THE RULE OF LAW has been the subject of much media discussion in Hong Kong. The number of law graduates and those studying the subject has also been growing. There is increasing recognition that the rule of law is at the heart of any modern society and that, although based on precedents, it must evolve to keep in step with shifts in public opinion, changes in technology and developments in the world of business. Hong Kong's legal community is already adapting to the city's integration with the mainland as it finds new growth opportunities. Solicitors with mainland experience are especially in demand. Traditionally, Hong Kong has had a large number of small family-owned businesses and this is reflected among the law firms as well. According to the Annual Report of the Law Society of Hong Kong, 512 of the 672 local solicitor firms have five or fewer partners. Much of the income of the law firms used to come from conveyancing and advice on property transactions, but with the property slump these firms have had to look elsewhere for regular work. The dotcom boom exacerbated their problems for a while because most students opted for careers in other fields. Now, however, positions with law firms are once again highly sought after. The Chinese University has joined the University of Hong Kong and City University in offering legal training, and the sheer variety of career opportunities means prospects are bright for anyone taking this route. After completing studies, the choice before a student is to become a solicitor or a barrister. A solicitor can join a law firm as an associate and deal directly with clients. A barrister is self-employed, takes instruction from solicitors for specific cases and practises in the courts. Typically, barristers share chambers with other barristers. Solicitors may occasionally appear before judges in a district or magistrate's court and also participate in pre-trial interlocutory hearings discussing preliminary and procedural issues. However, only a qualified barrister can appear as an advocate in the High Court, the Court of Appeal and the Court of Final Appeal, and will usually concentrate on cases that involve a defined area of expertise. Barristers have a shorter professional training period. On the other hand, solicitors have many more job openings. Mark Reeves, partner with Munros, said: 'Solicitors need to undergo further training after they have completed a first degree and a year in law school before they begin practising within a firm.' He said solicitors needed two years before they could practise on their own, while barristers could practise independently after one year of training. Another key distinction is that trainee solicitors receive salaries, while aspiring barristers, during their period as a pupil, generally do not. Barristers depend for work on the referrals or briefs they get from firms of solicitors. Therefore, they must build a reputation and establish a network of contacts in order to obtain regular referrals and a stable income. Given the difficulties associated with starting out as a barrister, those intending to take this route are well advised to work as solicitors initially. That way, they can develop a network of contacts which can be a source of referrals later and put aside some savings to see them through six months to a year of pupillage. Mark Side, partner at Tanner De Witt, said that over the next 10 years more Hong Kong law firms would expand their presence in the mainland. 'Hong Kong-based lawyers are likely to remain in strong demand in the mainland for their expertise and specialist skills,' he said. Also sought after are those with a background in corporate litigation, mergers and acquisitions, financial services and securitisation, intellectual property and civil litigation. Recent United States legislation such as the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, together with the Basel II accord, is increasing the need for greater financial vigilance. Geoffrey Booth, a partner with Haldanes, said: 'There is a need for regulation and compliance practitioners. In fact, this is becoming something of a growth area.' There is consensus in the legal sector that fluency in Cantonese and Putonghua is becoming essential. However, English, as the lingua franca of international law and business, will retain its importance in Hong Kong and elsewhere. Robin Darton, partner, Tanner De Witt, said that knowledge and practice of the law would be more valuable than knowledge of languages, especially in specialist areas. 'We have already seen examples of this in the mainland, where the ability to speak Chinese has traditionally been seen as compulsory and the areas of law seem to be expanding,' Mr Darton said. Since it was set up six years ago, Tanner De Witt has grown to have a staff of 60 and is looking for solicitors with experience in intellectual property, insolvency and construction insurance. Although it is growing rapidly, like many other law firms it is confident that the increasing number of law school graduates will provide Hong Kong with an enviable pool of legal talent. CAREER OPPORTUNITIES Solicitor and barrister remain the most popular career options. Barristers who start out as solicitors can gain specialist expertise and make valuable contacts. Fluency in Chinese is increasingly required, though English remains the language of international law and business. Areas of demand for solicitors include civil and corporate litigation, acquisitions, financial services and intellectual property.