Jan 26, 2007

The Problems of Law

From a long time ago, I have been inclined to disbelieve the government. This is a good thing. Today I am earning quite a lot of money, much more than the average Singaporean. And this was made possible, because I had disbelieved the government.

Why do I say this? Let me explain. Back in the early 90s, the government proclaimed that there were too many lawyers in Singapore. The government said that there was a legal glut, a serious problem of oversupply. Young Singaporeans were discouraged from studying law.

Since I disbelieved the government, I decided to study law anyway. As it subsequently turned out, Singapore suffered from a
severe shortage of lawyers. The shortage continues today, and the law of supply and demand keeps my salary high.

Of course, the issues are multi-faceted, so let's now proceed to take a closer look:

    ST Jan 25, 2007
    Law firms move to keep young legal eagles
    By Ben Nadarajan

    AT THE recent opening of the new legal year, Attorney-General Chao Hick Tin drew attention to the problem of Singapore's vanishing young lawyers.

    He referred to the number who drop out of practice each year, and said it might be an 'early sign of an ailing profession'.

    Law Society data bear out his concern. The number of young lawyers - with under seven years' experience - has shrunk by over a third in the last five years.

    There were only 1,004 young lawyers in practice last year, down from 1,537 in 2001.

    This should be seen against the steady flow of 240 graduates from the National University of Singapore each year, plus more who qualify overseas.

    The young lawyers' category is the only one bleeding, causing the overall industry shortage and raising worries for the future.

    Singapore has a total of 3,476 lawyers handling over 350,000 cases a year.

    The issue of young lawyers quitting practice is not new. What is of concern now is the sheer number missing from action.

    Those who quit usually leave in their third or fourth year of practice, opting to become in-house counsel in big companies or to work in foreign law firms.

    Some quit law completely, including those who never intended to make it a career and viewed their training and experience as stepping stones to other less stressful, more lucrative jobs.

    Those who have quit say pay and career path issues are a factor.

    The shortage of young lawyers has seen starting pay rise, with big firms said to be paying between $4,000 and $5,000 for new hires.
AG Chao thinks that Singapore's vanishing young lawyers represent a "problem". Whose problem is it, then?

To AG Chao, "young lawyers quitting practice" means the young lawyers who give up their practising certificate and stop working in a local law firm. Where do these lawyers go? Most of them end up working either in international law firms or as in-house counsel in large companies.

So it's all up to the young lawyers. If they want to stay in local practice, they can stay. If they want to quit, they can quit. They will consider all the relevant factors and decide. If they conclude that the best decision for them is to quit local practice, then obviously it can't be a problem for them to quit local practice.

Whose problem is it then?

I vaguely recall the ex-AG Chan Sek Keong saying something to the effect that the loss of practising lawyers is worrying because the business sector in Singapore would have fewer lawyers to rely on. This is a somewhat mistaken view. Ex-AG Chan probably made that mistake because he's never been in the business sector. He doesn't actually have any first-hand insight into how lawyers operate in the business sector.

If 200 practising lawyers in Singapore quit to work as in-house lawyers in Singapore, there is no net loss of lawyers. The same 200 lawyers are still providing legal services to the economy. The transformation of practising lawyers into inhouse lawyers does not deprive the economy of legal services. In fact, many MNCs have such a big need for in-house legal services that their in-house legal team is larger than the average law firm in Singapore.

So when young lawyers quit practice, it's not a problem for the economy. Whose problem is it then? This next excerpt gives you a clue:

    Courts and clients aside, young lawyers complain about long hours and fulfilling an 'unwritten expectation' that they must slog for long hours to prove their worth.

    The problem is said to be worst for those in small- or medium-sized firms, which take in only a handful of fresh graduates each year.

    Each young lawyer may have to do grunt work like research and filing for up to five senior lawyers, all of whom expect their assignments to take priority.

    'Every partner says his work is more important and to do it first,' said a 25-year-old in a mid-sized firm. 'But other partners also set tight deadlines, so we end up working seven days a week.'
Surprise. The problem of young lawyers quitting is actually a problem only for the senior lawyers (the firm's partners).

