May 26, 2007

Mr Wang's Inbox - On Studying Law

A reader, SY Wong, writes:
Hi Mr Wang,

I first stumbled onto your blog when the ministerial pay rise was getting lots of attention from the public and the media. Your views were always a refreshing change from the usual stuff in the papers, and I've taken to reading your blog regularly. I noticed that you were a lawyer, and so hoped that you could shed some light on my questions.

I completed my 'A' Levels last year, and I have applied to read Law at NUS. Recently, I received the acceptance letter, and was naturally very happy. However, after all the excitement died down, I actually had some doubts over whether I could even survive law school.

In secondary school, I took Literature, and had an 'okay-hate'relationship with it. In JC, I disliked General Paper and my subject combination was Physics, Chemistry, Mathematics and Further Mathematics - one that was widely regarded as being at the extreme end of the Science stream.

By all accounts, it does seem that my academic inclinations does not quite click with law. I'm used to math/science, in which 1+1=2, and can never be 5 or 8. Conversely, with law, there's seldom a black and white answer, often with the gray area having varying shades even. It is considered by some of my friends to be quite an "artsy" subject.

It did not help that the people whom I know are going to law school, are so different from me in terms of yes, academic inclinations. Yet,I still believe that I AM interested in the study of law.

So my question is this: Based on what I've told you, do you think that I'm even suited (having passed the interview and test aside) to reading law? And could I even survive it?

Oh, you will survive it. At NUS, Law is very easy to pass, but very difficult to excel in. To give you an idea of what I mean, for your average Law subject at NUS, the pass rate could be more than 95%, but the percentage of students who score an A could be less than 5%. A very large majority of students would simply score a C.

Your A-level subject combination is not at all uncommon for law students. In fact, I took the same combination. The majority of law students in NUS would usually be Science students during their JC days.

You can broadly classify Law subjects into two groups. There is the "hard law" category, and the "soft law" category. The "soft law" subjects are more "artsy". The "hard law" subjects are more "science". At NUS law school, there will be a compulsory core syllabus, but beyond that, you can choose your own electives ("hard law", or "soft law", or a mix).

To expand on your analogy, the "hard law" subjects are the 1+1=2 subjects. The required answers can be quite exact. Your formulae comes in the form of legislation and case law. Your problem comes in the form of a long, detailed story about, say, a husband and wife who want to divorce, or three robbers who try to rob a bank. You are then required to apply the legal formulae to the situation and work out the legal consequences.

The answers are quite exact, because you take the facts to be exactly as they are given, and you apply the law exactly as it is. Working on these sorts of questions is more like solving a physics question than writing a literature essay. It's just that in physics, your story will take, for example, the form of a ball that is thrown out from a high building and starts falling towards the ground, and your formulae will be Newton's Laws, not Parliament's Laws.

The "soft law" subjects are the ones which ask you to think more about what the law should be, rather than it is. Or they may delve into the histories of different legal systems in different countries. Or they may explore the areas where the law intersects with other disciplines, such as political science, sociology or public policy. These are the "artsy" law subjects.


Ned Stark said...

Mr Wang,

As a matter of curiosity, for hard law courses, the part which will determine the A from a B from A C would be the part where the person makes an analysis?

Mr Wang Says So said...

Frankly, I don't really know. Generally you can hand up a very good set of answers and still get a B.

Anyway, if you score straight B's in NUS law school, that will be sufficient to be on the Dean's List.

Quite often there will be exams where no student gets an A at all.

jonathan said...

Mr Wang,

I got accepted into Law too. I'm now seriously playing around with the idea of devoting myself to it, but having read your latest post, in which you mentioned the very long working hours and the incompatibility of a law career at a top law firm with having kids, i'm kind of reconsidering. but i think i'd enjoy law, at least because general paper was my favourite subject in school, even though i took triple science.

Oh, if I do decide that I want to get into the magic circle, or at least a top law firm, what should I do during law school other than study very hard? do they look for CCAs? or law internships? I'm seriously wondering how I'm gonna join CCAs anyway. the bukit timah campus doesn't seem conducive to sports =P, and it'd probably be overkill to have to travel to and fro the main NUS campus.

and is it easier for lawyers to get into parliament? quite a few lawyers entered parliament in the last election. has anyone come to your law firm when you were there to actually recruit people?

jonathan said...

and i'm not considering working in the UK - i'm referring to the Singaporean magic circle :P

Anonymous said...

Mr Wang,

Who says 1 + 1 = 2?

1 + 1 = 10 Get your facts right ;-)

Tan Ah Kow

Anonymous said...

Ok my last posting was meant to be a humourous take at the way so-call science/engineering or "Hard" subjects are often portrayed.

As a once former Engineering reseach fellow, and now a professional stock traders, life-long law, economics and politics student, I have often find it somewhat naive how many of my Singaporean compatriots often compartmentalise their views of the world, particularly, in academic fields.

I suppose, this view is largely formed by the way subjects such as Maths and Science are taught in Singapore, even at University and, shockingly, at post-graduate level. During my short stint of teaching in the University (I won't name which one), I found that students are often spoon fed with facts but very attention is paid to explaining the context behind facts.

