Practice Opportunities, Practice Structures, Practice Management and Standards
When I stood here last year and spoke of seismic changes ahead, I did not anticipate that events of such gravity and enormity would occur in these past twelve months.
Singaporeans, as citizens of a great trading and financial centre, already grappling with the onset of the deepest recession we have faced in the past 35 years, were shocked and angered by the terrible blow struck to the heart of America’s great financial centre, New York.
These indeed are times of economic crises. Times of crises demand greater leadership, and a re-doubling of efforts to prepare for the future. That our members will rise to the challenges ahead is my fervent belief. But the Law Society has an important role in helping them do so.
The Law Society is committed, firstly, to helping our members respond to the present difficulties faced by them, and secondly, and perhaps even more importantly, to giving our members the tools, structures and procedures to make the profession in Singapore even more outward-looking, competitive and effective.
To this end, the Law Society has defined as its primary strategy this year, the identification and promotion of polices to help members adapt and respond to the rapidly changing demands of the local, regional and global economic environments.
It is time for our lawyers, having dipped their toes in the tide of globalisation, to take the plunge.
It is important that members see for themselves the advantages of change and adaptation. It is important that the profession knows where it is going, and as far as possible, takes the lead.
The Law Society must play the key role in mobilising the resources of its members, brainstorming solutions and providing a bridge, not just to the Judiciary, the Attorney-General’s Chambers and to the various other legal institutions within Singapore but also to members of foreign legal professions, whether their work brings them to our shores or not.
Of course, the Law Society will not overlook the immediate needs and welfare of its members in deep waters in these difficult times: the programmes of counselling, welfare and continuing professional development will be pursued with renewed vigour.
Nonetheless in this Address I shall focus on outlining the strategic initiatives that are aimed at leading the profession into the future.
The legal profession can and should grow by seizing opportunities to provide competitive and effective services, not just locally but regionally and internationally. To do so, the profession needs first to have the choice of suitable and effective vehicles for the practice of law and related disciplines as well as methods and procedures to achieve consistently high standards. Three strategic areas have been identified for emphasis this year:
Practice management and standards
In terms of practice opportunities, the focus is two-fold: local and foreign. A number of law firms have bravely ventured into regional markets, some operating principally from the safe haven of Singapore but others setting up outposts in Malaysia, Vietnam, China, Myanmar and Hong Kong. With the securing of Free Trade Agreements with nations beyond the immediate region, there are now opportunities for our lawyers to spread their wings and take flight to those nations as well.
Given the size and rapid development of China, it is a market that cannot be neglected. The Law Society will look into ways in which assistance can be sought from appropriate government agencies to help lawyers compete overseas. I must confess that we have begun talks with our institutions here, and I have had discussions with my counterparts in China.
Locally, the profession has benefited from the greater integration of foreign lawyers into local practices that has followed from the introduction of joint law ventures and formal law alliances. Our young lawyers today have obtained, and can obtain training and exposure in London, New York or Silicon Valley, through the joint venture partners of their Singapore firms. This means they need no longer cut their ties with our profession as have many of our best and brightest young lawyers, who in the past decade have sought employment directly in New York or London.
However, there is scope, in my view for greater integration. Through associate membership of foreign lawyers in the Law Society, brought about by the recent amendments to the Legal Profession Act, the Society shall aim to bring together foreign and local lawyers, and to tap the skills, expertise and knowledge of the foreign lawyers: this can only bode well for the profession.
At the same time, each of us in the profession, whether in practice or otherwise, should market and promote Singapore as a centre for diverse modes of dispute resolution. If every lawyer drawing up a commercial contract (be it a construction contract or documents involving admiralty, intellectual property, mergers and acquisitions, cross-border transactions, e-commerce or cyber laws) can forward Singapore as the choice of forum, whether through our Courts or our arbitration or mediation centres, and have Singapore law as the choice of applicable law, it will help attract more work for our members, strengthen our economy, and give Singapore greater recognition as an international legal hub in Asia, if not the world. This is more so given the expense and efforts gone into setting up and maintaining such world-class facilities here.
