Bar humbug

PUBLISHED : Friday, 11 May, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 11 May, 2007, 12:00am

In TV dramas, they're often cast as bewigged high-fliers who dazzle juries with their oratory and incisive minds. But the glamorous image now strikes many junior barristers as ironic. Being called to the Bar is no longer a first step towards the lucrative career they envisaged.

Consider the experience of Hong, a barrister in his third year of practice (Bar Association rules prevent him from using his full name). During his worst period, Hong says he billed just HK$3,000 for a month - less than what a cleaner might earn. And the most he has charged during the past two years was HK$30,000, for a two-week hearing in a matrimonial case.

'I don't bargain with solicitors over fees,' he says. 'I just take whatever they suggest. My solicitor friend does his best to refer cases.

'Seniors warned me about hardship in the profession, but I never imagined prospects could be so bleak,' Hong says. 'When I started, I thought that I could earn HK$30,000 to HK$40,000 every month. With my qualification, that seemed reasonable.'

Relative newcomers such as Hong who have less than five years' experience are most vulnerable to fluctuations in the economy, says Bar Association chairman Rimsky Yuen Kwok-keung. And although the general business climate has improved since the Sars slump, it hasn't benefited the profession.

'Amid stiff competition, even senior barristers can't simply rely on personal friendships with solicitors to secure business,' Yuen says. 'Solicitors are accountable to their clients. Clients nowadays are often well-educated and very astute. Many have expertise in other areas, and can assess the barrister's performance and ask to switch to someone more competent if they're not satisfied.'

Some senior lawyers say Hong is faring better than many of his contemporaries. One young barrister was reportedly idle for three months before being assigned as duty lawyer at a half-day trial for less than HK$3,000.

'This is very sad,' says labour sector legislator Kwong Chi-kin, a former barrister. 'During my time [in the early 1990s], barristers signed up for the duty lawyer scheme as a service to the community and to gain exposure to criminal litigation. It was side income.'

Fifteen years ago it wasn't uncommon for a junior barrister to make HK$100,000 a month, he says. 'If you were hard-working and aggressive about taking on more challenging cases, earnings could be a lot more than that.'

The profession attributes this dire state mostly to oversupply, coupled with a sluggish economy and competition from solicitors who have begun undertaking work that was once the sole purview of barristers.

'When I joined the profession in late 1980s, between 10 and 15 people were called to the Bar every year,' Yuen says. 'Now, the figure is about five times that.'

The number of practising barristers has almost tripled in the past 20 years, to 1,010 this year from just 376 in 1988. By contrast, solicitors' ranks swelled moderately to 5,757 last year from 4,309 in 1997 - a 30 per cent rise in about a decade. The field will only get more crowded once the Chinese University launches its law programme next year, the third institution to offer such a degree after the University of Hong Kong and City University.

Fewer vacancies for trainees in solicitors' firms meant that more law graduates turned to the Bar by default because barristers don't have to pay them during their year of apprenticeship, says Michael Liu Kin-wa, who chairs the Bar Association's committee on pupillage.

Business closures and bankruptcies during the post- 1997 slump also meant that demand for lawyers' services shrivelled.

'Some companies don't bother fending off claims and wait for debtors to wind up their businesses,' says Liu. Business owners engaged in civil disputes have also been known to represent themselves to save on legal fees.

Some law firms began arguing their own cases rather than instructing barristers to reduce costs. Worse, solicitors whose lucrative conveyancing business shrank after the property bubble burst, turned to litigation work in lower courts that they once ignored. Although real estate transactions have since picked up, many law firms now prefer to maintain a more diversified business rather than be over-reliant on conveyancing.

Many more lawyers are vying even for such work as the duty lawyer scheme, under which the government subsidises legal representation in cases at the magistrates, juvenile and coroners' courts. Jointly administered by the Law Society and the Bar Association, the scheme pays counsel HK$5,430 for a full-day assignment.

During the golden years of the 80s and 90s, there were so few lawyers that officials were 'more than happy' when any barrister was willing to take up a case, Yuen says. 'But now you need to wait for months to get on roster duty.'

There are now 1,538 lawyers registered with the scheme (792 barristers and 746 solicitors). That's more than double the 1994 total of 782 (403 barristers and 379 solicitors). No wonder lawyers typically face a nine-month wait to take their turn on the roster, compared with six weeks in 1994.

Meanwhile, Hong is still mulling over more experienced colleagues' advice to stick it out for another two years before considering other job options. His income is so unreliable it sometimes isn't enough to cover the HK$11,000 monthly rent for the 300 sq ft office in Central he shares with another junior counsel.

'I'm starting to feel financial pressure from my family,' says Hong, who got married last year. 'Even if I wanted to, changing careers isn't easy. Without much experience in civil suits, my barrister qualification won't help me get a job as a trainee solicitor or in other businesses.'

Still, Hong tries to keep his morale up. He goes to his chambers every morning, dressed smartly to maintain a professional image. 'I spend my time reading up on the latest judgments to keep up to date with my legal knowledge,' he says.

But globalisation and technological advance are adding to the pressure on barristers, Liu says. Through the internet, for example, clients can easily seek advice from lawyers outside Hong Kong.

'It's easy for companies to seek legal opinion overseas. They can send an e-mail in the afternoon and wait for a reply the following morning - that's sometimes more convenient and time-saving.

'In the old days, young barristers who were bright and diligent were assured of success,' says Liu. 'But now it's only a fifty-fifty chance. A lot depends on luck. Anyone who's less than competent won't survive and should consider changing careers.'

Yuen urges aspiring barristers who see the profession as a money-spinning opportunity to think again. 'For those who want to join the Bar, be sure you're really interested in the law,' he says. 'If you simply want to make quick money, the stock market is a better place.'

All rise!

Increase in the number of practising barristers in Hong Kong since 1988: 169%