A common qualifying examination for solicitors could be introduced by the Law Society within five years to replace tests provided by the city's three law schools.
But the proposal put forward by the new president of the solicitors' professional body has drawn opposition from deans of the University of Hong Kong and Chinese University law schools.
Announcing the plan yesterday, Ambrose Lam San-keung said the Law Society had commissioned a British law school to collect views from people and groups that would be affected, including Hong Kong's law schools.
He said the plan would provide more opportunities for students to become lawyers because they would not have to gain admission to existing postgraduate qualification programmes (PCLL) and would be able to re-sit the new exam if they failed the first time.
HKU law school dean Professor Johannes Chan Man-mun said the decision was not the society's to make.
It would need changes to the Legal Practitioners Ordinance and would have to be passed by the Standing Committee on Legal Education and Training, which oversees legal education in Hong Kong.
He took particular aim at a remark by Lam that the society had received complaints from lawyers about their children failing to gain entry to the PCLL.
"We take the students based on their ability, not because of their family background. We don't take into account whether the students come from families who are lawyers," Chan said.
Chinese University law dean Professor Christopher Gane said that if the Law Society was moving in the direction of abandoning the PCLL, "I would regard this as a seriously retrograde step in terms of the education and training of the legal profession".
The PCLL is a one-year full-time programme provided by the law schools at the University of Hong Kong, the Chinese University and the City University to qualify law graduates before they can become trainee solicitors or barrister pupils.
Lam said the purpose of the Law Society study was to assess the feasibility of the proposal and to hammer out its details. It expects to come up with a decision in the first quarter of next year.
Society vice-president Stephen Hung Wan-shun said that if the plan were to go ahead, the new examination system would still be five years away.
Lam was critical of the current system, asking: "Should the teaching institutions which provide training also carry out assessments to qualify lawyers?"
He believed that having one common exam would ensure fairness.
He also acknowledged that the society had received complaints from some lawyers whose children were rejected for admission to the PCLL.
HKU dean Chan said that this year there were more than 900 applicants for a total of about 500 places for the PCLL.