So You Want To Be A Lawyer

Having the opportunity to get a recognised degree is one thing, making the grade is something else. As many aspiring legal eagles have discovered, the road to an external law degree is a demanding one. By Jerry Gomez

You're comfortably ensconced in your ergonomically-designed executive chair. You work in one of the most prestigious. firms in the country and the plaque on your door says 'Head, you but. there's this gnawing feeling that you might have made one heck of a lawyer if the opportunity had risen. Well, it's still not too late. Plenty of professionals and aspiring lawyers who have had no other way of fulfilling their ambition have always found refuge in the University of London's (UOL) External Degree programme. The institution has been providing an avenue for professional and other academic qualifications for over 150 years to those who have had no other means of obtaining a degree.

Although UOL offers the avenue, the key reason for its appeal has been in its insistence through the years that the standard by which it assesses students who prepare for the exams at the University and those who do it externally is exactly the same. UOL publicises widely that there is no such thing as an external degree and this is the fact that really draws thousands of students in Singapore to sit for the various levels of the university's External Law Examination each year, be it the Intermediate, Part 1 or Part- 2 papers of the Final. They do it confidently believing that the qualification recognised both locally and internationally as a bona fide law degree.Says K Chettiar, lecturer at Singapore's largest private law school, the Singapore Institute of Commerce's (SIC) John Winfield School of Law, "Sure, students know that it will be tough hav ing to study on their own or with the help of tutors at the various private schools before having to sit for exams set and marked by examin- ers about whose standards they haven't the faintest idea. But they do it knowing that if they make it, the degree that they get is as good as that held by internal students.

However, having the opportunity to get a recognised degree is one thing, making the grade. is something else. All those who do so are exceptional. Living on a diet of discipline and perseverance, they are those who have the en- durance required to pursue such a lengthy course.

Unlike undergraduates, who would have had their work cut out for them by lecturers who teach them, while directing them to the "important" areas, and setting and marking their exams, the external student has to study areas prescribed in the extensive LLB (Hons) syllabus intensively, and in most cases by themselves. Other external students, however, rest their hope with lecturers at private schools like the SIC to direct them to important areas. There are several private schools in Singapore. But most are rather small institutions when compared to the currently, most popular private law school here-SIC According to some of the students there, the choice of SIC is basically because of the facilities available and more importantly because the lecturers' style is exam-oriented. Lecturers here emphasise on what is relevant for exam purposes.

"This is especially helpful for those with very little time to spare," Raymond Teo, 28, student at SIC, "I have to have my work cut out for me if at all I want to stand a chance of making it. I don't mind if it means paying more for it."

SIC charges part-time students an average of $2,600 a year as fees for lectures and tutorials three times a week and an intensive revision schedule closer to the exams. Despite charging one of the highest fees, the school which occupies the former premises of the Middle Road Clinic has a total enrolment of about 2,000students. K Chettiar explains that the fees are necessary as good lecturers and facilities, which in- clude a library, study rooms, airconditioned lecture halls, a book- shop and a cafeteria, don't come cheap.

But all this alone cannot get you the LLB (Hons). No matter how much the student pays, he cannot hope to substi tute it for the necessary amount of work that must be put in to make it in the exams.

Says Teo, "This is the most difficult part of the whole thing. As a private student, you don't have peer pressure to push you on or fierce lecturers to keep you on your toes in and out of class. Self motivation is the only way to survive.

"Then there is the problem of other commitments competing for priority. Thus it is the student who manages to strike a right balance between all this who will stand a chance of passing the course."

Austin Pereira, administrative man- ager at Stamford College which has a sizable number of law undergraduates,

"Thus it is the student

who manages to strike a right balance...who will stand a chance of passingthe course."

agrees with Teo and says that because of what the external student has to go through, more is seen in the qualifica- tion via the external programme than the internal one.

Because of this, some go as far as to say that lawyers who pass the LLB as external students are special and that employers thus are bent towards these tireless lawyers, ostensibly showing preference for them..

Others, however, are quick to differ. They say undergraduates like those in the National University of Singapore (NUS) are the creme de la creme of each year's crop of students. Thus, they are not only basically bright students who have been consistently performing well; they are also students who have had to. compete to out-perform each other for the best grades. Thus, employers snap up the local graduates first and only then start to look to the better external graduates.

Says Adrian Tan, 27, a locally trained lawyer. "Just using the LLB alone as a yardstick may be too simplistic a meas- ure. Though it can be said that in the balance of probability, local graduates could be expected to perform better,- some external students have one clear advantage because of work experience and this is an important fact affecting the performance of lawyer."

Raymond Teo's view is that local graduates will find it difficult to match up to external students who had done the course late in life because the latter face the course not as freshmen but as mature students who have had work experience and perhaps, and more im- portantly, real-life experiences as to how the law works and what it really is all about

The issue that bothers most external students, however, is the prospects of practising law in Singapore once they make the grade. Many are bothered by the belief that the market for lawyers here is on the verge of saturation. Press reports point out that last year alone, there were some 2,000 students who sat for their bar finals. If all these students decide to practise, then there will cer tainly be an oversupply of lawyers. But fortunately, the report assures, not all decide to practise. Many use the LLB as a stepping stone, or if you like, a pass- port to a better job or promotion.

Some of the more prominent figures who have moved further up in lite via the external degree include HE Mr VK Rajan, the former Chief of Protocol at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and now the Singapore High Commissioner to New Zealand. Then there is the oft- cited name in the dailies when it comes to defence in criminal cases, Leo Fernando. And there's also the journal- ist turned lawyer, David Gabriel who still keeps links with his life before law by writing the legal column in various journals.

It takes a minimum of three years to obtain a degree but to become a practis- ing lawyer it takes a total of five years. The LLB (Hons) is only a degree and it does not give one the right to practise. For this the graduate has to do his bar finals. This is done at one of the Inns (short for Institution) of Law like Mid- dle Temple, the place where Senior Min- ister Mr Lee Kuan Yew did his finals. Then it's back to Singapore to do the Practising Law Certificate (PLC) which then qualifies you to practise.