The legal profession has traditionally been held in high regard in Hong Kong, and often conjures up images of TV or Netflix legal dramas filled with intricate schemes designed to lure opponents into damaging their own cases. There are always surprise last-minute witnesses and evidence, and curveball arguments designed to rattle the opposition.
Reality is rather less glamorous and dramatic – but that doesn’t mean this becoming a lawyer isn’t worthwhile career path.
Getting a place at university
Because of the profession’s prestige, places for law school are always highly competitive. Realistically, you’re going to need a full set of As and Bs on your report card to have even a chance of getting in, whether you’re pursuing your degree in Hong Kong or elsewhere.
Having said that, if you don’t manage to get into an LLB programme, don’t fret! Local law schools also offer a JD (Juris Doctor) programme that specifically caters to graduate students, and also puts you on track to legal qualification in Hong Kong. Again, places are in high demand and admission cut-offs are usually a mid-to-high 2:1 in your bachelor’s degree. Regardless of which degree you choose, rest assured that there’s plenty of reading to do. Legal statutes and cases are all text-only, so unfortunately you don’t get any pretty graphs or diagrams to help you learn. I once scraped through by cramming before finals week because I’d decided to slack off for most of the semester, but I wouldn’t recommend it. Law exams require you to familiarise yourself with lots of cases, and there’s quite a lot of content to get through, so last-minute revision does no favours to help you remember them. Cramming also usually involves lots more Red Bull than is advisable. Oh, and once you graduate you’ll also need to go through a graduate diploma called a PCLL (Postgraduate Certificate in Laws) to actually be allowed to practise law in Hong Kong, and that involves more studying and more exams. I think you can start to see a trend here.
I feel there’s a misconception that lawyers need to have Shakespearean English in order to succeed; while it’s true that English fluency is a must, the emphasis is less on flowery vocabulary and more on being able to communicate your message clearly and effectively. Presentation is the more valuable skill here. Also, given Hong Kong’s changing economy, Chinese language skills are also becoming valuable, particularly in the largest firms where it’s practically mandatory to get a job.
Your career plan starts while you’re still at school
I think it goes without saying that one should study hard while in school and university, but at the same time you should also be thinking about how you plan to enter the legal profession once you graduate.
In Hong Kong, we split the legal profession into two different occupations: barristers and solicitors. Barristers are the ones you see on TV donning wigs and gowns, presenting cases before a judge. But their services are not always called upon. It is solicitors who are responsible for the day-to-day work of a file. Because the nature of work is different, they’re also suited to different personalities; if you enjoy burying yourself in legal texts and making arguments on technical or even obscure points of law, perhaps you should become a barrister is for you; if you’d prefer more regular client contact and a more social element to your job, you would probably do well as a solicitor. With differing jobs comes different forms of training. After graduation, barristers go through a one-year pupillage, which is essentially shadowing a practising barrister and assisting with his/her work, whereas solicitors undergo a two-year training contract, often with the firm they’ll then join upon qualification.
Why do I mention this early on? The competition for good pupillages and training contracts is even fiercer than law school admissions, so you’ll need to prepare yourself to stand out amongst other candidates. Aspiring barristers can pad their CVs by participating in mooting programmes or competitions. A moot is essentially a simulated court hearing, where participants are presented with a specific case and make their arguments before a panel of judges. Because much of what takes place in a moot can be transposed to real-life court proceedings, it’s a great way to practice and showcase your advocacy skills and potential as a barrister.
Prospective solicitors go through a more “conventional” route of finding internships at law firms and using them as an opportunity to get signed to a training contract. An internship sounds fun but don’t be fooled; it’s basically a month-long interview by your potential employer, so be sure to demonstrate that you have the qualities that the firm is looking for. International-scale firms also tend to recruit their trainees up to two years before their starting date, so do be sure to apply early!
So what do you actually want to do?
While you’re busying yourself with pupillage and internship applications, you’ll also want to start thinking about what sort of law you want to practise when you qualify. Do you want to be advising clients in headline corporate mergers? Or would you rather stand on the other side and fight for the little guy getting unfairly dismissed from his job? Perhaps you’re the empathetic type and prefer helping couples navigate the difficulties of dealing with a divorce?
The legal field is as diverse as it is specialised, and because nobody can claim to know everything, lawyers generally stick to one or two areas when they build their careers. Many firms and barristers also pride themselves in being market leaders in specific areas of law, so having an idea of what you want to do in future not only helps you identify where you want to apply to, but also gives you something to talk about in your interviews.
