students working experience in more diverse institutions and organisations, and enhancing the teaching of practical skills.

One strategy suggested to achieve the ideas raised in the talks is to create a steering forum to guide the reimagining of legal education and training, in consultation with the universities, the Ministries of Law and Education and the judiciary.

The initial ideas have been discussed with the deans of Singapore’s law schools, as well as with the Ministers of Law and Education, said CJ Menon, with further exploration expected in the year ahead.

While no concrete date was given for any of the suggested initiatives, those in the legal industry told CNA they welcome the move.

MOVE WELCOMED BY INSIDERS

Professor Simon Chesterman, dean of the National University of Singapore Faculty of Law, said he was “excited about the challenges and opportunities ahead”.

“Upheavals in the practice of law require a radical rethink of the purpose, content, method, and funding of legal education and training,” he said.

He cited recent initiatives to this end by NUS Law, including the launch in December of the Centre for Technology, Robotics, AI & the Law (TRAIL), a research unit exploring the relationship between technology and legal research.

While career opportunities for NUS Law graduates “remain very strong, with high employment and salaries”, there is no room for complacency, said the dean.

Lawyer Josephus Tan of Invictus Law agreed that it is timely to reshape existing legal education to include areas like technology ethics, FinTech regulations and digital payment laws.

Other than introducing a topical curriculum, compulsory work attachment stints to non-law sectors could be considered, to help law students have better insights into how laws function in non-court settings, he said.

The need to reimagine legal education “is not perhaps surprising”, said Singapore Management University law don Eugene Tan.

“There appear to be concerns that Singapore’s legal sector may not be equal to the task of lawyering for the domestic, regional, and international markets,” he opined. “It boils down to the fundamental issue of whether our legal sector will be relevant and be at the cutting edge.”

“MORE LEGAL INNOVATORS”

He said Singapore needs “more legal innovators who can craft creative solutions to multi-faceted challenges, especially with IT and Artificial Intelligence disruption transforming all aspects of human endeavour”.

“Legal education today is fit for our present needs but may be inadequate for future challenges,” he said, adding that the country could do with a more diverse group of law students, thinkers and practitioners.

Associate Professor Tan said most of Singapore’s lawyers come from a similar background, going through the route of A Levels or International Baccalaureate.

However, applicants should include non-traditional backgrounds such as polytechnics and ITE and also those who already have undergraduate degrees in other disciplines, he said.

“The aptitude for law should not be seen as only the preserve of those who decided at 18 years of age that they would like to read law,” said Assoc Prof Tan, explaining his view that law should be a graduate degree.

Having lawyers from more diverse educational backgrounds would enable them to better appreciate an issue not just from the legal perspective, and to offer more rounded solutions, he opined.

“Law cannot be a mono-discipline; it needs to embrace other disciplines,” said Assoc Prof Tan. “The more varied the practitioners and teachers of law are, the better law and the legal professions can meet the demands and expectations and engage in innovative problem-solving.”

Law Society president Gregory Vijayendran told CNA “we can do better” as a community to reduce “the steep learning curve for law undergrads to acquire practice-oriented skills”, while the Ministry of Law said it has held detailed discussions with more than 300 lawyers on the future of legal services.

Education Minister Ong Ye Kung said in a Facebook post that the Ministry of Education shares the Chief Justice’s views that undergraduate courses must have more diverse curriculum elements, and more pathways for entry into the profession.

This content was originally published here.

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