The President of The Law Society of Singapore
May it please Your Honours, Chief Justice, Judges of Appeal and Judges of the Supreme Court
1. As the New Year begins, the storm clouds that gathered in the last months of the old year threaten to drench or to drown members of the Bar in 2003. For conveyancing lawyers, the abolition of scale fees and the stagnant property market have deepened their anxiety for the year ahead. For corporate lawyers, the deteriorating regional and international investment climate has sent those who ventured boldly overseas scurrying for shelter. Litigation lawyers too are not spared: costs pressures faced by clients must lead to declining fees, for all but a select few.
2. The competition that our members face is not just within the profession. Many traditional types of work have become commoditised. Quality and service are valued less. Non-lawyers who are ready to deliver simpler service at cheaper cost have made substantial inroads. At the other end of the profession, the new Free Trade Agreement with the United States seems likely to accelerate the entry of more foreign law firms. We have seen many of our best and brightest young lawyers forsake the local profession for the attractions of an international practice, based in London or New York.
3. But, even in the worst weather, the profession must persevere. Thankfully, we are not without strengths. And over the years we have built resilience. Our members have legal and language skills that are equal to any in the world. We have the drive and the determination to remain relevant and competitive.
4. Over the past five years The Law Society has taken steps to facilitate efficient practice and remove unnecessary barriers that faced our members faced. One step was the introduction of Group Law Practices. These enable small firms to come together to share costs. We have continued to brainstorm ideas that may make practice easier or more effective. It is true that we must not jettison our ethical moorings. We must not forget that the ideals of the profession keep lawyers afloat in troubled seas. But we can and we should re-evaluate every rule and restriction to test whether it fulfills a genuine purpose, or heads off some real mischief.
5. One restriction that has remained is the requirement that a lawyer applying for a practising certificate must be attached to a law firm or a law corporation. Unlike the medical profession, we have no tradition of locums - free lancers who move from one clinic to another depending on where there is demand for his or her services.
6. Many good lawyers have left the profession. Some have found well-paying jobs as in-house counsel. Others have moved into completely different businesses altogether. But there are quite a number who have ceased practice because of family or other obligations, but who would happily lend their expertise to firms for particular transactions or for short periods of time if they are allowed to do so.
It is a waste of legal skills for them to go unused. And lack of use leads to atrophy. After a few years it becomes impossible to re-enter the profession. And this is thea loss ofto our Nation.
8. The Law Society is proposing the introduction of a scheme that would allow lawyers to hold practising certificates without the need to be attached to any particular law practice. Lawyers holding such practicing certificates will not be able to directly offer their services to clients, but they can be engaged by law firms or law corporations to do so. During such time they will act as members of their employer firm. We believe that this scheme has many benefits.
9. First, it will encourage part-timers to return to practice
There is a large pool of qualified lawyers who do not practise because they cannot go into full-time work (such as mothers with young children) or because they wish to have a less stressful lifestyle (such as senior experienced practitioners). These two groups of lawyers are among the many who may be encouraged to return to practice because the scheme would allow them flexibility to adjust their time according to their needs.
10. Secondly, the scheme would promote specialisation
A lawyer who wishes to specialise in any particular field cannot do so unless he works in a law practice that provides constant flow of that kind of work. With a de-linked practising certificate, he can provide specialist services to a number of law firms- which have the kind of work that he specialises in. A de-linked system creates opportunities for specialisation. Such specialisation can be both in the areas of litigation as well as non-litigation work.
11. Third, the scheme would improve manpower allocation.
Firms would appreciate the flexibility of being able to put together temporary teams to deal with particular projects or an unexpected upsurge in work. They would be able to draw specialised talent as and when they have business in that area. At present, a firm must decide whether it can afford a long-term commitment to each lawyer it recruits. Short-term hires are not practical, because the lawyer must then apply for a practicing certificate as an employee of the firm. A small law practice need not stay away from a major project because of costs and manpower constraints. The specialised team engaged to service the project can always be dismantled at the end of the project. The scheme gives the law practice flexibility in managing its manpower resources.
12. Finally, we believe that lawyers holding de-linked practising certificates will be able to provide locum service to small firms
Small firm practitioners, especially sole proprietors have to endure unnecessary stress when they have to continue to service clients at the time when they are physically unable to do so, such as
▪ when they are sick
▪ when they are away from the country
▪ when they are attending to other matters in other courts or other places.
A lawyer holding a de-linked practicing certificate will be able to provide locum service in these situations. Guidelines will have to be drawn up to ensure that the quality of the service to the client is maintained.
13. We firmly believe that the de-linked scheme will benefit the legal profession without jeopardizing its integrity and its values. We will work together with the relevant authorities to seek their blessings to this scheme. We hope that 2003 will bring about the implementation of this change.
14. We at The Law Society intend to continue considering and assessing new ideas as well as refining old ideas. To help us in this task we intend to improve our communication with all practitioners and to proactively market our services to them. In particular we will do so by holding regular frank and open dialogue sessions with different segments of the profession – with the managing partners of larger firms and with sole-proprietors and partners in small firms, with senior practitioners and with the younger ones. We have started our new dinner series for young lawyers, called Generation X, aimed at giving young lawyers the opportunity to interact with and learn from the senior members of the legal fraternity. We also hope to work closely with the Courts, the Attorney-General’s Chambers and the Ministry of Law to bring about positive changes in the legal industry.
15. I now on behalf of the Members of the Bar, renew our pledge to Your Honour, the Chief Justice that we will give full support to the Judiciary in the administration of justice.
I wish you, too Chief Justice, Judges of Appeal and Judges of the Supreme Court, the Attorney-General, all Members of the Law Society, and all other members of the legal fraternity, in the legal and judicial service, at our institutions of learning and at foreign law firms, and to all present here, continuing good health and may 2003 be a better year for all of us.