Finally, I want to repeat that your grades are really, really important, and they can have a huge impact on your career prospects. As a law student, it’s unlikely you’ll have too much experience to lean on, so your grades are the measuring stick that potential hirers will measure you against. A few 10ths of a difference in your GPA can mean the difference between getting your foot in the door for an interview or your CV going straight into the bin, so study hard, and opportunities will open themselves up to you.
Spending your (parents’) money – and getting (some of) it back
If you’re an HK permanent resident, you have the option of a government-funded place for your LLB. If you’re a graduate student doing the JD, there’s unfortunately no financial assistance at that level and you’ll need to shell out graduate rates for the course (think roughly HK$400,000 for the two-year course).
If you’re studying abroad (Britain and Australia are the most common choices), chances are the tuition fees will be more expensive; I’ve heard they’re easily two to three times that of a local LLB. You’ll also need to factor in living costs of living away from home, and in another country.
Academic high-fliers can try their luck with scholarships, and there are plenty to go for; they’re usually one-off grants rather than a full ride that covers all your tuition, but a nice bonus nonetheless for both your wallet and your CV.
While lawyers can make a decent living by virtue of being licensed and regulated professionals, don’t expect to be making millions as a fresh graduate. Solicitors have the “luxury” of taking home a monthly salary, and like much of the business world, bigger and more prestigious firms generally offer better pay. Trainees can earn between HK$18,000 and HK$40,000 depending on the firm, while newly qualified as a fresh graduate solicitors can expect salaries in the HK$40,000-HK$80,000 range, depending on the size and type of firm.
If you do secure a place in one of these bigger firms, do expect longer hours, or even be ready to respond to emails over the weekend. It’s a trade-off that only you can decide the value of. As an example, I’m at a smaller, more niche outfit, and usually put in a 50-hour work week, but I have friends at international firms who regularly put in more than 70 hours a week.
Barristers operate on a completely different model; you’re self-employed rather than an employee of a firm, and your earnings are basically whatever you manage to charge and collect. You’ll naturally have expenses such as rent, secretaries etc, so at the end of the day, it’s up to you to keep yourself in the black.
A day in the life…
As a fresh trainee, expect most of your day to consist of note-taking, proof-reading, legal research (ie reading up on laws and cases), and putting together box files of paper for cases. This is perfectly normal, as a) you won’t be ready to take over the whole case yourself, and b) firms don’t want to give clients the impression they’re being undervalued by being left alone with a trainee. Don’t worry, responsibilities will come as you move up the ladder.
Regardless of which type of law you end up practising, the common feature is that there is a lot of paperwork involved, even for court work. Unlike the legal dramas we’re used to on TV, court hearings are generally uneventful; and while judges can be stern, there’s no shouting unless he/she gets offended in some way. Most of the work for a case is done on paper before you even sit in the courtroom. Examining a witness can lead to some interesting moments, but at the same time the vast majority of cases reach settlement well before trial, so don’t count on those moments happening very often.
A never-ending journey
I’ve been doing this for just over three years (two years’ training contract, and one year post-qualification) and feel like I’ve only seen the tip of the iceberg; there are new things to learn about every day.
As society changes, so will the law, and you’ll need to keep abreast of legal developments and how they affect your clients; after all, that’s what you’re being paid for. This is a job where experience carries a lot of weight with the client, and like a fine wine (they tell me), it gets better with age!
As with many things in life, “lawyering” is not always a bed of roses. Clients are paying thousands of dollars an hour for your services and thus can be quite demanding; corporate clients often need same-day responses to kept happy. Certain areas of law require you to be an “emergency response team” of sorts; for instance junior criminal defence lawyers often end up with clients getting arrested late at night and need to get bailed out ASAP.
There will also be bad days in the office; if you’re a transactional lawyer, things might not proceed as planned, or you might be forced to take a less appealing deal. If you litigate, outcomes in court are never set in stone and you inevitably lose the occasional case. Your clients might be the ones having a rough time and will take their frustrations out on you. That said, for all its potential ups and downs, as a lawyer you do provide real solutions for real issues faced by people and businesses every day, and that’s probably my greatest motivation for continuing down this career.
If you have an eye for detail, relish an intellectual challenge every now and then, are not afraid of paperwork, and are willing to shoulder responsibility for your clients, then perhaps being a lawyer is the right fit for you!