One issue which requires careful thought and deliberation is the extent to which ethical restrictions that have evolved in older contexts remain relevant today. Over the past decade, for example, our publicity rules have been eased. The profession has shown its maturity in the way it has responded: with advertising that is in general, tasteful, informative and in keeping with the dignity of the Bar. But there may be other areas which require re-visiting.
To this end, the Council of the Law Society will establish an ad-hoc committee to undertake a critical re-examination of all our ethical rules in order to develop a strategy to improve and expand business opportunities for our members. One possible example is a Separate Business Code for the legal profession, as in England. This will enable lawyers to diversify and provide a more complete service to their clients.
Nonetheless, the core values of the profession must remain paramount. Giving lawyers a freer rein to identify and exploit business opportunities must not translate into a licence for unethical or dishonourable conduct: those who do that will be named and shamed if found culpable by our disciplinary process. Perhaps the most valuable capital that the legal profession has is the trust reposed in it by the public. The pursuit of law is both a noble and honourable profession. This must never be diminished.
This last concern was among those members who ventilated at the recent extraordinary general meeting held to consider a real estate scheme put forward by a section of the Society’s membership. This scheme is seen particularly by conveyancers as a means to improve the service given to clients, by combining the broking and the advisory function, subject to safeguards.
Encouragement can be drawn from this episode: first, members showed interest and enthusiasm in engaging with an issue affecting their practice, and secondly, the profession demonstrated its prudence and circumspection. In accordance with the wishes of members expressed at the extraordinary general meeting, Council will be examining further the merits of the scheme in order to determine whether it, or some variant, is truly in the best interests of not just the profession, but the public as well.
In the same vein, the Law Society will be pursuing the question of multi-disciplinary practices further. This is a question that has been under consideration by previous Councils for a number of years, and I hope to see it realised sometime this year, after consideration of the provisions in models currently existing in other jurisdictions, in particular the New South Wales Legal Profession Act. The current economic climate is in fact a reason for acting if this will benefit clients and the profession.
The second key area I want to touch on is that of practice structures. In recent years, the introduction of group law practices and then corporatisation has given lawyers greater choice in how to structure their practices. The Law Society has identified two particular emphases for the coming year. First, to revive interest in the specific benefits of group law practices and in particular their utility in sharing overheads, not just in the office, but in terms of marketing, including the possibility of limiting cooperation to a particular area of practice or region. Some Australian firms which compete locally, cooperate globally. Secondly, new models of practice require study and consideration, such as Limited Liability Partnerships.
Third is the issue of practice standards and quality control. The Law Society has been examining the introduction of voluntary standards of practice so as to enhance the quality of services offered to clients, improve the management of the law practice, and the morale and motivation of its staff.
The model which has been chosen by the Council and for which the Law Society is currently negotiating a licensing fee is the Lexcel quality assurance standard developed by The Law Society of England and Wales. It is designed especially for law practices and covers six areas: management structure; services and forward planning; financial management; managing people; office administration; and case management (including client-care and risk management).
Once a practice is certified to Lexcel, that firm or corporation and its clients will know that procedures needed to deliver consistent client care and service are in place and are understood and applied throughout the practice.
Most of us – if not all of us – can concede that these are difficult and challenging times. But the Singapore legal profession, like Singapore itself, is resourceful and capable of adapting, and growing. The Law Society will seek to facilitate and assist in this adaptation and growth.
I am confident, too, that The Law Society will play a full and involved part in the legal industry as a whole, and in working with and assisting the various branches and institutions of the legal and judicial systems: the Judiciary, the Ministry of Law, the Attorney-General’s Chambers, the Legal Service, the Academy of Law, the Board of Legal Education, and the Faculty of Law. We shall seek to act as a bridge between our members and each of these branches or institutions.
On this note, and on behalf of the Members of the Bar, I renew our pledge to Your Honour, The Chief Justice, of the full support of the Law Society to the Judiciary in the administration of justice.
I wish you, too, Chief Justice, Judges of Appeal, Judges and Judicial Commissioners of the Supreme Court, the Attorney-General, all my Members, and all foreign lawyers here in our practices, or in the offshore legal services sector, in-house Counsel, and all those in the enterprise and study of law, and to all present here, continuing good health and a fruitful and effective year ahead.