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The Singapore Law Gazette

President’s Message

This one’s for the children. The children of the profession.

As I write this, I am aware of anecdotal feedback and have seen some guesstimates concerning sizable numbers of unretained practice trainees. This year’s narrative is not just about the individual passing the Bar in order to be retained by the supervising solicitor in the law firm offering practice traineeship. It is also brutally realistic about what are the future work pipelines for law firms that can sustain another headcount. The economics of the equation are inescapable. Elsewhere, some junior lawyers are hanging on to their jobs for dear life. Other young lawyers, who are out of a job, are trying desperately to secure a livelihood. All of this employer market perspectives have to be viewed against the broader backdrop of the economic impact on the health of law firms. Some are on existential mode. Sustainability is a live issue. Over and above the slew of measures already rolled out by the Law Society (touched on in announcements made earlier). The Economic Action Council will be calling for a virtual townhall in September on some “low hanging fruit” suggestions on what we can, and will, do to help to better ameliorate the economic health impact of the virus. This is only the start. Subsequent phases will entail a deeper analysis and potential law reform aspects (e.g. on multidisciplinary practices). A survey going out in the near future will poll the profession’s view of innovations to be utilized and perspectives on non-lawyer disruptors. All these issues are delicately and intricately intertwined and complex. My team and I will continue to strive to move the dial as best we can.

In this month’s message, I make a special plea for the children of the profession. Initiatives are afoot on proactively helping unretained practice trainees. I touch on some of that in my separate Mass Call address. But this specific appeal concerns a further upstream pipeline of future talent who are the future of the profession. I am speaking of the law undergrads. Traditionally, law students in Singapore have been very fortunate to have the support of law firms and law institutions in enhancing their learning experiences. In normal times, this has included the privilege of undergoing structured internships or attachments. The same are typically carried out during the May to July timeframe. This would ordinarily prepare them for their training contract applications typically commencing in the July to August timeframe.

In this aberrational year, a number of law firms have not offered and even cancelled internships scheduled for the May/June/July holidays. The “summer” internships have been understandably hit due to the Circuit Breaker and COVID-19 measures. In the immediate wake of COVID-19, law firms and law institutions have had to implement business continuity plans and work-from-home arrangements. For the health and safety of all concerned, this meant that quite understandably, some in-person internships, could not proceed as planned. Such disruption was unavoidable.

We cannot change the past. However, I encourage us as a legal community of law firms and law practices to be intentional to offer “make up” internships or “winter” internships to our law students especially local undergrads hailing from NUS, SMU and SUSS. Experience shows that internships could prove a win-win arrangement. The intern will not be wet behind their ears due to his or her legal knowledge. They could provide valuable legal research to help practitioners on live matters.

Internship experiences also give a valuable opportunity for employers wishing to evaluate prospective trainee applicants as future hires. As a lawyer, you may finally find the padawan that you were looking for! CVs and grades only give a two-dimensional picture of the candidate. There is nothing like an interactive experience to suss out not only credentials and competence but also collaborative skills, cultural fit in the firm and chemistry. It is sometimes the little intangibles that make a world of difference between a potentially positive working relationship and a diametrically opposite experience.

At the same time, it is not a one-way street. The symbiosis comes from the intern gaining valuable mentorship on legal practice. It gives young law students an enriching exposure to real-life legal work. This disabuses some undergrads from a romanticized and unrealistic notion of legal practice. It could also help shape and inform their choices of whether, and if so what area, to practise in eventually. Studies and reports have shown that there is a clear cry by Millennials and Gen Z-ers for mentorship. Internship meets the need for mentorship.