When all the young lawyers quit, guess who has to do the grunt work himself and work seven days a week? The senior partner.

When all the young lawyers quit, guess who loses his money-making workhorses? The senior partner.

Should the senior partner care, when young lawyers quit? Yes, of course.

But should the young lawyers care? Nope. Not at all. No logical reason to do so, as far as I can see.


soulburnz said...

And in big law firm, you should see how incredibly young lawyers can push jobs to support staffs which ended up sleepless nights, and a total mess in personal life.

Come to think of it, my impression is that the majority of people who became lawyers probably came from above-average or I would dare to say rich family.

Who-the-hell in the right mind would want to have the day started having reprimanded for drafts did wrongly on the previous day by partners, the stress faced in courtroom and probably criticism by unreasonable clients for being inexperience (and that's why they are junior lawyers what!)?

nofearSingapore said...

Hi Mr Wang,
Lucky man, you!
We doctors won't be lucky for long!
Khaw Boon Wan is going to flood S'pore with doctors soon!


Anonymous said...

actually if u look around singapore there are many ah seng ah beng who didn't believe the gahmen, couldn't do well in school, but they are all earning a decent living being their own bosses of all kinds of small businesses, not rich but doing well enough in the dual economy.

Anonymous said...

I think I can emphathise with young lawyers' plight.

The same goes for many other professionals, such as the architects, engineers, where the juniors slog their way and prepare all the necessary groundwork to make life much easier for the seniors.

It's just a matter of whether the juniors are equally rewarded or being taken advantage of. In time, the juniors will become the seniors and the whole cycle is repeated. This is the reality of life!

Anonymous said...

More home truths, Mr Wang? Please keep them coming!

Anonymous said...

Dear Mr Wang,

OK about the lawyers, well put. But your first line describes everything - disbelieving the government. Most of us believe our government too much. Good that you have the foresight to disbelieve in the early part of your life. Same cannot be said to those follow their words blindly.

The question is how are we going to tell the rest of the believers that they have been misinformed.



Ex-believer said...

Non-believer at January 27, 2007 2:40 PM: "The question is how are we going to tell the rest of the believers that they have been misinformed."

Sad to say, I was one of those gullible ones. Even when I had reliable friends who tried to clear the wool over my eyes many years ago. It didn't help that when one meets even more cynics who disbelieved for the sake of disbelieving without supporting arguments.

Years later, through personal experience and those of other ex-believer friends, finally the wool over my eyes dissolved by itself. Boy, was I surprised to find overwhelming online resources with well-agrued reasons for disbelief. Mr Wang's and Yawning Bread site are some of the better ones.

Converted. A little late but better late than never.

Anonymous said...

Mr Wang, what're your views on the recent Nigerian hangings? Gayle's being accused on her blog for getting the facts wrong. Would you be able to offer a better insight as a lawyer?

Anonymous said...

In the early 90s, I have a NS friend who insisted on getting into LAW even though he was not accepted on first try. He subsequently got in on second try.

Oversupply or not, it was an ego trip when you are in the law faculty or medicine faculty. Most would not think too much about future earnings because at that point of time, you still think that you could earn alot.

Would you rather be an engineer that earn less or a Lawyer that earn less?

I supposed the ego took over.

Mr Wang Says So said...

Actually, around the same time, the government said that salaries of lawyers would dip and engineers would in fact be the hot stuff.

You probably do not recall this, but Lee Kuan Yew, in an interview then, said that if he were 18 years old, he would choose to study engineering, not law.

This was how aggressively the government was promoting engineering then; and separately, how aggressively they were discouraging people from studying law.

Approximately as aggressively as they were encouraging people to head into IT, in the mid to late 1990s, and as aggressively as they were encouraging peopleto head into "life sciences" just a few years ago.

Anonymous said...

Dear Mr Wang,

I was one of those who jumped into biotech (before it was renamed "Life sciences)" BEFORE the gov started championing it as the next "pillar".

The hots then were civil building & IT...
Civil building didn't even made it passed my NS, my friends in that field ORD'ed to find a barren landscape of hostile & dangerous work conditions, long hours & ever looming deadlines. The Nicoll highway collapse more or less sounded the collapse of my friends resolves & they both joined the civil service ("Home Team").

