The potential benefits of opening up the mainland's legal sector to Hong Kong lawyers are easy to appreciate but are proving hard to achieve. With their valuable experience and expertise, our city's lawyers are well placed to take advantage of opportunities arising as mainland markets are liberalised under China's World Trade Organisation commitments. In the process, they should be able to help the mainland become more competitive and aid development of its legal and economic systems. These fine objectives have been described by Secretary for Justice Elsie Leung Oi-sie as a 'great leap forward'. So far, however, progress has been slow. A small step was taken yesterday when a local law firm launched a joint business association with a leading mainland counterpart in Beijing. This is possible as a result of a Cepa deal sealed last year. But it is only the second association of this kind formed so far. It is a very disappointing take-up rate. One obstacle would appear to be the red tape involved on the Hong Kong side. It took the law firm moving into Beijing more than two months to receive a certificate Hong Kong must issue under the Cepa arrangements. The application itself was time-consuming, requiring the firm to provide a mass of information. Surely this procedure could be streamlined. But it is the limited scope of the joint associations that is the more likely reason for the lack of enthusiasm among Hong Kong's 670 law firms. Certainly, there are benefits to be gained. The two firms are able to cut costs by sharing staff, premises and promotion activities. They will be given access to each others clients. But the arrangement falls well short of the right to form partnerships, which lawyers had originally hoped for. The two firms remain separate entities. And there are restrictions on the work that can be done by lawyers from Hong Kong. The slow response has also been experienced in other professions included in the Cepa agreement. Creating the opportunity is a positive step; making access easy enough to attract participants is a much tougher proposition. The bid by Hong Kong lawyers to move into the mainland market precedes the Cepa deal. Lobbying has been going on for years. Indeed, the legal profession thought it had won many of the concessions granted by Cepa in the summer of 2000 when reforms were announced by the Ministry of Justice. But these failed to materialise, for reasons which appear to have included changes made to the mainland's legal exams, fears that an influx of local lawyers would hit development of the profession there, and complaints from China's WTO partners about preferential treatment being given to Hong Kong. Many of these problems have now been resolved as a result of the Cepa deal. But further lobbying is going to be needed if the most is going to be made of this opportunity. Hong Kong lawyers are now permitted to take the mainland's national legal exams. Those who pass will then be able to practise mainland law. This is a landmark development, but one that remains difficult for lawyers to take advantage of. Many requirements need to be met before they can sit the exam. We cannot expect to see a flurry of Hong Kong lawyers heading over the border to represent clients in court. Cepa does not provide for Hong Kong lawyers to take part in court-related work. There is much to be gained from co-operation and integration between lawyers on each side of the border. This is true in terms of the wide range of services they would be able to offer. But it is even more important with regard to gaining a better understanding each other's different system, culture and traditions. In particular, Hong Kong lawyers should have a key role to play in helping the mainland move towards a system based more on the rule of law. The door has opened, but not wide enough.