Introduction to Senior Counsel
What is a Senior Counsel?
Senior Counsel (often referred to as “SCs”) have always been a fascinating class of the legal profession. When a lawyer is appointed a senior counsel (this is also known as taking the silk, he or she is symbolically recognized as being one of the best and most skillful advocates residing in the legal profession in Singapore. Thus far, there have 80 appointed Senior Counsel within Singapore’s legal profession. This is about 1% of the of practicing lawyers in Singapore as of 2016.
In this article, we explore what Senior Counsel are, its history and we look into the data of Senior Counsel to find intriguing insights.
First introduced in 1989; pioneer batch in 1997
The concept of a Senior Counsel was first introduced into Singapore on the 16th of January 1989, where the Legal Profession (Amendment) Bill was tabled for a first reading before SG parliament, where provisions for the appointment of senior counsel were included. The idea of the Senior Counsel serves to continuously raise the bar for young and aspiring legal advocates to improve their craft.
The bill was subsequently passed on the 17th Feb 1989. It was only until the year 1997 that the Senior Counsel scheme was put into operation, where 12 distinguished lawyers was first appointed Senior Counsel, in the hope that the ‘leaders at the Bar will provide the inspiration for younger members of the profession to strive for excellence in their profession’ (Minister for Law, Prof S Jayakumar, The Straits Times, 19 February 1989).
Adapted from the Queen’s Counsel from England
The appointment of a Senior Counsel has its historical roots from England. The term Senior Counsel was coined in Singapore in what is akin to a ‘Queen’s Counsel’ in England. This was done to remove monarchical connotations as the British Monarch is no longer the head of the state. This practice remains the common practice for other Commonwealth countries that were once under the British rule, instead adopting the term ‘Senior Counsel’ or ‘State Counsel’. The ‘Queen’s Counsel’ represents an archaic institution started in the 16th Century. Leaders of the bar served as legal advisors to the Crown, under the title of King’s Serjeants. The use of Serjeants was diminished and eventually abolished when the rank of Queen’s Counsel was recognized under the Judicature Acts of 1870s. Subsequently, Queen’s Counsel were soon regarded as ranks of distinctions, rather than deputies to the A-G and S-G.
Senior Counsel are selected and appointed by committee after applying to be one
A selection committee, comprising of the Chief Justice, AG and Judges of Appeal will annually consider applicants for the Senior Counsel position. The conferment of silk is not through a unilateral recommendation by the members of legal profession, but rather must be applied for by aspiring candidates. Its selection process is statutorily provided for in the Legal Professions Act (“LPA”).
The selection is based on whether the selection committee is ‘of opinion that, by virtue of the person’s ability, standing at the Bar or special knowledge or experience in law, he is deserving of such distinction’ . The names of successful candidates are announced at the opening of the new legal year by the Chief Justice. Additionally, high ranking legal officers such as the Attorney-General and Solicitor-General, are automatically appointed as Senior Counsel upon holding office .
Clearly, individual merit of the candidate is of the utmost focus in selection. Applicants must first satisfy the requirement of being either an advocate and solicitor or legal service officer for an aggregate period of not less than 10 years. There is no numerical limit as to the number of appointees for every legal year, with the committee assessing each case based on merit. The selection criteria of Senior Counsel focuses on advocacy skills, legal knowledge, professional integrity, contributions to the law in the form of academic teaching, writing, research and committee work for various law institutions to assess a candidates viability as a Senior Counsel.
Interesting things you might not know about Senior Counsel
- Senior Counsel are only chosen from litigators and not corporate lawyers — The Chief Justice has previously commented in an interview that the more appropriate awards for corporate and advisory lawyers are from publications like ALB or Legal 500.
- Senior Counsel have a right of precedence over all other non-Senior Counsel (s.31 Legal Profession Act). Between Senior Counsel, the right of precedence is determined by the date of appointment as an Senior Counsel; in other words, Senior Counsel get to move to the head of any queue in court unless there is another Senior Counsel present. If there are two or more Senior Counsel present, the more senior one gets precedence.
- Senior Counsel typically charge higher hourly fees — Senior Counsel tend to charge fees much greater than the average lawyer by dint of their expertise. Hourly rates for Senior Counsel are very likely to be in excess of S$1,000 / hour (sometimes significantly)
- 2014 was the only year since 1997 where no Senior Counsel was appointed — there is no fixed number of Senior Counsel appointed each years (read on for more quantitative insight!)