Needless to say, IT was just as bad, with friends whom still saw it as a money-maker after NS, & "invested" more time & money in a degree overseas, only to come back to a giant bubble that burst...

Alas...it seems that it is now my turn to face the music as Biopolis goes down the drain & A*Star's captain hopped off the sinking ship to save his rep...
Polytechnics are churning out so many "life sciences" grads that they're actually SPECIALIZING in fields that years ago weren't even heard of.
I fear for these new chaps as almost all the retiring senior citizens in the field had already been replaced by relatively young people like myself.
These new chaps are almost condemned to a life of being at the bottom of the middle management, doing the grunt work & getting the heat from the upper management.
No luck of trying to go to the private sectors either, unlike those young lawyers...
Its like whatever the gov touches is doomed to eventual failure due to oversupply...

Non-believer said...

Dear Mr Wang,

Ah, the wise words of Mr Lee Kuan Yew. We only have to believe how it really turned out for him and NOT imagine how he would have been.

"You probably do not recall this, but Lee Kuan Yew, in an interview then, said that if he were 18 years old, he would choose to study engineering, not law."

By the way, we do not have a lot of engineering guys in the upper echelon of the government.

Anonymous said...

So... does this mean bad news for applicants to medical school?

Anonymous said...

If I have to live my life all over again, I will follow my passions, and definitely not the government's.

mb said...

My father also didn't believe the gahmen when they said TWO IS ENOUGH. He went ahead and had a third kid, despite the heavy penalties on our family and stares from strangers at coffee shops when his three-kid family had meals in the Eighties.

Who is right now?

moomooman said...

I remember during the early days when everyone wanted to take up triple E.

During the late 90s and early this decade, most of them were suffering in job stability though some lucky or unlucky fellows were given retrenchment benefits.

However, some of them now are doing very well.

I supposed when you are in a particular industry, you go thru the up and down, and the government's encouragement or initiatives is good at point of encouragement. Afterall, all statistics are based on historial values.

moomooman said...


Based on your example. Now that the governemnt is encouraging us to have more babies, Do you think we should listen to them? Please advise. This will affect the sales of Durex.

Anonymous said...

I was in perhaps the smallest batch NUS Law School has ever seen in recent memory. Together with the Dip Sing people who came in during the final year, there were less than 200 of us law students.

Within two years of us being called to the bar and practising, about a third left the profession. Either moving in-house, becoming a kindergarten teacher (I kid you not) or just took off and work in HK or Japan.

The main reasons for this, as far as the people I have spoken to, are the inhumane hours, the thankless 'grunt work' and the impossible court deadlines (for those in litigation).

The problems as you have rightly pointed out are multi-faceted. But a recurring theme ran throughout, that is, "No amount of money can buy your life". Sure we were paid shit loads of money, but we were also chained to the office 7 days a week, working up to 16 hours a day.

I was one of those who left the profession. Sure it meant a pay cut, but I have never regretted it.

Ex-believer said...

anonymous at January 29, 2007 2:27 PM: But a recurring theme ran throughout, that is, "No amount of money can buy your life". Sure we were paid shit loads of money, but we were also chained to the office 7 days a week, working up to 16 hours a day.

Same story on work-hours over on IT side... except that pay is depressed by the flood of foreign "talents", some so talented that their resume has to be written by others ;-)

I finally left the profession recently. Pushing 40s, one wakes up to find friends pass-on suddenly, never taking the holidays that they plan OR doing stuff they dream of. Guess at some point, life takes precedence over more material trappings. Hope no regrets :-P

Anthony said...

There's so much to write here I don't even know where to begin.

I think that Mr Wang has pretty much hit the nail on the head. It is top-down exploitation.

However, it's pretty much top-down explotation regardless of where you practice law. I know that the US isn't that much better with its management of junior lawyers.

I can only think of two real differences between Singapore and these other countries (i) a free market "float" of legal salaries and (ii) a developed legal labour market.

thecatman said...

This is not directed towards any comments or the blog entry in particular, but just the mindsets of many Singaporeans with regards to such issues....

