SINGAPORE — Besides being the top legal minds in Singapore, lawyers should be appointed to the role of senior counsel if they are able to create workplaces free of harassment and bullying, mentor and nurture young lawyers and teach in their free time.
These are some of the suggestions that legal experts and lawyers told TODAY, in light of recent changes to the criteria for the appointment of senior counsel announced by Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon at the opening of the legal year on Jan 8.
He said the selection committee for senior counsel will now place greater emphasis on an applicant’s work that has “tangibly contributed” to the development of Singapore law and the legal profession. No new senior counsel were appointed this year.
Up until now, the appointment of senior counsel has largely been based on a lawyer’s experience and competence.
There are 98 senior counsel in Singapore. They are considered an elite group, deemed to possess top-tier advocacy skills, professional integrity and legal knowledge.
Senior counsel who are conferred with the title are also considered a rank above other legal advocates in the courts and tribunals in Singapore.
NURTURING THE NEXT GENERATION
While Chief Justice Menon did not elaborate on what exactly will be counted as “tangible contributions” to the development of Singapore law and the legal profession, experts weighed in with their views on what should matter.
For a start, associate professor of law from Singapore Management University Eugene Tan said future senior counsel need to be more than just top-rate advocates.
“Put simply, the title is less for individualistic achievements but increasingly for what one does for the profession, the legal industry and the development of Singapore law,” said associate professor Tan.
“Our leading lawyers can’t be navel-gazing and indulgent on personal achievements. To be clear, personal achievements are important but given their abilities and skills, those can be applied for the larger good,” he added
Key to this, added constitutional lawyer Benjamin Joshua Ong, would be whether the individual is looked up to by younger lawyers who have worked with them.
“We could consider whether the lawyer has played an active leadership role in creating a healthy work environment that is free from harassment and bullying, and whether he or she has created meaningful opportunities for junior colleagues to develop their skills,” he said.
RHTLaw Asia of counsel Alexander Woon agreed, noting that the legal profession is known for its “gruelling and tough working conditions”, especially for younger lawyers.
A lawyer’s ability to mentor, nurture and treat others with respect should be strongly considered in a senior counsel appointment, he said, adding that this would be in line with Chief Justice Menon’s call for better mentorship and training.
In his speech at the opening of the legal year on Jan 8, the Chief Justice noted that the legal practice was diminishing in its attractiveness as a profession, saying that a part of this may be down to a lack of community and mentorship.
Outside of the courtroom and office, Professor Leslie Chew, the dean of the School of Law at the Singapore University of Social Sciences, said he would expect future senior counsel to contribute by teaching either formally or informally, as well as influence good values in the profession through personal example.
“They can also contribute towards pro bono cases as well as provide guidance to younger lawyers who seek help when they encounter professional difficulties,” he added.
Ultimately, future senior counsel should practice the law in such a manner that makes the younger generation aspire to be like them, said commercial lawyer and managing director of Silvester Legal Mr Walter Silvester.
“I think the most important addition to the refined criteria is the phrase ‘dignity, decorum and ability to inspire others’. This is what the profession needs. This is what the younger lawyers need,” he said.
RECOGNISING DOMESTIC LAW EXPERTS
Many existing senior counsel have international law expertise, but members of the legal community said lawyers who focus on domestic work should not be disadvantaged.
Mr Silvester said that even though it is good for Singapore to have senior counsel with international experience, appointments should not be limited to such lawyers.
“I hope the refined criteria does not mean that only lawyers who practice international law are appointed, as there are many good lawyers who don’t have an international practice who would merit consideration,” he said.
Agreeing, Mr Woon of RHTLaw Asia said because the Singapore legal sector is small and growth is often sought from international business, a potential problem could arise in which domestic law gets neglected from too much focus on appointing senior counsel who excel in international law.
“Domestic law may not be as glamourous or lucrative but it is nonetheless important because it involves the rights and liabilities of everyday Singaporeans,” he said.
“Community law, like criminal law and family law, remain important for ordinary people, and we ought to recognise lawyers who contribute substantially to these fields,” said Mr Woon.
In announcing the changes to the criteria for senior counsel appointments, Chief Justice Menon had said that as the appointment opens the door to many opportunities, including the practice of advocacy at international fora, the refined criteria will go towards ensuring that appointed senior counsel compare favourably with their international counterparts.
In response to TODAY’s queries, the Law Society of Singapore said this is critical to maintaining and developing Singapore’s stature as a legal hub.
“The benchmarking of senior counsel with their international counterparts acknowledges the reality that Singapore lawyers operate in a globalised legal profession with international and foreign counterparts,” it said.
Agreeing, counsel Melvin Loh from Peter Loh Chambers said the refinements to the criteria are timely and understandable, given the privilege and opportunities senior counsel are given access to.
“International counterparts are appointed in a stringent fashion and therefore revisiting our own criteria to ensure uniformity would ensure that senior counsels are given similar recognition and standing on the international stage,” he said.