Joining the Bar no sure road to riches
The plight of young barristers struggling to earn more each month than the cleaners in their offices is likely to be met by dry eyes across the city. The image of barristers flush with fat fees in the wake of drawn-out court cases remains prevalent in Hong Kong; it is, sadly, what has drawn some aspiring young lawyers to the Bar in the first place.
The reality, as we report today, is far different. Like other leading professionals, top barristers still command hourly rates stretching into the tens of thousands of dollars. Some grow rich. But for many newcomers, often already saddled with student debt, working life is one long wait for even a sniff of work - a far cry from the hot days of the 1980s and 1990s. Even with a few years' experience under their belts, some are struggling to pay the rent in their chambers.
The underlying problems are manifold even as the economy improves. Solicitors are now making use of their right to appear before judges in the lower courts as their law firms broaden income streams after the 1997 slump, while the number of practising barristers continues to rise. The ranks of barristers have tripled in the past 20 years. And the field will grow even more cramped once Chinese University launches its law course next year, becoming the third institution churning out young lawyers in Hong Kong.
While there is an argument for tightening entry standards, a painful adjustment will have to be made by the profession. Some of the problems are borne out of the welcome application of market forces in an arena once seen as insulated and aloof. The high cost of legal action is driving some businesspeople to represent themselves in small cases, or at least think twice before embarking on the dangerous game of litigation. A more sophisticated community is also more willing to question its legal representation, and be quite confident of dumping barristers if they are unhappy.
The Bar has long been a positive force for legal integrity and the rule of law and it is in Hong Kong's best interests for that to continue. Nurturing new talent is, therefore, important. But young people joining its ranks must be conscious of professional realities, and not be blinded by gilded dreams.