- First woman Senior Counsel appointed in 1998 — Three Senior Counsel who were women appointed in 1998 and they are Ms Engelin Teh Guek Ngor (Engelin Teh Practice LLC), Justice Belinda Ang Saw Ean (Supreme Court) and Ms Molly Lim Kheng Yan (Wong Tan & Molly Lim LLC)
- Senior Counsel actually wear a different court robe from other lawyers in Singapore (who typically go in a suit) when they go to court. They wear silk robes (which is why being appointed is referred to as taking the silk) like these made by Ede & Ravenscroft from London (see screenshot below from their website).
Delving into the Senior Counsel Data
We analyzed the Senior Counsel Directory published by the Singapore Academy of Law. We worked off the 5 columns of data available and came up with interesting insights.
A few of the major highlights:
- 74 of 80 appointed Senior Counsel currently active
- Approximately 1% of practicing lawyers are Senior Counsel (50 Senior Counsel in 4,885 practicing lawyers)
- An average of 3.6 Senior Counsel appointed each year
- The year the most Senior Counsel were appointed was in 1997 (9 of them)
- Big 4 law firms (Rajah & Tann, Allen & Gledhill, Drew & Napier and WongPartnership) collectively have a quarter of practicing Senior Counsel
- Half of practicing Senior Counsel are in local law firms v. 6% from international law firms
- 42% of active Senior Counsel are in universities and Singapore government ministries
Read on for full insights!
74 of the 80 appointed Senior Counsel are now active
- There are 80 listed Senior Counsel listed in the directory
- 74 of the 80 listed Senior Counsel are currently active and either have a practicing certificate (in a law firm) or hold positions in universities and ministries in Singapore
- 2/3 of appointed Senior Counsel are currently practicing at a law firm
- Most of the remaining 1/3 are in organizations like the Supreme Court, universities or other ministries in Singapore
- 92.5% of all Senior Counsel are currently active
- The remaining Senior Counsel have either retired or are deceased with one (Mr V K Rajah) in the private sector (Director at Monetary Authority of Singapore since 1 November 2014)
The Supreme Court holds the most Senior Counsel (14); The Big 4 Law Firms collectively have 24% of practicing Senior Counsel (17)
- The largest number of Senior Counsel currently hold positions in the Supreme Court (14 Senior Counsel, 20% of active Senior Counsel)
- This is followed by the Attorney General’s Chambers with 8 Senior Counsel
- The law firm with the most number of Senior Counsel is Rajah & Tann LLP (5 Senior Counsel)
- The Big 4 law firms of Rajah & Tann, WongPartnership, Drew & Napier and Allen & Gledhill collectively have 17 Senior Counsel (24% of practicing Senior Counsel in Singapore)
- Dentons Rodyk & Davidson LLP and Withers KhattarWong (international law firms) each have 2 of Senior Counsel
Half of active Senior Counsel practicing in a local law firm v. 6% in international firms
- Half (50%) of active Senior Counsel are practicing in a local firm
- Only 6% of active Senior Counsel are practicing in an international firm
- 31 Senior Counsel (42%) are not practicing but hold positions in education or government ministries
An average of 3.6 Senior Counsel appointed every year
- The earliest appointed Senior Counsel were in 1989 (Mr. Tan Boon Teik and Mr. Koh Eng Tian)
- The most senior active Senior Counsel is Senior Judge Chan Sek Keong appointed in 1996
- There are 9 senior active and practicing Senior Counsel appointed in 1997 (the year the most Senior Counsel were appointed)
- An average of 3.6 Senior Counsel were appointed every year since 1989
- The most recently appointed Senior Counsel in 2017 are Solicitor-General Kwek Mean Luck, Mr. Ng Yong Kiat Francis and Mr. Edmund Leow Hock Meng
- 2014 is the only year since 1997 where no Senior Counsel were appointed
Asia Law Network has law firms with Senior Counsel in our network
Did you know that Asia Law Network has Senior Counsel in our network? Our network includes firms like Withers KhattarWong, Shook Lin & Bok LLP, Harry Elias Partnership LLP and Straits Law Practice LLC, whom have practicing Senior Counsel!
The introduction was written by Ng Shu Yih (content strategist at Asia Law Network) with contributions from Mark Toh from Engelin Teh Practice LLC; data analysis and commentary by Danon Gabriel The from Asia Law Network.