June 17, 2007

Lawyers swamped as home sales soar

Cases have doubled at some law firms, but there's not enough new blood in conveyancing

By Tessa Wong

THE workload for conveyancing lawyers has gone through the roof as the hot property market runs them off their feet.

Cases have more than doubled at some law firms, with no end in sight. But young lawyers are shying away from conveyancing, convinced it is long on boredom and short on glamour and cash. Whatever the truth of that, it is not helping the current crop shift the mountain of work piling up.

Mr Norman Ho of Rodyk & Davidson said his firm has handled 25 collective sales this year compared with just 12 for the whole of last year. 'We've always been busy, but we're definitely a lot busier these days,' he said.

Mr Mark Chua of Tito Isaac and Co gets up to 50 conveyancing cases a month compared with about 20 before. It all adds up to long hours and burnt weekends.

Mr Cedric Tay of De Souza Tay and Goh said he has been doing 12-hour shifts and spends weekends at the office: 'I've been sacrificing a lot of personal time and have fat hope of observing regular hours.'

The Law Society does not keep track of the number of conveyancing lawyers, but most general practice firms have at least one or two conveyancers as the area is a bread-and-butter field.

Industry insiders estimate there has been only a 5 to 10 per cent increase in the number of conveyancers in the past two years - a sharp contrast to 30 to 40 per cent increases in fields such as corporate work.

National University of Singapore law dean Tan Cheng Han is not surprised: 'Leaving aside last year and this year, real estate work was in the doldrums and there will naturally be some caution in choosing it as a field.'

It was the Asian financial crisis a decade ago that stopped the property market in its tracks and drove many conveyancing lawyers to other areas.

Young lawyers perceive conveyancing as poorly paid and boring. The first perception stems from moves in 2003 to replace fixed conveyance fees with guideline fees. That had the effect of shrinking a lawyer's commission. In the past, he could earn about $6,000 in a million-dollar deal; now, it is less than half that.

A Law Society spokesman pointed out the starting pay is the same as for other lawyers - more than $4,000. But conveyancers admit that in the long run they earn far less than those in corporate work and litigation. Mr Tay earned $400,000 a year in corporate work but switched to conveyancing in 1990 and now pulls in less than $200,000.

Conveyancing is seen as stodgy as it involves loads of paperwork and almost no court appearances. New law graduate Tang Hui Jing, doing her pupillage in commercial litigation, said: 'Mention conveyancing to any law student and you'll see looks of boredom.'

But Miss Tan Shi Jie, 25, who joined Rodyk & Davidson as a conveyancer last year, disagrees. 'There's a lot of adrenaline involved when handling corporate deals and tight deadlines.'

Law Society president Philip Jeyaretnam is confident more will enter the field: 'Now that the property market is active, there are a lot of major deals that involve real estate aspects, so you will see first- and second-year lawyers wanting to become real estate lawyers.'

[email protected]

Additional reporting by Brian Higgs and Jocelyn Lee