UniSim Law School: Why mature students are preferred

UniSim Law School: Why mature students are preferred
Senior Counsel Leslie Chew, dean of UniSIM Law School. He has also served as a Deputy Public Prosecutor, State Counsel and Senior District Judge in the State Courts.
PHOTO: SIM University

UniSIM Law School dean, Senior Counsel Leslie Chew, answers readers' queries on the programme and admission to Singapore's third law school, due to open next year. Mr Chew, a lawyer for 27 years, has also served as a Deputy Public Prosecutor, State Counsel and Senior District Judge in the State Courts.

Q: What specific academic qualifications are needed? National Univerity of Singapore (NUS), for instance, requires A-level holders to have good overall results and at least a B grade in H1 General Paper. Will UniSIM Law School have similar requirements?

A: Two law programmes will be offered - the Bachelor of Laws (Honours) (LLB) direct honours degree, and the Juris Doctor (JD) degree. The minimum requirement for the LLB programme is an A-level certificate, diploma or International Baccalaureate, or their equivalent. For the JD programme, a bachelor's degree is needed.

Students will be selected based not just on academic ability but also aptitude, attitude and interest in the practice of family and criminal law. The majority of places will be offered to mature students with life and work experience and seeking a mid-career switch to law.

For example, a working adult with a diploma and who has worked for some time in related fields such as social work will be given preferred consideration. We will maintain some places for fresh school leavers with A levels or diplomas. While these applicants have no work experience, they must be able to demonstrate a strong interest in criminal and family law.

Q: Besides academic qualifications, UniSIM will look for other attributes. What are these and how will you be able to tell if a student has them?

A: One of the mandates of the UniSIM School of Law is to train lawyers with a heart for the community, and who will eventually practise primarily as criminal and family lawyers. Accordingly, we will give preference to applicants who have a fair amount of work experience in related fields such as social work, law enforcement, and the prison service. Other applicants who can show current involvement in community work connected with criminal and family law will also be given preferred consideration.

All applicants are required to undertake the Law National Aptitude Test (LNAT), a British admission test to assess the aptitude of candidates on the skills required for law. Students also have to provide a personal statement on aspirations.

Shortlisted applicants will be interviewed and attend a boot camp to assess their suitability for the rigorous demands of the programmes.

Q: How will a UniSIM law education be different from law programmes at the other two local universities?

A: The emphasis of UniSIM's law programmes will be on applied learning.

We will use a blended mode with classes conducted in the evenings and weekends as well as through e-learning. Students are expected to be engaged in self-directed learning via our learning materials and online platform, and come to class ready to participate in face-to-face discussions to augment what they have learnt. Our faculty will be drawn mainly from lawyers who have practised law for some time. Many of them will also have experience in training and teaching lawyers.

The curriculum has four components: preparatory courses, compulsory courses, electives and practice-oriented courses. There will be a concentration on criminal law and family law and less emphasis on some academic areas such as jurisprudence. To better prime our graduates, it will be compulsory for students to take relevant non-law subjects such as social services and forensic science.

In the final semester, as an integral part of their programme, both JD and LLB students will undergo a compulsory six-month Legal Clerkship Programme (LCP). The LCP is a differentiating feature of the UniSIM programmes in which students will be placed in real firms to learn and work alongside lawyers. Students will be expected to contribute meaningfully to support lawyers on actual cases by putting their knowledge to practice. The LCP is an important hands-on training programme to prepare students to be competent lawyers, and it is important students commit time to take advantage of and benefit from it.

Q: It has been reported that UniSIM Law School will take in both fresh school leavers and mature students. Will the course be run full time for fresh school leavers and part time in the evenings for mature students? Or only as a part-time course?

A: The UniSIM law programmes are full-load programmes with lectures delivered in the evenings and weekends, but with flexibility to enable various speeds of progression. This is applicable to all students.

Q: I am in my mid-20s and have a BA degree. I am considering doing the JD programme offered by UniSIM Law School as I am interested in criminal law but my concern is if I will be pigeonholed into doing just that.

A: The UniSIM programmes will produce full-fledged qualified law graduates. The programmes will cover the core subjects found in any equivalent three-year law degree in the United Kingdom, for example. UniSIM law graduates will be "qualified persons" under the Legal Profession Act, eligible to sit Part B of the Bar Examinations for admission into the legal profession in Singapore.

Once admitted as an advocate and solicitor of the Supreme Court of Singapore, a member of the Bar is free to practise in any area of law. However, the UniSIM School of Law seeks to admit students with a view to them practising criminal law and family law. Accordingly, we aim to admit such students through our admission requirements.

Q: I am interested in switching to a career as a family lawyer, but I do worry if UniSIM Law School will be seen to be second rate compared to the NUS and SMU law schools as these take in top A-level students.

A: We expect our graduates will be viewed favourably by the industry and society. UniSIM law graduates will have the same core body of knowledge of law as other law graduates. Having gone through our applied curriculum, our graduates will have the advantage of being able to "hit the ground running" when they enter the legal profession. Our graduates will have training in criminal law and family law, and will be attractive to practices needing such lawyers.

Q: Will UniSIM law students be required to go through practical law courses to be admitted to the Bar? Or can they forgo that since the degree programmes at UniSIM Law School also include a six-month LCP?

A: The LCP is a unique and compulsory component of the UniSIM law programmes. The six-month training contract is separate and a requirement for all law graduates seeking admission to the Singapore Bar. Further, all law graduates seeking to enter the legal profession in Singapore are required under the law to attend the courses comprised in and sit Part B of the Bar Examinations. This is run by the Singapore Institute of Legal Education.

Q: Will UniSIM law grads need to hold at least a lower second degree to be permitted to qualify for legal practice in Singapore?

A: Yes. In UniSIM, the degree equivalent to a lower second honours would be a 3.5 grade point average.

Q: I had heard about how difficult it is for law undergrads to get training contracts with law firms. Will UniSIM students be able to get training contracts? If the going gets tough, will the school be able to help?

A: Training contracts are typically a matter between a graduate and the law firm. Universities do not get involved with these contracts, and they are a matter for the market.

However, for the UniSIM LCP which is compulsory, we are looking to collaborate with relevant private and public sector agencies such as the Law Society and the Legal Aid Bureau as well as suitable and interested law firms, to provide our students the opportunity to work with practitioners and State Counsel on actual cases. Through the LCP, our students are also likely to be exposed to future employers.

Q: It is well and good that UniSIM wants to take in mature students. But will law firms be willing to take into account their experience in their past jobs, say as a social worker, and pay them more when hiring them? Or will they pay them the same salaries as fresh law graduates?

A: Remuneration is a matter for the market to determine. However, it is not uncommon for law firms to hire newly qualified lawyers who have relevant work experience, at slightly higher levels of remuneration.

One of the mandates of the UniSIM School of Law is to train lawyers with a heart for the community, and who will eventually practise primarily as criminal and family lawyers. Accordingly, we will give preference to applicants who have a fair amount of work experience in related fields such as social work, law enforcement, and the prison service.

This article was first published on March 14, 2016.
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