Higher pay urged for government lawyers to stop exodus, attract talent

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 11 June, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 11 June, 2008, 12:00am

A large-scale improvement in the pay and conditions of government lawyers was desperately needed if the government wished to become an employer of choice rather than of last resort, legal sources said yesterday.

The comments were made in support of proposals by Secretary for Justice Wong Yan-lung to increase the pay of government counsel by up to 30 per cent as part of a review into how lawyers within the government are compensated.

The government has been bleeding counsel at five times the average rate for other members of the civil service. Increasing workloads, a lack of career prospects and a growing gap between them and their private sector counterparts are the main reasons cited for the exodus, and the failure to meet recruitment goals.

A report submitted in January to the Legislative Council panel on public service noted that of 94 positions available during the previous three recruitment drives, the government had managed only to send out 76 offers, 10 of which were rejected - a success rate of just 70 per cent.

'We are just not getting [young lawyers] in here,' a Department of Justice source said. 'They are going straight to the private sector.'

The source said the proposals were overdue and were absolutely necessary to stem the tide of talent giving government a wide berth.

He dismissed criticism that the changes, if approved, would mean top government counsel would earn more than directorate grade civil servants.

'We're not like other government employees,' the source said. 'We are professionals and the government has to compete for talent against others in the private sector.'

It was worth noting, he said, that in the government there were lawyers negotiating and overseeing contracts worth billions of taxpayer dollars who were earning just a fraction of the salaries of the people sitting opposite them. They performed a vital public function and remuneration had to be viewed in that light.

'The proposals would bring in better-quality people and produce better-quality results; that is going to be better for the community and the legal profession in the long run,' the source added.

Law Society president Lester Huang said that any review of government counsels' pay should also seriously look at what private sector lawyers were paid.

'Our requests for an increase in remuneration for legal aid work cannot be brushed aside in light of Wong's proposal,' Mr Huang said, acknowledging the growing case load for government lawyers. 'From our perspective a 30 per cent increase in pay for new admissions is on the relatively high side, but it's not outside of what we are paying in the private sector.' There would always be stiff competition for the best graduates, he said.

Alain Sham Chung-ping, chairman of the Local Counsel Association, which represents government lawyers, said the proposals were in line with what his organisation had been working towards along with the government.