Professionals play crucial role
It may lack the glitz associated with being a barrister or solicitor, but the job of a paralegal is every bit as important. Their work ranges from helping to prepare cases for court, uncovering relevant facts and conducting research on case law and court decisions to translating documents and carrying out due diligence.
They also have to participate in client meetings, and draft and review legal documents, contracts, agreements and correspondence.
'A paralegal provides legal support to a lawyer, where the work should be reviewed by the lawyer before signing off,' says Olga Yung, manager for Michael Page Legal.
Much of their work is the same as that of their supervising lawyer, with the distinction that, because paralegals are not qualified to practise law, they are not allowed to sign off on legal documents or work on transactions without a supervising lawyer.
Paralegals are often employed in law firms, but in-house corporate opportunities exist where they deal with issues in banking and finance, litigation, investment funds, labour, claims, insurance and personal injuries.
Yung says some paralegals are aspiring lawyers who have completed relevant academic courses, but are waiting for enrolment in the postgraduate certificate in laws (PCLL) programme, which they need to complete as part of becoming a lawyer. 'Others could simply enjoy legal work, pursuing a paralegal career and working at a senior capacity assisting lawyers, perhaps with supervisory duties for junior paralegals,' she says.
Qualified lawyers from overseas - especially from Australia - may become a paralegal in Hong Kong to gain the local experience they need to be a foreign-registered lawyer with a law firm.
An increasingly common trend is the arrival of lawyers from the mainland. Since they are not qualified to work in common-law jurisdictions, law firms in Hong Kong are unable to provide them with the title of a lawyer and hire them as paralegals instead. But they earn more than other paralegals.
Paralegals can earn anywhere from HK$10,000 to HK$80,000 a month, depending on seniority. Those working in international law firms, banks, investment houses and multinational corporations are better paid.
Academic background is a vital first step
In Hong Kong, there are no professional qualifications for paralegals. Generally, most would need an academic background, such as a bachelor's degree in law, or have completed the Common Professional Examination that prepares students for the PCLL.
Three Hong Kong universities offer undergraduate programmes in law - the University of Hong Kong, the Chinese University and the City University.
Passion for law a must
Interest in law and being meticulous are necessary qualities since paralegals are often called upon to conduct legal research, which can involve delving into massive legal libraries to search for a single legal precedent or law.
Paralegal personnel also have to be hard-working and diligent. They may often have to work long hours with no overtime pay, especially if they deal with areas such as corporate finance, banking, investment funds and intellectual property.