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Two key bars cited in mid-career law switch

Two key bars cited in mid-career law switch

Source: Straits Times
Article Date: 20 Jan 2020
Author: Dominic Low

Law schools urged to tailor courses to suit older grad students' family, financial situations.

Many mid-career individuals who joined the legal industry say law schools should structure their programmes to accommodate family and financial commitments of older graduate students, if they want to attract more of them.

Several who made the switch to law told The Straits Times that school fees and loss of employment income while studying entailed a huge financial commitment, but they persisted because of their interest in the law.

Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon, in a speech earlier this month, suggested having more pathways to the Singapore Bar to draw more mid-career professionals to the legal industry, particularly those from science, technology, engineering and mathematics (Stem) backgrounds. He urged local law schools to create more such pathways.

All three law schools here - the National University of Singapore (NUS), Singapore Management University (SMU) and Singapore University of Social Sciences (SUSS), have graduate programmes. NUS has a three-year LLB programme, while SMU and SUSS offer a Juris Doctor (JD) course each. SMU's course can be done in two to three years, and SUSS' in about four to six years.

Professor Simon Chesterman, dean of NUS' Faculty of Law, said the university plans to launch a new JD degree for people with diverse skills that would be complementary to a career in law.

"We are also reviewing our admission process to see how we can attract those with strong Stem backgrounds to law," he added.

Professor Leslie Chew, dean of SUSS' School of Law, said the school is trying to attract more computer science graduates, given that crime in the future is more likely to be technology-based.

The JD programme at SMU has also seen a growing number of mid-career applicants across the years, said its director, Associate Professor Maartje de Visser.

According to the Law Society of Singapore, the number of lawyers with less than five years' experience increased from 1,821 in 2018 to 2,897 last year. However, the number of mid-tier lawyers with five to 15 years' experience decreased from 1,161 to 1,065 for the same period.

Law firms told ST that having lawyers with backgrounds in other industries adds value to their services because of their familiarity with those fields.

Lawyers and trainees who made the switch said more can be done to help in the transition.

Mr Shane Goh, a trainee, proposed letting mid-career students do law modules one at a time over a few weeks each, instead of taking several modules in one semester.

Mr Goh, 38, who managed his own accounting practice as well as other businesses before he entered the JD programme, said such a move would help those who have to juggle family commitments.

Some suggested compressing graduate law programmes to two years to reduce the income loss.

There is also the challenge of restarting one's career despite having work experience, said Drew & Napier associate director Charles Li.

An auditor before he obtained his JD at SMU, Mr Li said he would probably have made more money if he had remained an accountant.

Still, the past decade as a lawyer has its compensations. "I find myself much less inhibited in my work," he said. "I feel a greater sense of achievement in being able to... address both the legal and commercial problems that people face."


Navy stint helps lawyer to sail smoothly

Mr Daniel Ho took a leap of faith when he left his engineering job at the Republic of Singapore Navy (RSN) to pursue a law degree in 2012.

Today, the 36-year-old is a qualified lawyer in the dispute resolution department of Wong & Leow LLC, which has a joint law venture with Baker McKenzie.

His undergraduate degree was in mechanical engineering from the National University of Singapore.

It was during his stint in the RSN, which he joined after graduating in 2007, that his interest in law was piqued.

As a naval engineering officer, Mr Ho was in charge of managing the annual overhaul programmes for naval vessels.

This required a lot of coordination and negotiations with the various contractors, he recalled.

He also had to deal with issues of delay and defects that arose throughout the overhaul programmes.

"I enjoyed this area of work and did a bit of research," he said.

"I found out that this is what dispute resolution lawyers do on a daily basis."

Mr Ho subsequently studied law at the University of Southampton in the United Kingdom, which offered a compressed graduate law programme of two years.

It helped that he knew what he was interested in practising.

"In order to leverage my previous training and work experience, I was looking to practise as a dispute resolution lawyer specialising either in infrastructure, oil and gas or maritime law," he said.

He currently handles infrastructure, building and construction matters at his firm.

Mr Ho said those who made a mid-career switch would have diverse industry experiences and perspectives that can contribute to the legal profession.

"Ultimately, the law does not operate in a vacuum and is meant to regulate, support and solve problems for people and businesses."

Dominic Low

Source: Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Ltd. Permission required for reproduction.

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