For example, in your article, you quoted the person, who wrote to you:

"I'm used to math/science, in which 1+1=2, and can never be 5 or 8."

I suppose the statement is symptomatic of the kind of attitude found with Singaporean students. When the professor says : 1+1=2 it must be so.

I remember doing a test of at my Singaporean University, where I would asked "under what condition would Newton's law not apply?" I got black stare. When I posed the same question, to my students back at the UK, I notice at least a semblance of understanding that Newton "law" is not universal, and is not applicable when dealing with very small particles or in some cases fluid or Brownian motions.

Interstingly, when I was back in Singapore, I took time off to attend Law Lectures and it has to be said seemed to be taught not dissimilar to so-called science are taught. In other, very fact based. Compared to when I attended an introductory bar course in the UK, I notice an entirely different approach. I suppose that is why, the legal system in Singapore is the way it is - devoid of context.

Oh by the way, in the UK you don't need a law degree to be a lawyer. In fact, any degree will do as long as you can pass your bar.

Anyway, Mr Wang do you know why 1 + 1 = 10?

Tan Ah Kow

Euterpe said...

Mr. Wang, think the days when there are exams where no student gets an A are over. During my time, which is quite a few years back, we'll get one A at least per module.... usually it is the same few pple who will get it, but still ...

Anonymous said...

yes, as a student in nus law, i can verify that the days where no one gets an A is over. Having said that, these days only the top 10% or so of the students taking a certain elective will get an A. It's still relatively difficult to score but there is definitely a trend towards awarding better grades especially with the pressures of a spanking new law school in town. No law school would want to put their own students down.

Mr Wang Says So said...

Yes, Ah Kow, 1 + 1 = 10 if you're binary, not decimal.

Mr Wang Says So said...

And as I understand it, Newton's Laws break down at both ends of the spectrum -

very small particles

as well as very huge masses travelling at high speed.

I like the really quirky physics stuff too, like Fred Alan Wolf. Although I suspect you might consider mad, rather than scientific.

Anonymous said...

Bravo Mr Wang!

Anyway, the point I am trying to make is not a test of intelligence as such. Rather to demonstrate the "Science" can be wishy washy and artsy too. In fact, real Science is as artsy and say Law. The problem is that in Singapore, the way students are taught, the impression is given that Science is so black and white.

The key point is all about context. Just like, Law. When you try to apply so-called Scientific Law, you must know under what parameters, is a given law appropriate. Just like legal law. Take for example, a legal case. If person "A" shoots and kills another person "B". Is "A" therefore guilty of murder?

The answer is no. That's because of you need to apply test of mens rea and actus rea.

Likewise with the Scientific Newton 's Law. You must know when the law is applicable or not. As in legal cases, you can apply experimental methods (equivalent to actus rea) and mathematical methods (equivalent to mens rea, to determine the validity of Newton's law.

Sadly, I have notice that this is often not taught in Singapore schools and very shockingly, even at post graduate level, people are still spoon-fed. So it's no wonder how people can get such a warp impression of science.

Tan Ah Kow

Anonymous said...

One more similarity of legal practices and scientific discovery in places other than in Singapore.

In other countries, lawyers constantly test the limits of laws by bringing in test cases. Likewise too in scientific field; where scientist try to find ways to overcome the limitations of "scientific" laws to bring new discoveries.

In Singapore, lawyers spent times advising why things cannot be done because it is "against the law". Hey even defence lawyers spent time determine the innocence of client instead of how to challenge the prosecutor. As for "science" experts in Singapore, they spent time telling people what something can't be done because it would goes against "scientific" logic. Or making sure students get the "right" answer. No wonder a we can't get a Nobel price winner from Singapore.

So clearly it is something to do with the education system.

Anonymous said...

To anonymous May 28, 2007 5:00 AM:

yeah, and you have a Law School more concern about NOT giving A grade than making sure they are producing good lawyers. No wonder the kind of lawyers produced are so crap and kia si.

Maybe that's why so many end up working in the financial services ;-)

Anonymous said...

I'm a very recent graduate of NUS law and was placed on the dean's list before. I think the distinction between hard and soft subjects is misleading. All subjects have both hard and soft aspects, and a good academic paper is one that deals with both. On a separate note, the grading system has been relaxed, or perhaps you could think of it as grade inflation, so there are definitely As in every module, and straight Bs are insufficient to get you on the Dean's list.

In response to jonathan's comment, excelling in GP is quite different from excelling in law. You will need a different set of skills and answering techniques. So being good in GP is good in the sense that you can at least make sense. In law school, you need to make legal sense, and that means writing your answers in a certain way.

Also, for goodness sake, there is no local magic circle. I had a good laugh when you mentioned that. You don't need to do anything to get into the "local magic circle" other than get a 2 -1. It's really easy.

Anonymous said...

Mr Wang,

I am a current applicant for both SMU and NUS's law schools. Was just wondering about your perspective on both schools as a practising/ex-practising lawyer - which do you think is better? Heard SMU is more hands-on and americanised, while NUS is more traditional and gives you a better foundation. Your take?

Thank you.

A pre-university student