Huge demand for UniSIM law school despite lawyer glut

SINGAPORE — Despite the glut of lawyers here, Singapore’s third and newest law school at SIM University (UniSIM), which targets mature students and focuses on community law, attracted an overwhelming response for its inaugural admission exercise, with 388 applicants competing for 60 places.

While it said the large number of applications shows a “strong desire among Singaporeans to pursue a legal career”, the Ministry of Law (MinLaw) noted that demand for legal services and lawyers is “market-driven and dependent on the economy and societal needs”.

“Those wishing to study law should therefore enter knowing that competition will be stiff if they wish to pursue a career as a lawyer,” said MinLaw. “This is a point that the ministry has highlighted since 2014 and made relevant statistics available so that students contemplating law programmes can make informed choices.”

The third law school was set up after recommendations from a committee looking into the supply of lawyers noted a shortage of those practising community law, which includes criminal and family law.

MinLaw said that in 2014, around 3,600 lawyers with a valid practising certificate indicated that they practised corporate and commercial law, while around 1,600 of them indicated that they practised family and/or criminal law. Previously, Senior Minister of State for Finance and Law Indranee Rajah had said more community law practitioners are needed to meet the sustained demand, noting that roughly 10 per cent of the pool are over the age of 65.

The overall oversupply of lawyers was flagged by Law Minister K Shanmugam two years ago, when he asked aspiring lawyers to temper their expectations in terms of pay and job opportunities, and that the spurt in the number of Singaporeans reading law overseas could result in an oversupply in the coming years. Last month, Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon raised the issue again in his speech at the Mass Call Ceremony, an annual event organised by the Supreme Court of Singapore for the admission of newly admitted advocates and solicitors to the Singapore Bar. 

He said a committee would be set up to tackle the issue — specifically by reviewing ways in which law firms offer training contracts to fresh law graduates, make decisions to retain them and later nurture them. He also suggested that trainees who are not offered employment contracts could serve as paralegals until their admission to full professional status at a later time.

Applications for UniSIM’s School of Law, which will begin classes in January next year, had opened in March and over 90 per cent of the applicants are working professionals, including paralegals, law enforcement officers, court employees and social workers. 

The university said the majority of the applicants are mature students with an average working experience of 11 years. Twenty-seven applicants have been accepted for the Bachelor of Laws programme, which is meant for students with A-Levels or diploma qualifications. Another 33 have been offered places in the Juris Doctor programme, meant for students who already have a Bachelor’s degree in other disciplines.

The selection process included an interview with a panel of four members to assess the candidates’ commitment to the practice of criminal and family law. UniSIM School of Law dean Leslie Chew said many of the applicants have a “compelling real-life experience that persuaded the interviewers that they are serious about becoming criminal law practitioners and family lawyers”. He added: “They are the kind of students with exactly the right background and disposition that we are looking (for) to meet the increasing social need for such lawyers in Singapore.”

Asked if UniSIM’s intake should be increased given the robust demand, some community law practitioners said a wait-and-see approach should be adopted.

Mr Sunil Sudheesan, who is acting president of the Association of Criminal Lawyers of Singapore, suggested relooking the situation after UniSIM’s first law cohort graduates.

He also pointed out that UniSIM’s law graduates will be trained in other practice areas and may not practise community law exclusively. “You enjoy criminal (law) work … but if it doesn’t pay your bills you may have to do other things (apart from criminal law),” he said.

Ms Christine Low, who practises family and criminal law, said there have been “significantly more enquires” about divorce cases in the past two years, particularly from the expatriate community. “This indicates that the trend of increasing divorce cases is continuing,” she said. “It is therefore likely that more lawyers will be required to meet this demand.”

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