The figure was revealed by Law Society president Lok Vi Ming in his speech at the opening of the legal year on Friday. Providing an overview of the current state of affairs in the legal fraternity, he said there are now more than 4,500 local lawyers practising in Singapore, after the number of lawyers here exceeded the 4,000-mark for the first time in 2012.
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Here's an excerpt from the President of the Law Society:
Your Honour, I noted last year the growing numbers within the ranks of both local and foreign lawyers. The number of lawyers is still on the uptrend. In 2012, the number of local lawyers holding practising certificates exceeded 4,000 for the first time (4,238 as at Dec 2012). As at 2 Dec 2013, this figure swelled to 4,549.
The distribution of local lawyers by firm size makes an interesting point. The number of lawyers in small sized practices (1 to 5 lawyers) is 1,272 spread over 707 firms; in medium sized practices (6-30) there are 1,306 lawyers in 117 firms and in large practices (more than 30 lawyers) a total of 1,971 in 18 firms. The 18 largest local firms account for 43% of the total number of local lawyers in Singapore.
A clear trend has yet to emerge as to whether more lawyers are turning to big law firms or preferring practice in smaller firms. But an interesting feature to note is the fact that today only 5 large local practices have about 200 or more fee earners and lawyers, a few between 50 to about 80 lawyers but just one within the banding comprising 100- 200 lawyers and fee earners. Local firms appear to hit a wall when they get close to 100 lawyers and this lends weight to the suggestion that the uncertainties of carrying the cost of a very large practice and perhaps the challenges posed by the international firms are most keenly felt by local firms at this size.
An interesting trend is also discerned in the distribution of lawyers according to seniority. As at October 2013, 1,697 local lawyers are in the Junior category (lawyers with less than 7 years PQE); only 386 are from the middle category (between 7 years and 12 years PQE) and the majority (more than the junior and middle categories combined) of 2,466 are from the senior category (lawyers with more than 12 years PQE).
The striking feature is of course the low number of practitioners in the middle category. Although this is the smallest category in terms of the years covered, the 5 years within this category would still have generated a graduating total of between 1,250 to 1,400 lawyers who started practice (assuming 250 to 280 lawyers per graduating class). The figure of 386 represents about 25% of the said 5 year graduating total which means that by the 1st decade of practice, 3 out of every 4 lawyers would have opted to leave practice.
In light of the current strength of our economy which started its recovery in early 2005, it is likely that the majority of the practitioners in this category (who joined the profession between 2002 and 2006) probably decided to leave in the good years which suggests that they left the profession as other career options in other industries became available with the improvement of the economy.
It is difficult to discern the one predominant reason why lawyers left in huge numbers in the 1st decade of their practice - it may be due to the aggressiveness of practice, may be the lure of greener pastures elsewhere, or may be a combination of both. We are also aware of the attractiveness of our members to other professions and industries. Whatever the reason, we want to do what we can to stem the exodus of lawyers from this vulnerable segment of our profession. If the local bar is to grow in strength, we must be able to retain more of our best and brightest young lawyers and they must be convinced that a challenging, meaningful and satisfying career in private practice is neither a pipedream nor an option that holds true only for the short term.
The Society will consider carrying out a survey to better understand the concerns, hopes and aspirations of members not just of the middle category, but profession wide. We will give this greater thought and discussion and when the survey is finally launched, we hope that members will support it and participate in good numbers.
Latest figures show that there are just slightly more than 1,300 foreign qualified lawyers in Singapore today, compared to 4,600 lawyers with Singapore practising certificates; meaning that almost one in every 4 lawyers practising law in Singapore is foreign qualified. This is a significant percentage and given Singapore's strategic position in the region's economy and our well deserved reputation as an arbitration venue of choice, the numbers of foreign lawyers can be expected to continue to grow.
Last year, I appealed to foreign law firms "to lock hands with local lawyers, not in competition, but in co operation and integration". Your Honour, whilst I am happy that a number of foreign firms did in fact step up on their direct contributions to the Society's pro bono efforts; some joined in sports and helped us clinch the Judges' Cup and some attended the Society's fund raising Dinner & Dance and supported the event as table sponsors; more can be done.
1,300 foreign lawyers practicing law in about 114 foreign firms here is a significant force when unleashed to do public good. That force can be a powerful catalyst to galvanise local lawyers to a more spirited response to the community's needs. Greater integration of our foreign brethren to the legal community will lead to greater interaction with the local bar for the community's benefit. Foreign law firms have a more established exposure to pro bono community legal service compared to the more nascent involvement of local law firms in this area. However, local law firms are more familiar with the community's needs, and if we combine the best of both, our pro bono efforts will be given an important overall catalytic boost.
My Council will also consult with both local as well as foreign lawyers to enhance integration to go beyond pro bono and sporting events. We should explore integration over a wider practice platform. We will consider how to make the existing nonpractitioner membership category find greater subscription by foreign lawyers. In this regard, we will also consider the possibility of setting up a foreign lawyers/foreign law firms committee at the Society. This will facilitate direct and greater access for foreign firms to the leadership of the Society, its plans and activities for the profession.