Legal eagles make strong case for state counsel role

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 10 June, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 10 June, 2006, 12:00am

THE MOVIES, TV dramas and real-life legal cases involving celebrities have brought more than a touch of glamour to that elite group of lawyers known as barristers. In a city like Hong Kong, some senior counsel can earn as much as $10 million or more from just one case. Such impressive financial rewards only serve to enhance the allure of a profession whose practitioners still wear the traditional black gowns and grey wigs when appearing in open court.

The barrister's role is to provide specialist services in litigation and advocacy by preparing and presenting cases for trial. Those in private practice are self-employed, but most senior counsel join a set of chambers, an arrangement that allows them to pool resources and share many of the costs involved in running a business. Each chamber member is known as a tenant and has a say in how things are run.

'A young barrister will typically earn $1,000 an hour for paperwork and $8,000 to $10,000 per court day doing civil work. Monthly expenditure is usually in the range of $8,000 to $30,000 for each tenant,' said Jeremy Chan, a tenant at the chambers of Denis Chang SC. Mr Chan, who was called to the bar in 2000, said the autonomy of the profession was one of the strong attractions, apart from the prospect of high financial rewards. 'You are your own boss from the start,' he said.

This aspect, among other things, also attracted Willard Li.

'A number of my friends were barristers and I liked what I heard about the nature of the work,' said Mr Li, who obtained a degree in business administration in the United States and worked as a banker for four years before deciding to train for the bar. 'It seemed more interesting than banking and gave you the opportunity to meet a diversity of people and encounter different scenarios in life.'

The basic requirement is a degree in law or another

subject supplemented by the Common Professional Examination (CPE). Preparation for the CPE involves a two-year part-time course or, if taken in England, a one-year full-time programme.

'The CPE is reduced in scope compared to a law degree but is of higher intensity. It provides a good chance for someone who has studied a different subject but ultimately wants to be a lawyer,' said Mr Chan, who graduated with a degree in physics from Oxford.

The next step is to take the postgraduate certificate in laws (PCLL), which introduces lawyers to the principles of advocacy and other practical skills. In Hong Kong the degree is taught full-time and part-time over one or two years.

After completing the course, the aspiring barrister begins a period of pupillage, a form of apprenticeship under the guidance of a senior colleague. It is usually unpaid and lasts a minimum of 12 months, during which time the pupil is there to learn and assist.

'Pupillage should be organised the year before the PCLL, because the best pupil masters are booked up in advance,' Mr Li said. The objective is to give the trainee insights into how an experienced barrister prepares and argues cases. The trainee also assists with research, attends court and client conferences, does background reading and drafts documents.

The final stage is to apply for tenancy with a set of chambers.

'That is the profession's single biggest hurdle,' Mr Chan said. 'Everyone can do a law degree, most pass. Everyone can do a PCCL, the majority pass, and most get pupillage. However, obtaining tenancy is difficult, particularly in large chambers where you get support from other tenants and can pick up work via referrals.'

This makes for a highly competitive profession. Some barristers achieve great success, while others struggle to make a living. It is also recognised that those who practise commercial and civil law often earn substantially more than barristers handling criminal cases.

Mr Chan said he has even heard 'horror stories' about young barristers not earning enough to cover expenses and having to leave the profession. He is quick to point out, however, that motivated and intelligent individuals should be encouraged to come to the bar. 'Good lawyers are always needed and the bar rewards them better financially and personally than any other job for recent graduates.'

Anyone considering this career is advised to undertake a 'mini-pupillage', a form of work experience, usually lasting a week or two, in a barrister's chambers. 'Mini-pupillages are important in helping to decide on a career as a barrister,' Mr Chan said.

Steps to the Bar

Step 1 Law degree from a university in Hong Kong or any university in a common law jurisdiction such as Singapore, Australia or England (usually 3 to 4 years); alternatively, a degree in any subject plus a conversion course called a Common Professional Examination (2 years part-time in Hong Kong or 1 year full-time in England)

Step 2 Postgraduate certificate in laws (PCLL ) from the University of Hong Kong or City University (1 year full-time or 2 years part- time)

Step 3 Pupillage (minimum 1 year) to be completed at a Hong Kong set of chambers

Step 4 Tenancy