A better structured and supervised training system for trainee solicitors would be a more effective means of ensuring higher professional standards than the controversial plan by the Law Society to introduce a new qualifying exam, say law deans.
Both Professor Johannes Chan Man-mun and Professor Christopher Gane, law deans of the University of Hong Kong and Chinese University, respectively, hit out at the Law Society's proposal to introduce a common qualifying exam for solicitors to replace the assessment provided by the city's three law schools.
The deans saw the proposal as a move to abolish the PCLL (postgraduate certificate in laws), which is the existing postgraduate qualification programme provided by the law schools, even though such a view was denied by the Law Society.
But City University law dean Professor Wang Guiguo said he "welcomes and supports the suggestion of the Law Society".
"In our view, the move will be perceived as an effort to ensure a more open exam system," he said. "At the same time, we encourage the Law Society to consult the Bar when co-ordinating the exam."
But Chan told the South China Morning Post that introducing a common exam "would not solve any problem" if the Law Society saw it as a solution to maintaining or even improving the quality of the profession.
Instead, he said the focus should be placed on the two-year training provided to trainees by law firms before they qualify as practising lawyers.
Chan said on-the-job training was crucial to the development of young lawyers to make them more mature and independent in handling real-life scenarios, which could not be delivered in the classroom.
However, the training had never been reviewed.
Gane, of Chinese University, also said the legal profession had a huge responsibility to train itself. "No programmes in the PCLL can turn you from a law graduate into a fully-fledged lawyer. We are training people to become effective trainees. That's all that can be reasonably expected," Gane said.
"Removing the PCLL, in my view, is bad for the intending practitioners and is bad for the intending practitioners' employers. Ultimately it's probably not good for consumers of legal services."
In response, the Law Society argued it had a mechanism to monitor the standard of traineeship provided by law firms, but welcomed the two universities "to provide details of suggestions for our Trainee Solicitors Committee's consideration".
On its website, the Law Society states that a trainee solicitor must receive training in selected legal areas across 10 specialities, ranging from banking and civil litigation to criminal litigation and property. After that it is the principal who provides the training and decides when it is complete.
But Chan said the structure and quality of training varied among the firms, and the standard of the traineeships had not been closely scrutinised by the Law Society.
The society's annual report states that 508 solicitors were admitted last year, but it says it does not keep a record of how many trainees failed their two years of training.
Last year, 85 PCLL graduates applied to the Bar Association, which oversees local barristers, for a one-year pupilage to become a practising barrister.
"In Hong Kong, 80 per cent of the law firms are of small or medium size. How would you expect a law firm with only one lawyer to provide structured training?" Chan asked. "If the Law Society is so concerned about the quality of junior solicitors, shouldn't it keep a proper record of those who fail the training and identify the reasons why?"
At one of the city's leading law firms, Hogan Lovells, its trainee solicitors - up to eight a year - spend six months each in four departments: corporate, finance, litigation and intellectual property. The training is overseen by a supervisor.
But its managing partner Allan Leung admitted: "As resources of law firms are different, standardising the training experience could be difficult. Additional monitoring could be onerous for some firms while having limited impact on trainees already receiving structured training."