More options to deal with errant lawyers

Mr Thio Shen Yi takes the helm at the Law Society at a time of significant change in the legal landscape.

Law Society president-elect Thio Shen Yi wants wider disciplinary powers for its governing council to deal with errant lawyers.

This is among a slew of plans on his agenda when he helms the society from next year, taking over from the incumbent, Senior Counsel Lok Vi Ming.

Moves to focus on young lawyers, boost pro bono work and keep legal costs down for the average Singaporean can also be expected during his term, said Mr Thio, who is a Senior Counsel.

He will be taking over as president at a time of significant change and challenges in the legal landscape, such as the opening up of the Asian legal market and the advent of the Singapore International Commercial Court (SICC).

The professional conduct of foreign lawyers will also be regulated by the Law Society after recent amendments to the Legal Profession Act. Previously, foreign lawyers were registered with the Attorney-General's Chambers.

Mr Thio, 46, made it clear that such developments place "significantly more responsibilities" on the Law Society.

Referring to lawyer misconduct, he said he wanted to make the disciplinary process fairer and "tailor the punishment to fit the crime".

"Right now we can warn, reprimand or fine but I would like the council to have the power to tell a lawyer, 'Look, you have done wrong, I want you to attend three hours of ethics classes and three hours of being counselled by a senior lawyer'."

Mr Thio, currently the joint head of TSMP Law Corporation, grew the firm from one with just seven lawyers to 60 today.

He believes his experience gives him an understanding of the challenges faced by small firms, and urged them to move into areas that show potential for growth, including community law.

"They should consider moving out of sunset areas, such as basic conveyancing and accident work, which can be commoditised and churned out without significant lawyer involvement," he said.

"Then identify and move into sunrise industries like criminal or family law.

"It is simple math - a growing population means more crimes and more divorces."

The society will help small firms identify industry trends and build up relevant skills.

"Small law firms are indispensable. The proper functioning of the rule of law requires them. You can have a world-class legal and judicial system but if the man in the street has no access to justice, there is no genuine rule of law."

The setting up of the SICC to help Singapore become Asia's top international dispute resolution centre could see more foreign lawyers set up shop here.

But Mr Thio stressed that any increase will be "gradual, not exponential", and even then could be a boon to local firms.

He pointed out that some 15 years ago, "we commercial litigators feared that foreign firms would eat us for breakfast and take the arbitration work".

"That hasn't happened. Many of us can go head to head with foreign firms in international arbitration and it's not a zero-sum game. It has been win-win so far as the cross-border arbitration pie has grown significantly and local lawyers get a big piece of it.

"It is entirely in Singapore's interests to have strong law firms, whether big, medium or small."

Asked why he took on the job of Law Society president, once described as "the least enviable job in the legal profession", he said:

"One cannot take away without giving back. A meritocratic society requires those who have benefited from the system to make things better for everybody else.

"The legal profession stands on the cusp of exciting times, we have visionary leadership in the Chief Justice, Attorney-General and Law Ministry. The Law Society has to pull its weight."

This article was first published on Nov 22, 2014. Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to for more stories.