A Polite Practice

Now that I’ve practiced in Hong Kong for more than a year, I think I can adequately compare and contrast the practice here from that in NY.  One big difference I’ve noticed is that the practice is far more polite and “nice”. 

A big part of the NY legal practice is writing what one of my former partners called the “nastygram.”  Sometimes the nastygram is used to tell someone to stop infringing/breaching/otherwise affecting your client’s rights.  Sometimes it is just lawyer to lawyer correspondence in a dispute already taking place.  Either way, it is inherently designed to be “not nice” to make your point and hopefully get what you want.

I noticed a lot of the letters I would draft were being edited by my boss to take the nasty out of what I thought was meant to be a nastygram. In fact, the NY practice is so riddled with “nastiness,” that is not uncommon to include little snipes here and there in the motion papers (e.g., “the plaintiff is completely misguided in its interpretation of A vs. B…”) too.

But in Hong Kong I have found things to be quite the opposite.  Lawyers really do treat each other with much more respect and kindness, and avoid jabs at the other’s intelligence, even when it is so painfully called for. 

Even more “polite” — barristers will address opposing counsel as “my learned friend,” and tehcnically, solicitors ought to address each other as “my friend”. 

I even had this happen to me one time while doing a 3 minute hearing before the magistrate, where my very obnoxious and stubborn opponent – who LOST in my application – addressed me as his “learned friend” (I want to say I am learned, but I am no barrister”) before the judge.  I admit it just reeked of sarcasm because he was entirely disagreeable to me – but “friend” I was in the courthouse that day.

I’m not trying to say that NY lawyers are always rude and jerky to each other, and it is definitely not the norm.  Rather, you do see rude and jerky behavior here and there, whereas in Hong Kong, it is more like almost never! I’m also not trying to say that HK lawyers aren’t jerks either – but at least in the practice, the tone is rather courteous and professional – even if not always heartfelt!

Overall, I find the rude jabs and snipes do make the job less enjoyable and injects anger into my day – so the “niceness” in HK certainly helps me to enjoy my practice a lot more.


4 responses to “A Polite Practice

  1. Good point!

  2. Australian Lawyer

    Just a little bit of further insight into the phrase “my learned friend”.

    The phrase is a remnant of English traditionalism in the common law system and connotes the joint privilege of counsel to appear before the judge/magistrate. You address your opponent as ‘my learned friend’ to represent that they have been admitted to the bar and are equally entitled to an audience before the court.

    The ‘friend’ aspect also relates to being called to the bar/ being admitted as a solicitor. After being admitted in nations with a common law tradition, your primary role is as an Officer of the Court. Thus, Both counsel are officers of the court and therefore ‘friends’.

    ‘My learned friend’ is used in all countries that have a British legal tradition so therefore you will find it being used in Britain, Australia, Hong Kong, New Zealand and Canada. It denotes mutual professional respect, however unfortunately it is rarely used as a true term of endearment.

    • Thanks Australian Lawyer – very well written and informative! I did learn about the distinction between “learned friend” and plain “friend” later on. It’s definitely an oddity on an American lawyer’s ears! Strange how we can all come from the same mother England, and then stray so far! But yes – while I like to keep things collegial between adversaries, I don’t really want to be “friends” with some of them!

  3. Hi there,

    In Malaysia, we address our opponents as “my learned friend” as well in the court room for tue same reasons as states by the Australian lawyer above. Perhaps it’s more courtesy to address it that way in the common law tradition.

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