SCMP Friday, August 24, 2001

Why high-flying lawyers spurn government jobs


The unemployment rate is rising, companies are carrying out "slimming" exercises, and there is general gloom and doom about the economy. But there is one place where jobs are up for grabs, only no one wants them.
While other public bodies are making staff redundant, the Department of Justice has vacancies for government lawyers which it has been unable to fill.
A recruitment exercise launched last October targeting barristers and solicitors with at least two years' experience led to 27 candidates being offered jobs. But only 17 of them took up the opportunity to become a government counsel and earn a starting salary of $35,285 a month. This has, again, highlighted the problems faced by the department when it comes to competing with the private sector in a bid to secure Hong Kong's top legal talent.
The difficulties faced by the Government's legal arm are not restricted to the lower-ranking positions. A successor to Elsie Leung Oi-sie, who is expected to leave the Secretary for Justice post next June after serving five years, is yet to be identified. The apparent vacuum has often been attributed to the department's inability to attract heavyweight candidates from the private sector.
And the South China Morning Post has learned that a prime Department of Justice consultancy position in the commercial-law field, which pays about $130,000 a month, is to be offered to a candidate from Britain. The standard of Hong Kong applicants was considered too low. So why is it that, even at a time of economic hardship, the department is struggling to attract the SAR's high-fliers? The most obvious answer is an inability to compete with the salaries some can command in lucrative areas of the private sector.
Although government counsel start on just over $35,000 a month, private-sector lawyers with similar experience can earn as much as $90,000 with major law firms. This is not to say that lawyers generally are finding life easy in the current climate. Many barristers, and solicitors in small firms, have been struggling since the economic downturn in 1997. But difficult conditions such as these usually work in favour of the Government when it comes to recruitment. A job with the Department of Justice offers relative stability and a regular wage compared with the uncertainty of the private sector.
One reason the recent recruitment exercise ended in jobs not being filled is because one part of the legal market is booming. The big law firms, particularly international ones, are preparing for China's entry to the World Trade Organisation (WTO), with all the business opportunities that is expected to bring. The major firms are snapping up talent, particularly in the commercial field, and lawyers whose services are in demand can expect to be paid considerably more than the relatively meagre government salary.
There was no shortage of candidates for the government-counsel jobs - 210 applied and 185 were interviewed. But positions were only offered to the 27 best candidates, and by that time, 10 had opted to go elsewhere.
Chairman of the Bar Association Alan Leong Kah-kit, SC, said: "The big international firms are preparing for China's entry into the WTO. They are going after the best local graduates. If they really want you, it is not unusual for them to offer up to $90,000 a month."
But the market for lawyers in general has not picked up. "The overall picture is not good. Some barristers are struggling. I am quite sure that among some of these present applications for government counsel, there were some from barristers, maybe even quite senior people."
The department is well aware of the problem it faces. Ms Leung is reported to have written to the Civil Service Bureau asking for a review of the pay levels for government counsel to help the department compete more effectively with the private sector. The starting salary was reduced by more than $9,000 a month last year, following a review.
"We expressed that due regard be given to the situation in the private legal sector when considering the starting salary of government counsel in the future," said a spokesman for the department.
He said the Department of Justice was able to offer several attractions not available in the private sector. Relative job security is one factor, but the opportunity to gain experience in areas of the law not covered by the private sector, such as law drafting and prosecuting, is another. "But sometimes we cannot compete with the wages available in certain fields," he added. "Overall, I do not think our package is too bad."
Hong Kong is not short of talented lawyers in the commercial field. But those who applied for the new government job as a senior consultant in this area seem set to be rejected in favour of a lawyer in Britain who is regarded as a better candidate. This suggests the top performers in Hong Kong did not apply.
Another obstacle the Government faces when it comes to recruitment is the red tape that bogs down the processing of job applications. The posts have to be advertised, a recruitment board set up, and then interviews, assessment of candidates, medical examinations and security vetting all have to take place. This means that even when a lawyer is identified as being ideal for the job, it can be six months or more before an offer is made.
A senior lawyer familiar with Department of Justice employment issues said: "The problem with the way the department does it is that it thinks it is the only employer in town. The whole process takes so long. This may be justified in terms of civil-service regulations, but that is not how the employment market works. The system is designed to fail. It is denying them the very people they seek."
Recruiting in the private sector - where candidates are often headhunted - is not so complex, and appointments can be made swiftly. So even a lawyer who applied for a job as a government counsel, intending to take the position if offered, is likely to have gone elsewhere by the time a decision is made.
"The Government system has to be followed, but it would be helpful if a way could be found to speed up the process," the department spokesman said. "It has to be remembered that we deal with hundreds of applications. I do not think that is the case with the big law firms."
The department has claimed its work will not be affected by the shortfall in appointments, saying the gap will be made up by hiring temporary staff. But some government lawyers complain of being under extreme pressure and urgently needing more staff.
The hiring of lawyers on short-term contracts, often at a lower pay level than permanent staff, can be divisive. The senior lawyer said: "It is unattractive, and it does not tend to interest the best people."
But a job with the Department of Justice is still seen as an attractive option. One lawyer who joined as a government counsel three years ago, after working for a major law firm, said he did not regret the move. "Private practice is very much driven by the profit motive. The practice is a business. Every day you have to justify your existence by reference to the bills you have issued. Now that I work for the Department of Justice, I don't have to bother about billing. I need to concentrate working on my files and making sure I deliver the goods."
He said he had not taken a cut in wages to join the Government, although former colleagues have told him he would have had many opportunities had he stayed.
Questions still remain about whether the department will be able to attract the best lawyers for its most senior position, Secretary for Justice. A lack of candidates from within the department is likely to lead the Government to seek someone from the private sector to be Ms Leung's successor.
Mr Leong, from the Bar Association, has called on the Government to enter into consultation over the appointment, regarded as crucial in terms of Hong Kong's legal development.
He said: "I have certainly come across members of the Bar who have intimated that they would not mind serving as Secretary for Justice. But, according to my personal assessment, these are not people Tung Chee-hwa would want to work with, because they are regarded as too independent."
Cliff Buddle ( ) is the Deputy Editor of the Post's Editorial Pages.