Legal eagles to fly high
Recognised for the pivotal role Hong Kong's legal sector plays in delivering professional services to businesses and financial markets, the demand for legal education at Hong Kong's universities continues to grow.
To meet the increasingly international, multi-jurisdictional demands, law programmes offered by Hong Kong universities have been structured on a globalised business world that equips legal professionals with the skills to perform key roles in the city's evolving economy.
'Our full-time Juris Doctor (JD) two-year law degree - which provides comprehensive and in-depth legal education to students without a prior background in law - is very popular and we expect interest to continue growing,' says Anne Cheung, master of laws (LLM) and information technology and intellectual property (ITIP) programme director at the University of Hong Kong's (HKU) department of law.
Cheung says that while HKU seeks to admit students with diverse backgrounds and relevant professional experience, candidates also need to demonstrate a record of academic excellence. 'Many of our students already have excellent qualifications and experience, but look for a law degree to push their career further,' says Cheung.
Among the areas where Cheung sees demand for legal professionals increasing, she highlights information technology and intellectual property and commercial finance. 'As business relationships between the mainland and the rest of the world continue to grow, the demand for lawyers to work in areas such as ITIP can be expected to expand,' says Cheung.
The faculty of law at HKU offers eight postgraduate taught programmes, six of which are LLM courses. Programmes include Chinese law, human rights law, corporate and financial law, IT and IP law, arbitration and dispute resolution law.
Reflecting the need for diversified legal programmes, offered through the City University of Hong Kong's Hong Kong Centre for Maritime and Transportation Law (HKCMTL), the master's of transportation and logistics law programme provides young lawyers with the specialist knowledge required to succeed as legal professionals in the maritime industry and other transport sectors.
Ricky Mui, associate director of the legal, compliance and commerce finance division at recruitment firm Robert Walters, says that despite a slowdown in hiring of legal professionals in the financial sector - noticeably banking - other areas are recording lively recruitment activity.
'Most banks and financial institutions are only going to make critical hires,' says Mui. But, he adds, a number of hedge funds, private equity groups and asset managers are bolstering the headcount. 'They look for bilingual candidates with experience in the derivatives, debt capital, equity and corporate finance markets,' says Mui.
In addition, he says that since late last year, there has been a pick-up in demand for corporate commercial legal professionals to take up positions with companies in luxury goods, IT, energy and entertainment. 'There is, particularly, demand from luxury goods brands for people with IP and anti-counterfeiting experience to join their brand protection divisions,' says Mui.
He says paralegals with company secretary experience and professionals with insolvency and trustee service qualifications are also required to take on the role of company secretary. As new financial regulations are introduced, regulatory bodies are also seeking to hire experienced legal professionals. 'On the reverse side of the coin, legal professionals with banking regulatory knowledge and experience are in demand from banks to help them with compliance issues,' says Mui.
Christopher Gane, dean of the faculty of law at the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK), says they offer a full suite of high-quality programmes at both undergraduate and graduate level. At postgraduate level, the school offers three full-time (one year) or part-time LLM programmes, which include China business law, international economic law and common law. 'The faculty's LLM programmes are clearly recognised internationally as leaders in the field. For admission for the 2011-2012 year, we attracted applications from over 30 countries, ranging from Albania to Vietnam,' says Gane.
Designed for candidates wishing to study law and who are already graduates in another discipline, the faculty offers a Juris Doctor (JD) programme on a full-time (two years) or part-time (42 months) basis. 'The JD provides a pathway to the postgraduate certificate of laws (PCLL), which is the final programme of study that must be completed by anyone wishing to be admitted to practice as a solicitor or barrister in Hong Kong,' says Gane.
At undergraduate level, the faculty offers a bachelor of laws (LLB) programme, which accepted 170 students for 2012-2013. 'If past experience is anything to go by, the great majority of those students will, on graduation, seek admission to the PCLL, with a view to becoming a solicitor or barrister in Hong Kong,' says the dean. He adds, however, that the LLB degree is not only an excellent foundation for a career in legal practice, but also provides a general university education that equips students with a range of skills appropriate to other graduate employment opportunities.
The dean stresses that competition for admission to all law programmes is extremely stiff, and that each year, the faculty turns away significant numbers of applicants who are not able to meet its standards. 'This is always, of course, a disappointment for those concerned, but it must be emphasised that admission to all of these programmes is based entirely on merit, and all candidates are subject to the same selection process that applies to all other candidates for the programme in question,' says Gane.
He adds that there is a significant across-the-board demand for legal practitioners. 'Cross border practice appears to be the area in which there is particularly strong growth, and this is likely to be the case for the foreseeable future,' Gane says.
The same observations have been noted by Professor Xi Chao, director of CUHK's LLM programmes in Chinese business law. 'The expanding scale, scope and sophistication of the financial and securities markets in Hong Kong has fuelled growing demand for legal professionals equipped with necessary knowledge, skills and expertise, and coming from different educational and professional backgrounds,' Xi says.
'The new and emerging RMB-related transactions, financial products, and new cross-border trade practices bring about novel legal and regulatory issues,' says Xi. 'All this represents new opportunities for the legal profession to bring value to their clients or employers, by providing innovative and creative solutions in the planning, structuring and execution of transactions made possible, only recently, by the internationalisation of the RMB.'
As Hong Kong grows in stature as an international arbitration centre, Professor Fan Kun, who teaches and researches at CUHK's faculty of law, says that many leading arbitration institutions are offering internship programmes.
She says that internship programmes are currently being offered at the International Court of Arbitration, the Hong Kong International Arbitration Centre, and the China International Economic and Trade Arbitration Commission.