Law grads hit the barriers

The dream of becoming a lawyer helped her persevere through law school’s tough curriculum.

Miss Meryl (not her real name), with her eyes set on a future in the legal industry, has been applying to as many law firms as she could for the past year. She started doing so even before graduating.

But she might now have to shelve that dream.

The 24-year-old fresh graduate told The New Paper that all her applications were unsuccessful.

Miss Meryl, who graduated from the UK’s University of Bristol in June, said: “I can only keep searching and if I find a training contract, then it is an opportunity to train.

“But if I don’t, I will need to tread another path.”

She has been unemployed since graduation, but she is not alone.

Law school graduates are finding it hard to land a training contract these days, resulting in what some are calling an “oversupply” of new lawyers.

Like the other law graduates and students we spoke to for this story, Miss Meryl declined to be identified as she was afraid that speaking out about her situation might jeopardise her chances at landing a job.

Training contracts, which typically last for six months, are an entry requirement to the Bar.

Some law students are awarded these contracts when they apply for jobs at law firms after graduation, while others receive one during an internship.

Another recent law graduate, who wanted to be known only as Mr Lim, said: “There just are not many jobs for us to go around. The number of law students keeps on increasing but the number of training contracts does not.”

In the last five years, the number of new lawyers who have been called to the Bar has almost doubled.

In 2011, 257 law graduates were called to the Bar. During this year’s Mass Call, which was held late last month, the number was 509.

At the event, Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon said this oversupply meant that of the 650 fresh law graduates here last year, around 100 did not receive training contracts.

Some firms retain only about one-third or half of their original intake of trainees, he added.

This challenge in securing training contracts – and consequentially, jobs in the legal industry – has prompted some law graduates to tweak their plans.

One such graduate is Mr Dennis, who declined to reveal his full name.

Mr Dennis, who graduated from the National University of Singapore (NUS) with a law degree last year, waited nearly 14 months before he was offered a job “with the right prospects and in the right company”.

He turned to yoga, which he has been practising for eight years, in the meantime.

He said: “I worked as a yoga teacher for about 11 months because I needed to survive.


“Even then, I sent out a good 20 applications but none returned with a positive offer. The only one or two firms I heard from could not offer me a decent salary.”

Not everyone will be as lucky as Mr Dennis, and the fear of not securing training contracts has prompted many law students to take up multiple internships.

A second-year NUS law student, who declined to be named, said: “I will be applying to as many firms as I can during the holidays.”

But he added that there is a limit to how many internships one can go through. “It is only feasible to do two or three internships as it usually lasts four weeks.”

In a bid to solve the problem, it was announced at the Mass Call that a new committee will be set up to review the system by which new lawyers start their careers.

The committee will examine how law firms offer training contracts to fresh law graduates, make decisions to retain them, and later nurture them.

But it might be too late for Miss Meryl, who said she is getting increasingly discouraged by her failure to land a training contract.

“If I fail to do so, then I will have to choose an alternative path.”

Law graduates should be more flexible: Experts

The issue of law graduates being unable to find jobs is a multifaceted one, according to experts.

Some believe that it might boil down to the graduates being “selective”.

Mr Rajan Supramaniam, managing director at Hilborne Law LLC, told The New Paper: “It is not that there are no jobs available, it is just that some of them preferably want an area of their interest.”

Mr Rajan, who has been in the law industry for more than 16 years, says there are always jobs available for graduates, but only if they manage their expectations.

“In some cases, graduates have their own criteria,” says Mr Rajan.

“Generally – if they are free and easy, if they are not selective – they should be able to find a place.”

Head lawyer at Gloria James-Civetta, Miss Gloria James, urges new lawyers to “exercise patience”.

The legal industry specialist, who has more than 20 years of experience, says: “Show that you are willing to learn even if it means taking a pay cut.”

In 2014, Law Minister K. Shanmugam highlighted the possibility of an excess of lawyers as more students pursued a law degree both here and overseas.

Last year, the Ministry of Law cut the number of recognised British law schools to 11, from 19.

Some saw this as a step to help ease the oversupply.


Singapore Management University law don Eugene Tan said that while overseas schools have been a “contributing factor” to the increase in the number of lawyers, the issue is more than about where a degree comes from.

He said: “It is no more about earning a law degree in hard times, but more about showing what one has learnt from the opportunities of pursuing a law degree.”

When asked about the overseas schools, Miss James said: “It is all fair in love and war, so this should not be a stumbling block or an excuse.”

A slower economic growth is also seen as a cause for the oversupply of lawyers.

“People are careful on costings – they are watching their purse,” said Miss James.

“It is only natural for such reactions when the market is bad.”

But Prof Tan said that “it is not all doom and gloom.”

He told TNP: “There will be upturns as well. Even with the economy slowing down and work for law firms declining, it is also about gritting one’s teeth and making sure that one is ready to ride the upturn when it arrives.”

Mr Rajan said: “At this point of time, the economy is bad. Business environment is bad and graduates needs to be a bit more practical in their job hunting.”

To him, the way forward is to continually put in effort to land a job and gain experience first.

“There are always options. Do attachments, internships, look at temporary jobs. Learn first, even if the offer is not attractive,” he advised.

“Even if they do not get a job immediately, do not get disheartened.

“They can all secure a place – it is just a matter of time.”

This article was first published on September 26, 2016.
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