Honestly, I think it's ridiculous for us to blame someone else for our own 'bad' or 'wrong' career decisions.

One role of the government - any government - is to set the economic directions for the country. Sure, this government over-manages, shifts its directions every few years, and mistakes are made. But ultimately, we decide ourselves what we want to pursue. We can always choose to do something else, and NOT what is the 'hot' industry that the government claims at that given moment.

It's like buying an iPod cos everyone hypes about it and without thoroughly evaluating it against your own needs. Then finding out later that it doesn't have a FM function, so you blame Apple and your friends for your own decision.

Do we end up choosing a course of study for the glamour and to be with the 'in' crowd? I guarantee you many choose law for that reason.

Do we choose a career path just because we hear others saying it brings in the so-called big bucks? Medicine, engineering, biomed all being perfect examples. I am sure we know many around us who decided to go into these options purely because they heard it's potentially big money.

Or do we pursue something that is our passion, a path that we ourselves believe in, regardless of what the government says?

I think it's time S'poreans stop whining and bitching about these things. We have every right to believe, disbelieve and even disagree with the government's directions and push into different industries. We can blog about why we disagree and why we feel the government might be wrong, but, really, the decision is all the individual's.

We are no longer living in the 60s or 70s when basic survival dictates our decisions, so let's have some brains.

Anthony said...


I think the problem is deeper than an issue of anyone in particular blaming the government for their life choices.

The problem with Singapore politics is that the incumbents have effectively reduced it to a simple equation: "He who is most infallible, wins."

The problem here is that no one, not even the incumbents are actually infallible. Mr Wang has provided several examples of in this blog.

The incumbents are bound by their own rules - they must be infallible or they lose power. I think this explanation goes a long way to why the incumbents make so much effort to be -seen- to be infallible.

Unfortunately, the reality is that they are only making themselves look silly in the process, and people gripe when they see such silliness. I don't think they are actually griping about the policies in particular. What they are griping about is the unspoken hypocrisy of the whole situation. We know that the government makes mistakes. Why the hell not just admit it and move on?

On a side note, I also don't quite agree with how people end up in law school. I think the truth is more complex than a binary "follow your passion versus following what the government wants".

I don't think that many 18 year olds honestly know what to do with their lives. I know I didn't. All I had was a vague notion that I did fairly well in school. Law looked as good as the next best alternative, and would probably pay better.

That's the reason why I think that government propaganda has a lot to play in terms of the decision making process. When you are 18 and have to decide what to do with your life, what else do you make your decision based on? Not everyone has the benefit of knowing exactly what they are passionate about in exclusion to all other possible life paths.

Sure, it's my responsibility, but I'd like my government to take responsibility for their part in it too. Surely that's not too much to ask for?

Mr Wang Says So said...

Anecdotally, if you ask lawyers why they chose to study law, you will get this reply surprisingly often:

"I was bad at maths and afraid of blood".

That is, they knew they couldn't do engineering, accountancy or medicine. By default, they chose law.

Anonymous said...

how about a degree in "art"?

My NS friend was probably just as good in history, English and geography, atlas in those days, Bachelor of Arts seems to be less "glam" as say Law.

Or should I say the prospect of a well-paying job is less obvious.

Anonymous 12.59am

AnEngineer said...

"Needless to say, IT was just as bad, with friends whom still saw it as a money-maker after NS, & "invested" more time & money in a degree overseas, only to come back to a giant bubble that burst..."

Stop blaming the government for lying or giving bad advice. Your friend's problem was that he/she chose to come back to Singapore; NOT that he/she chose to study IT. If you look at the global market for IT/computer professionals, you will realize that there is actually very strong demand out there. Similarly for life sciences professionals. If people would just cast their nets wider, they will realize that the pond may be drying up, but the ocean is still abundant with opportunities.

thecatman said...


The nature of government, and governmental policies, are as such: to 'move' people into sectors, industries, values and belief systems. Every government does it, some are more subtle, others not.

Since we can recognise the incumbent's 'silliness' and failed logic in many of these instances, we should just rely on our own individual judgements, always be skeptical, and ignore it if it must be.

