China's accession to the World Trade Organisation holds out a lot of opportunities for SAR lawyers, but also presents them with a new set of challenges.
For geographical, cultural, linguistic and economic reasons, Hong Kong lawyers should be well poised to exploit those opportunities. For example, as Secretary for Justice Elsie Leung Oi-sie pointed out at a legal conference yesterday, Hong Kong has a value-adding role to play as an arbitration centre for contracts signed between mainland and foreign enterprises.
Even admitting that English standards have fallen, Hong Kong still has a large pool of highly competent experts in all aspects of law who are bilingual. Hong Kong's history, and the fact that its lawyers are nurtured in the common-law system, means it still retains advantages over those from outside.
Yet, as representatives of both the Law Society and Bar Association admitted, a sharp learning curve confronts many local lawyers. For too long, the law was an overcrowded profession, with many local firms getting extremely rich for very little effort by serving as the conveyancing agents of a few big property developers. Some have taken the trouble to study mainland law and develop skills in international commerce, but the numbers are far from sufficient to meet the surging needs of a mainland economy rapidly growing and integrating with the outside world.
The market for provision of legal services to mainland companies venturing out and multinationals going in will be fiercely competitive. Under Hong Kong's open system, foreign law firms will be able to compete against local ones on an equal footing. Such openness is a strength for the SAR, as it ensures even the cream of the profession must be on their toes and clients get the very best service.
Hong Kong has the potential to be China's centre for international legal services. The pressing need is to offer students second-to-none legal education to equip them for the work global trade will offer. Local law firms must be prepared to team up with mainland and foreign partners to provide the kind of comprehensive service multinationals, whether Chinese or foreign, need to operate in a global economy.