As a legal profession, we have a duty not just to the members of the Bar that came before us. Not just to the present members of the Bar that are with us. But also to future members of the Bar that come after us. Practitioners who paid a building levy for our Law Society premises at an earlier stage of our history deeply understood that ethos. And we are all the better for that forward look which resulted in a tangible benefit: the Law Society’s acquisition of our first premises at 39 South Bridge Road. That exemplar illustrates the future progressive lens for the legal profession that we need to continue to have. As a people profession, our strength is principally in our people. Nurturing the “babies” of the profession is our duty. Yet, as many of us have found, it has also become our joy and privilege. A proven practical outlet for lawyers to give back via hands-on tutelage. 

So whether large, medium or small, firm-wise, let’s open our doors and welcome the next generation even if they are dipping their feet into the pool for only a bit.

How does one practically do this if COVID-19 continues to rear its ugly head even as we head towards year end? The viable, practical alternative: virtual internships. Talk to law firm recruitment partners and law firm practitioners who have offered this to incise into their experience. A number of the larger law firms have shared about their experiences on social media such as Linked In. It is not the lesser proposition. It can be online mini-apprenticeship exposures. I will not pretend, however, that remote internships provide the same experience as in-person internships. But it can be virtually like the real thing. With the proper platform, online attachments can become valuable learning opportunities.

There are exemplars and experiences we can glean from the international law firm community. 

  • PinsentMasons LLP champions its virtual work experience programmes as a way to “try before you buy” a career in law, allowing students to help a hypothetical client of the firm through several different issues covering various practice areas.
  • On 28 May 2020, Linklaters launched a virtual internship experience programme in Hong Kong SAR, the first law firm to do so there. The programme allowed for students and career changers, with an interest in pursuing a legal career in Hong Kong, the opportunity to work for the global law firm through the InsideSherpa virtual platform. The experience programme is gratis and helps participants from any background to gain access to practical skills and experience in the legal profession.1https://www.jumpstartmag.com/linklaters-becomes-the-first-international-law-firm-to-launch-a-virtual-internship-experience-programme-in-hong-kong-sar/ Strikingly, this hands-on programme was not a deployment of virtual reality. Instead, participants receive video instructions from partners and associates as well as resources to support them completing work that reflect the responsibilities of a commercial lawyer during their training contract.
  • On 7 July 2020, Clifford Chance announced that its global virtual internships will be open to students across four continents running in partnership with InsideSherpa and support from the University of York around developing problem-based learning programmes.2https://www.cliffordchance.com/news/news/2020/07/clifford-chance-launches-virtual-legal-internship-programme-acro.html

The innovative use of remote training, service and fulfilment can only complement and enhance our law firm’s capabilities in the long run. It is our firms that become more nimble and agile with this added dimension and development of virtual internships. In my personal view, the optimal solution is a hybrid combination of both actual and virtual facets. In a recent internship I offered, both facets were engaged. My intern attended at our office for a Zoom trial whereas on other occasions, it was a virtual experience. In the virtual facet, you could Zoom in and out to go through research and discuss and check in on learning points, growth and development of the intern. It could be virtually like the real thing.

For law firms keen on remote 2020 internships but who don’t know where to start, based on my dialogue with the Law Schools, they would welcome the opportunity to collaborate. A practical way is by sharing resources to facilitate the assignment and submission of work tasks using secure platforms. If you do not know how to get started, please send an e-mail to our Membership Department at [email protected]. We will help facilitate the necessary link ups with the Law Schools to make this as painless as possible.

Many of you know that the Council of the Law Society probed into a website known as lawmentors.sg in the last quarter. The Council took swift, decisive action. In my statement to the media regarding this incident, I said, “We strongly caution parents and law graduates to be discerning about hungry wolves in sheep’s clothing who seek to prey financially on the vulnerability of law graduates. Such opportunistic operators and disservice providers will face the wrath of the Council of the Law Society and the Society’s right thinking members.” That statement remains the sentiment and the stance of the Council.

Let’s have a heart for the children of the profession. The law undergrads do not have to be the COVID-19 generation or lost generation. Their future lies in our firms … through internships.

Endnotes   [ + ]

President
The Law Society of Singapore