As the global recruitment market for lawyers heats up, Singaporean law firms are the losers.
The country’s lawyers are heading overseas, just like many of their compatriots in other professions like nursing and IT.
“Over the last six to eight months there’s been a strong trend of Singaporean lawyers being offered jobs in Hong Kong or London,” said head of the private practice team at Taylor Root’s Hong Kong office, Ed O’Brien.
“Singaporeans have good experience and Mandarin language skills, so if they have corporate or financial backgrounds they’re very attractive to Hong Kong firms.”
Singaporean corporate lawyers are also flocking to Shanghai and Beijing, said O’Brien. And the tightness of the London market means that Singaporeans, with their very transferable skills, are in hot demand.
For their part, the lawyers can get instant international experience, not to mention higher wages. “The salary differential with Hong Kong and London is quite large,” said O’Brien. “They can double their salaries in either market.”
In Australia, it is much-lamented that a large percentage of law graduates leave the profession or go overseas within only a few years of being admitted to practice. But they’re generally replaced by ambitious young blood. In Singapore, the lawyers’ fraternity has been bleeding members since 2001.
The number of practising lawyers rose steadily through the nineties until 2001, at which point it started to drop markedly. That year, nearly 10 per cent (335 of over 3,500 lawyers) of the Singapore Bar left practice. The subsequent five years saw an ever-more delineated trend.
Statistics from the Law Society of Singapore show that, as of May this year, there were 137 fewer lawyers than there were on 31 March last year — marking the third year of decline in a row.
This year, 315 lawyers did not renew their practising certificates. To practise Singaporean law, lawyers need to renew the certificates every year. Joining foreign firms or companies as in-house counsel means you don’t need to.
Fewer new people have been admitted each year, despite attractive starting salaries in Singapore of $42,000 to $68,000 in top local firms, well above the average wage of $35,000.
Singapore’s Law Society president Philip Jeyaretnam said that lawyers joining foreign law firms and multinational companies as in-house counsel is a challenge for the profession.
Jeyaretnam lamented that few Singaporean lawyers did pro bono work or criminal or family law, preferring to aim for the high-flying corporate practices.