I'm not sure how a government - any government - can take responsibilities for such situations. Like compensate us for our lost time? Bow down and say sorry for their follies in promoting engineering / IT / biomed / etc.? What difference does it really make to anyone? Do we honestly think any government would do that?

The question of whether an 18 year old is old enough to know what he / she wants is always an interesting one. I think to continue using that as an argument in this instance (as well as the issue of 18 yr olds taking up scholarships and regretting later on) is not doing S'poreans any favours.

Why? In most cases, the 18 yr old doesn't make the decisions himself or herself. Often, the family and others around them would have given them the support or the push for or against it. And if we are talking about sectors such as law / IT / engineering / biomed, these potential 18 yr olds aren't exactly idiots with no mind of their own.

In any case, to continue relying on this logic would just play into the hands of those - the incumbents included - who thinks Singaporeans SHOULD continue to be managed and told what to do.

If we can't take responsibilities for our own actions and decisions at age 18, then certainly we shouldn't whine about being handheld by the state. Sure many of us might not really be grown up at 18, but maybe it's time S'poreans have to be more grown up at that age.

Anthony said...


Re Taking Responsibility

Saying "I'm sorry" would be a big start. Not doing it again would be another. What good would it do? Absolutely nothing in this case. However, it would make them a population more inclined to forgive them the next time they inevitably screw up.

Re Government

"The nature of government, and governmental policies, are as such: to 'move' people into sectors, industries, values and belief systems. Every government does it, some are more subtle, others not."

It isn't. The government's job is to govern, not to micromanage. It has no place dictating, encouraging or brainwashing people into going into sectors that it sees as being best for the economy as a whole.

I'd like the government to stop pretending it knows better. I'd like the government to stop making statements from the assumption that it knows better. It doesn't. It should stop trying.

Again, anecdotal, but I really don't recall any such attempted Government programming to micromanage the economy in my year-and-a-bit overseas in the States.

Re Recognizing Silliness

Since we can recognise the incumbent's 'silliness' and failed logic in many of these instances, we should just rely on our own individual judgements, always be skeptical, and ignore it if it must be.

I agree with you on this, but only with the benefit of hindsight. I think you need to recognize that there is a generation of Singaporeans that have grown up with a "Government Knows Best" mentality. I believe that it is this generation these proclamations are targeted at.

I personally refer to this generation as "Mom and Dad".

See, when you are 18, your universe is probably a lot smaller than it is when you are 30. It is extremely likely, if you are Asian, that parents can become very influential in your decision-making process. If your parents are in turn influenced by the government, where does that leave you?

Here's a scenario that would not be entirely unfamiliar to a Singaporean. You do well enough in school to go places but not well enough to get a scholarship. You want to go do a journalism/dance/fine arts degree. Your parents want you to go become a doctor/lawyer/accountant. They refuse to sponsor your education if you don't get a professional degree. What do you do?

I am not assuming anything about 18 year olds. Quite the contrary, I assume that they have their own minds, wills, hopes and dreams. I am also acutely aware of how easily these minds, wills, hopes and dreams can be subverted.

Indecision, easy-going-ness, lack of finances, family influence and peer pressure are factors against the likelihood of your university education being in line with your dreams, assuming you even -have- dreams and a clear idea where you want to go in the first place.

To reiterate, I've got utmost respect for an 18 year old's decision making abilities. In fact, that's exactly the reason why I think the government should just stop this micromanagement nonsense.

Anonymous said...

Agree with Anthony. Look, catman, I applaud your rugged individualism and wish that more of us are like you. But this government discourages individualism in almost all aspects of social life in Singapore (it makes a mantra of it in economic life--but that is just a slogan particularly useful for ending discussions on welfare...in truth state, corporatism rules in economic life). Dissent is not tolerated and individual expression is not permitted except along lines prescribed by the government. The full force of the government (police), the courts (libel and defamation law suits) and the press (an organ of the state like in some fourth world durian republic) is brought to bear. Catherine Lim's treatment at the hands of GCT is often described as a slap on the wrist. How apt. If the government treats its people like children (younger than 18 it feels like), should it not take some responsibility for the outcome? Ought a parent who forced/influenced/moved/suggested/induced his 18-yr old into a course of action really be free from criticism?

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