How to blow your cash and time on Earth (1)

Monday 6 May 2013, 6.40am HKT

Updated 07 MAY 2013 (typo fixes)

3.41am local time, 21°C (70°F), coolish with some drizzles


RECENTLY a discussion cropped up in my Facebook feed about the current pathways to becoming a lawyer in Hong Kong. Some people here just don’t seem to realise the consequences that those pathways entail in time, effort and money.

rosewood gavel

Hitting the nail on the head

Nailing the head, more like…

SOMEONE I know has decided to backtrack and do GCE A-levels after having graduated with a B.A. in English.

My reaction when knowing this was … stunned — stunned that there are actually people who would pull a stunt like that beyond all thinking.

So here’s my answer to that acquaintance of mine who thinks (mistakenly) that doubling back to secondary-school qualifications is a rational decision whilst already holding a first degree.

What’s GCE?

gce cert 1974

GCE (General Certificate of Education) is the United Kingdom’s export version of the GCSE (General Certificate of Secondary Education), the domestic national examinations for UK inland (‘home’) students. Both the GCE and GCSE are split into Ordinary Level (‘O-level,’ for junior high school) and Advanced Level (‘A-level,’ for senior high). Exam sessions are twice a year (in January and June). There are no compulsory subjects, as students choose the subjects they wish to sit for, although most will select a fairly standard set of subjects generally looked for by employers (such as English, Maths, etc).

Introduced in the UK in 1951, the GCE was the only set of academic (i.e. non-vocational) school exams for school-leaving and university entrance purposes throughout the 1950s to the late 1980s (when the GCSE was launched for home students). The GCE therefore became the export version for university entrance use as it remained popular in many ex-British colonies.

The Hong Kong ‘agent’ or franchisee for the GCE is a quango named Hong Kong Examinations and Assessment Authority.

(In Britspeak, a ‘quango’ stands for quasi-autonomous non-governmental organisation to which a government has devolved power to administrate certain matters. Legally, a quango is “a non-governmental public body or executive agency.”)

GCE exam fees for Hong Kong varies according to subject. Overall, price is from HK$800 to HK$1,200 per examined subject (US$103 to US$155, or £66 to £100), which is seriously outrageous.

To be perfectly honest, if a person already has a degree, then further sitting for the GCE is a pointless exercise in blowing your cash and time on Earth. With a prior degree and a little low savvy in composing the Personal Statement on the law-school application form, it’s far cheaper and less heartache to get into law school.

Yet I find many Hongkongers typically make self-defeating defensive remarks like, “I’ve paid for it, so I’ll bear the consequences” — they meant “I’ve paid for it so I’ll just have to carry on with it regardless” — while deaf and blind to the longer-range consequences that go beyond mere payment of cash.

Uniqueness of law

  • Law doesn’t travel. Your knowledge and experience of the laws of one place is non-transferable to another. Do medicine, engineering or something else instead for transferability.

barrister wig

Only from 1971 did Hong Kong started to offer its own LL.B. (the law degree).

This comes as a massive surprise to many people. We would think that it would have been much earlier than 1971 for a place like Hong Kong, which long operated on English law (adjusted for local conditions) and still does today. The whys and wherefores of that is another story for another day.

Unlike medicine, engineering, architecture and umpteen other subject areas, law is stuck in One Place Hell — “lex loci” (‘law of the place’).

Medicine treats everybody the same way, whether in Paris or Tokyo, whether the patient is Congolese or Genovese. Engineering builds things the same way whether in Timbuktu or in Duluth, Wisconsin. Banking and Finance can be put to crafty, rapacious use in New York City as easily as in Hongkongtown. But not law. The laws of nearly everywhere is different.

Current situation

  • We’re seeing a glut of law graduates with practically no prospect of making it to practice in the short to medium term, mainly because the real problem is with the back end of the qualifying pathway.

Here’s why.

Several practising lawyers last year told me the Articles” and “pupillage” required for finalising legal training and licensing have become impossible to get in the last three or four years, and the situation won’t likely change for the better for several more years.

‘Articles’ are the two-year traineeships for solicitors (the non-advocate lawyers). Pupillage is the equivalent for barristers (the advocate lawyers). Articles and pupillage are compulsory requirements for admission and registration as practising lawyers.

In other words, with little or no availability of Articles or pupillage for the foreseeable future, many legally trained people will be stuck only with their paper qualifications and unable to proceed further.

legal pathway in hk

Like everything in law, it isn’t as straightforward as it seems…
The chart skips one or two whole levels
in the whole qualifying process

So why the dearth of traineeships and pupillage?

The main reasons for Hong Kong are mostly the same worldwide:—

  • rising cost of general employment (7%–15% p.a. for the past 5 years)
  • rising cost of legal employment (10%–15% p.a. for the past 5 years)
  • ever-rising cost of legal malpractice insurance (because of growing numbers of malpractice suits)
  • enforced redundancies and other cost-cutting measures within the government for legal personnel (e.g. legal aid)
  • inevitably, ever-rising rental costs (effectively 15%–20% p.a. for Hong Kong)
  • rising cost of CPD (continuing professional development) post-qualification and/or post-admission (annual percentage rise variable according to specialism)

This stuff all just adds up and eats into the budget for offering traineeships or pupillage to newly qualified candidates.

Other ‘sub-surface’ reasons contributing to the problem

  • Substandard English-language skills translates into extra operating costs.

This is the arrowhead of two problems (the other being legal skills) that practically nobody likes to mention in the open, but real enough to impact the balance sheet on a daily basis. And nobody seems to have any idea on how to fix things, other than to rebadge the problem as a ‘feature’ of the Hong Kong legal profession.

