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Any changes to rules for Hong Kong lawyers must be in the public interest

  • Move relating to the use of legal experts from outside the city has to be approached with care and should target abuses not impose protectionist measures
PUBLISHED : Monday, 22 October, 2018, 8:09pm
UPDATED : Monday, 22 October, 2018, 11:30pm

Hong Kong’s status as an international finance centre depends, in part, on a strong legal profession. Lawyers from outside Hong Kong, whether from other common law jurisdictions or from the mainland, play a significant part in broadening the expertise available and range of services offered. Moves by the Law Society to tighten the rules relating to the work of lawyers from outside Hong Kong must, therefore, be approached with caution. The Law Society, the professional body for local solicitors, is seeking to plug a loophole that allows foreign and mainland lawyers to work on local cases in defiance of existing rules. Lawyers and graduates from outside Hong Kong are being hired by law firms as “advisers” on local cases that have a foreign or mainland dimension. This is common practice for initial public offerings and corporate affairs.

A proposal put forward by the Law Society in a letter to consulting firms would restrict the work of such lawyers so they would only be able to give legal advice in cases involving the jurisdictions they are registered in. Law firms would also have to employ two local lawyers for each one from outside the city.

Fears of foreign lawyer exodus as Hong Kong mulls new rules

It is fine to clarify the rules. Certainly, steps should be taken to prevent any exploitation of young lawyers or graduates who may be willing to work for lower pay than their local counterparts. But the Law Society must tread carefully. Any changes to the rules must be confined to tackling abuses, rather than simply imposing protectionist measures. Fears have been raised that tightening the rules too much would drive lawyers in certain specialist fields elsewhere. That would not be in Hong Kong’s interests, especially at a time when the city is seeking to position itself as a legal hub for China’s ambitious “Belt and Road Initiative” infrastructure project. Mainland expertise will be especially important for that enterprise.

The extension of the consultation period until the end of the year is a sensible step to take. The views of foreign law firms operating in the city should be taken into account. Lawyers from outside Hong Kong make a valuable contribution. Care must be taken to ensure that any change to the rules works in the public interest, rather than only the interests of Hong Kong lawyers.