CJ to young lawyers: Take up litigation

Straits Times, May 21, 2006

Expressing concern over falling numbers, he urges more newbies to stand up in court to argue cases

By Elena Chong

MANY young lawyers do not want to stand up in court and argue a case, a cause of concern for the legal profession in recent years. Yesterday, the new Chief Justice weighed in, telling his audience of 202 lawyers admitted to the Bar, to consider litigation as their choice of practice. 

Litigation lawyers perform an essential role to protect the rights of clients in civil cases and defending those charged with crimes.

‘In a legal world where the successful corporate lawyer is admired for his business acumen, it is the successful court lawyer who is held in awe for his forensic skills,’ said CJ Chan Sek Keong.

The infusion of new lawyers brings the strength of the Bar from 3,212 to 3,414, which CJ Chan described as a ‘welcome increase’ given the profession’s high attrition rate.

Young lawyers will be well sought after by the big law firms here, international firms and multinational firms looking for corporate counsel, he added.

But the thrust of his speech was on bumping up the number of lawyers doing litigation.

Last year, 325 lawyers did not renew their practising certificates, with many citing the stress of meeting court deadlines and the heavy workload as reasons.

A survey of 236 law students in the National University of Singapore in December last year showed that half chose practices in banking, corporate finance and securities, where the work is mainly advisory and involved documentation services.

Only 10 per cent opted for litigation.

CJ Chan conceded that the perception that litigation was stressful could have turned off young lawyers.

Then, there was also the anxiety they felt about speaking up in court and being pitted against more experienced lawyers.

‘However, you should take heart in the knowledge that a great litigator is not born but made, that effort and dedication to the craft will be rewarded.’

This is the second time the CJ has referred to the lawyers’ flight from litigation. In his first speech as CJ last month, he assured young lawyers that they ‘should not feel stressed and should have no fear of being stressed’ when they appear before him and other judges.

Senior Counsel Philip Jeyaretnam, president of the Law Society, told The Sunday Times that the CJ’s speech was an important signal to young lawyers that they should consider litigation seriously, and that it is possible to make a good long-term career in litigation.

‘Some stress and pressure is always part of the litigation game but the CJ’s assurance is that the Bench will help to make the atmosphere of the courtroom a civil and courteous one.’

The chairman of law firm KhattarWong, Mr Abdul Rashid Ghani, was optimistic that things will change because of the new CJ’s own personality, style and his encouragement to a lot of younger people to go into the litigation Bar.

‘It is also a lot to do with perception. Everybody looks at dollars and cents. I do corporate work, I get more money. I do litigation work, so much stress plus the money is not as good,’ he added.

Senior Counsel Davinder Singh, of Drew and Napier, said many young lawyers see corporate work as a stepping stone to practising overseas.

In firms where they have a mixture of corporate and litigation practices, those doing corporate work see that the litigators have to prepare for ‘examinations’ every time there is a trial.

‘So you decide what your level of stress is. How you decide your level of anxiety depends on you – how well you want to perform in the exam.’

Still, Mr Singh described litigation work as ‘highly rewarding’.

‘The sense of satisfaction is immense and the afterglow is something very hard to find in any other area of practice,’ he added.



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