Ranks of foreign lawyers double

PUBLISHED : Monday, 19 March, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 19 March, 2012, 12:00am


The number of foreign lawyers practising in Hong Kong has doubled over the past seven years. Their arrival has been driven by strong demand for legal services, both from the mainland and from the financial sector for initial public offerings.

The number of foreign lawyers was 777 in 2005, 1,041 in 2007, 1,203 in 2009 and 1,431 at present.

The number of foreign law firms has also increased: 36 in 2005, 56 in 2007, 70 in 2009 and 72 now.

Foreign lawyers may practise only the law of their home jurisdiction; they can advise Hong Kong clients on foreign law to help them set up businesses or resolve disputes abroad.

Those who wish to practise Hong Kong law must sit a localisation exam, and 700 - about 10 per cent of all local solicitors - have done so, according to Junius Ho Kwan-yiu, president of the Law Society.

Some local lawyers, who asked not to be named, expressed concern about competition from their foreign counterparts.

'Clients involved in major lawsuits usually look for international law firms or expatriate lawyers, instead of small local firms,' one said.

In Singapore's Parliament last month, lawmaker Hri Kumar said 'international law firms dominate nearly every area of law' in Hong Kong, according to Bloomberg.

Rotterdam-based Loyens & Loeff, which advises on international tax structuring and mergers and acquisitions, opened a Hong Kong office last month.

This month, London-based Berwin Leighton Paisner did the same, setting its sights on work in several sectors on the mainland.

The Closer Economic Partnership Arrangement (Cepa) between Hong Kong and the mainland allows certain lawyers qualified to practise locally to do so across the border.

'Some local firms are enjoying the benefits Cepa brings, but not a lot of them are,' Ho said.

Sixty-three of the 100 biggest global law firms have offices in Hong Kong, the Law Society said. Among them, 42 practise as local firms.

'They then enjoy the advantages of Cepa and enter the mainland ... where the goldmine is,' Ho said.

The number of foreign lawyers sitting the annual Overseas Lawyers Qualification Examination has been on the rise since 2009: between 200 and 300 of them try to qualify as local lawyers every year.

Those who pass are no longer considered foreign lawyers.

Each year for the past five years, about 22 per cent of all the lawyers admitted to the bar in Hong Kong have qualified by taking the exam.

While Ho says the competition is getting fiercer, he denies it poses a threat to local lawyers.

'There's no such thing as an indigenous right among us professionals,' he said. 'There's only whether you are capable or not.'

Local solicitor Lau Kar-wah, who has practised law for about 20 years, focusing on personal injury claims, said 'areas like mergers and acquisitions and other big financial deals are indeed dominated by big global firms, but that doesn't really hurt local lawyers' business, because we focus on different areas'.