Q&A: Foreign Lawyers Becoming HK Barristers

It had never occurred to me that I would want to be a barrister in Hong Kong — or anywhere else for that matter.  For starters, I never really understood what a barrister was until pretty recently.  Also, I personally never could see myself going out on my own — and all barristers, though they may share overhead costs by joining up in chambers, are actually solo practitioners (well, except in England & Wales, which recently changed its rules to permit barristers to associate with firms).

In any case, I’m bringing this up as I recently got this question from Jane P. on my About page:

I was born and raised in Hong Kong until I immigrated to California in the ’80s. My husband and I are both licensed attorney in California for 20 and 11 years, respectively. We are thinking of moving back to Hong Kong next year and would like to be qualified as barristers there. Do you know if it is difficult to get through the process at our age early 50s? I think barristers are self-employed, am I right? BTW, how do you like working as a solicitor in HK?

As to “the process,” it turns out there is a wholly separate qualifying route for foreign lawyers wishing to become barristers — something I didn’t know until Jane P’s question came along!  The Hong Kong Bar Association is the official source for this, and here is where you’ll find this information:

To be qualified for admission, an overseas lawyer must:
(a) hold a currently valid certificate of admission as legal practitioner in his jurisdiction of admission;
(b) have been in practice for at least 3 years in the jurisdiction of admission;
(c) be a person of good standing in the jurisdiction of admission; and
(d) pass the Barristers Qualification Examination.

As to this Barristers Qualification Examination — I really have no knowledge about it, but from taking a quick perusal on the 2012 information packet, it seems to be somewhat similar to the OLQE in that

  1. It tests 5 subjects uncannily similar to the OLQE (but a different numbering); and
  2. The timetable is pretty similar — the examination is held once a year in late October, and the application process begins almost 6 months before, with similar deadlines.

But that’s where the similarities seem to end, and it actually looks as if it differs a lot more:

  1. There is no immediate distinction between common law and civil code lawyers – which I find odd, since you’d think civil code lawyers would be at an automatic disadvantage, having no experience with a precedent-based legal system;
  2. Common law lawyers do get an automatic exemption – but from just one part, the paper testing contract and tort — which, to me, is an odd one to auto-exempt a common law lawyer from as opposed a civil code one;
  3. There is no auto-exemption based on experience, though you can amek an application;
  4. Paper V, on Civil Procedure, Civil Evidence, Professional Conduct and Advocacy is partially tested orally;
  5. There are no established prep courses that I know of, as this is probably a very unpopular route for foreign lawyers — a bit scary!

In addition to being admitted, there is a 6-month pupillage requirement, meaning, once you’ve passed your exams and made your motion for admission in the Court (this process, I would guess, is no different than the one I describe, though it may require some coordination with confirmation of your pupillage), you need to locate a “pupil master” and traditionally, the pupillage is an unpaid term, though there are some scholarships you can apply for, and some chambers may provide for a stipend.  The pay is, however, generally less than a trainee’s contract (so for those accustomed to BigLaw – start thinking junior non-profit lawyer, or LESS!).

Based on the above, I can’t imagine this process to be terribly easy for anyone, no matter your age.  I did not readily see statistics on the test, but perhaps if you page through more links about the exam, you may find it. Though age, or more aptly, experience, is more likely to be on your side – especially if you know the HK legal community /can network well enough to find yourself a willing and reputed pupil master to take you on.

From my past year as a litigation solicitor, working with and experiencing barristers in court, I have learned that a good barrister is hard to find.  There are certain chambers that are frequently in demand, based on their reputations.  Once you become a well-reputed barrister, you can very easily demand a very handsome fee.  There is a Queens Counsel we hired from England who charges 3,000 POUND STERLING an hour! That’s far above what the highest hourly charge of a BigLaw partner makes!

Also, coming from an American background, I must warn that your normal American lawyer can’t fathom what a barrister does, unless and until you experience it for yourself.  You cannot consider a barrister to be the US equivalent of a litigator.  A barrister is more of a court specialist, than a litigator, and his role in each case is highly determined by the solicitors (not the clients) who hire him!

It turns out, I can probably write a whole lot more on the topic, so I’m going to save that for another post.  And Jane P., if you’re reading, I hope you’ve found this helpful – and my question to you is why are you and your husband considering this route, versus solicitor?  Can you fill me in more on what you do now?

I have really enjoyed my time so far as a Hong Kong solicitor, but I must warn that Hong Kong law and procedure is very different from whatever your experience has been in California (not that I’ve any CA experience) — and my guess is that the learning curve as a barrister might be even steeper than that of a solicitor!  Jane P., if you do pursue this, I would LOVE to hear updates on your process!

 

 

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3 responses to “Q&A: Foreign Lawyers Becoming HK Barristers

  1. Hi, my name is Wilson and I am a NY lawyer, I would like to become a barrister in Hong Kong. I have no ideas on how to prepare for the BQE and do you think the OLQE review course will well prepare for the BQE as well? Also, do you know which OLQE review course has good reputation? Any thought is appreciated. Thank you so much.

    • Hi Wilson! Best of luck in your pursuit to become a barrister. I actually don’t know how similar or different the two exams are, as I haven’t done any closer examination of the BQE. In my blog I’ve recommended the course I used to prepare for the OLQE, and I am sure that Colin, its proprietor and also a barrister, can probably advise better on how one might prep for the BQE. Best of luck and PLEASE write in to let us all know how it’s going! Based on my experience as a litigation solicitor, I really don’t know if I could do the barrister thing! It really is quite different from US litigation practice.

  2. Thanks so much for your information. This is very helpful.

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