Hypodermic needle wikimedia

“… the big money in Hong Kong is all with the foreign firms. Most legal work in Hong Kong is done in English. The top firms in Hong Kong are all UK and US firms. If you want to work in China, yes, then Chinese language would be an advantage. For Hong Kong, it’s the legal skills you bring that matter most, not whether you can speak Chinese, and for most fields local language is not needed.” — Randy, 14 MAR 2011

“Local language is not needed” is bull’s eye. Four-fifths of legal work in Hong Kong is still done in English. Yet our law graduates’ overall English-language articulacy HAVE been falling ever since the 1997 handover. Our esteemed government denies this point-blank — yet altogether super bloody painful to experience on an everyday basis by those who work alongside homegrown lawyers.

“Everybody hopes things will get better — but it’s not getting better because nothing’s been done about it … it’s not in our sphere of concern or influence. But it IS because it’s costing us.” — An anonymous senior lawyer to The Naked Listener

Poor language ability is a real problem among our locally educated legals. Fixing poor language costs money, often in the form of dragged-out or lost lawsuits, non-billable hours, resubmission costs, retranslation, reinterpretation, re-instruction, re-markup, reproof, etc. It all becomes painfully noticeable even to someone like me (a printer) who deals daily with those documents.

The problem with English-language skills goes deeper. Repairing the English makes a relatively higher impact on a firm’s bottom line (since legal work is still substantially done in English).

  • Substandard LEGAL skills lead to faulty legal handiwork, which is harder (therefore costlier) to repair because it eats into billable hours.

Substandard legal skills are a real problem too. It flows from substantial language ability mentioned above. Ultimately, it dilutes profits.

One reason, many practising lawyers often tell me, for the substandard legal skills among locally trained lawyers is the way Hong Kong train up law students.

this is law school sparta

British and especially American law schools are incredibly competitive to get in, and highly competitive to stay in. The entire operating model for law students everywhere is for high speed, high accuracy, high responsiveness, high articulation, and high adherence to rules and hierarchy — just like in medical schools.

This, against a backdrop of study materials that aren’t nearly as straightforward as (say) engineering — legal matters are by their origins and nature often nebulous, contradictory and counterintuitive with shifting goalposts for correctness.

In contrast, the average Hong Kong law school is comparatively leisurely in pace and academic in flavour (at least in my own experience of it). Of course, that’s only a comparative view — law study in Hong Kong is still 10 times more dog-eat-dog than most other academic disciplines, so I’m not trying to give out a warped picture here.

  • The magical date of 30 June 2046 is a real problem that everybody pretends it doesn’t exist.

On that date, Hong Kong has an appointment to become a fully integrated geopolitical part of the People’s Republic of China, our overlord.

If the period from the 1997 handover to today had been cohabitation for us, then 2046 will be nuptials, marriage, wedding and pregnancy all rolled into one.

And it might end up an abortion too, if we’re unprepared for it.

china soldier chinadaily-com-cn

You see, 30 June 2046 is the legal expiration date of our common law.

Not being one bit melodramatic here, but there’s been absoeffinglutely no discussion, no thinking and no contingencies for that eventuality. The super small handful of legal practitioners who paid even abject attention to the matter blithely contend that nothing untoward is going to happen — everything will be fine as before.

I hope everything will be.

But I also don’t think things will go spick and span in 33 years’ time UNTIL AND UNLESS we nail down some kind of operating plan for that date. Such a plan isn’t going to materialise unless some form of discussion or contingency planning is being sought round about now.

Not thinking about this unthinkable issue means that 30 June 2046 might just end up a big surprise butthurt party and everybody scrambling to put in panic measures to upkeep the legal system on life support. Exactly like what happened in 1997.

Not to put too fine a point on things, panic measures are often unworkable, such as the economic austerity measures we see taking place in the European Union right now.

I love TV reruns, but not terribly fond of real-life reruns.


To get around these and other ‘local’ problems, many legal hopefuls are taking their lives in their own hands with workarounds — to be explained in Part 2.



Workarounds and the Changing Landscape for Everybody



© The Naked Listener’s Weblog, 2013. (B13129)

Images: (1) Gavel via Wooden Toys UK (2) GCE Certificate in author’s collection (3) Barrister’s wig via Weird Universe (4) Route to Qualification as a Lawyer in HK via University of Hong Kong Law Faculty (5) Hypodermic needle graphic via (6) This Is Law School via Shit LawStudents Say on Twitter (7) Chinese military show host Yu Jie 俞洁 via China Daily.

Updated 07 MAY 2013 (typo fixes)
Updated 04 DEC 2013 (typo fixes)

4 Responses to “How to blow your cash and time on Earth (1)”

  1. Ed Hurst said

    So, a peaceful change in government can actually be more life-threatening than a simple military move? Who would have thought? (sarcasm)


  2. The Bar Association and Law Society said directly seeking an interpretation from Beijing would be likely to undermine the rule of law of Hong Kong. Law professor Albert Chen Hung-yee, a Basic Law Committee member, said there was only a slim chance the government would directly seek an interpretation from Beijing given the opposition from the public and the legal and political communities.


    • Yes, it is possible that to seek an ‘interpretation’ from Beijing could result in undermining the rule of law. But not probable. There is ALREADY a degree of difficulty with the existing ROL because of not knowing what will happen ‘beyond the hills’ – witness the current ambiguities associated with government leaseholds granted to developers.

      Yes, there is only a slim chance of the government looking for an interpretation, but that’s no way because of opposition. There simply ISN’T ANY OPPOSITION because there ISN’T ANY DISCUSSION OR DISCOURSE on the matter at all – an aspect that I’ve already mentioned in the post above.


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