SCMP Saturday, November 25, 2000
Action planned on law students
Legal education faces a shake-up as lawyers and universities agree curriculum changes are needed to produce graduate lawyers with better skills.
Calls for change have come as a consultation on ways to improve legal education and training, commissioned by a steering committee under the Department of Justice, comes to an end next week.
The Government launched the review to ensure the SAR's law graduates can serve the needs of Hong Kong and an increasingly competitive global market.
Employers also want change, to raise the standards of local law graduates and cope with law practices moving away from a traditional emphasis on conveyancing to a wider range of legal disciplines.
China's accession to the World Trade Organisation (WTO) is expected to fuel demand for lawyers with specialist knowledge in China, and trade laws.
Two Australian experts, Christopher Roper, director of the Centre of Legal Education in Sydney, and Paul Redmond, dean of faculty of law at the University of New South Wales, were brought in by the Government to conduct a study.
The pair pointed to declining English and Chinese language skills, and inadequate communication and analytical skills among local law graduates.
The Law Society will submit a range of options related to the content and length of law degree programmes, entry requirements, postgraduate and in-service training, before the consultation ends next Thursday.
The University of Hong Kong, (HKU)'s School of Professional and Continuing Education (Space) and City University, the providers of local legal education here, are all hoping to enhance their courses in light of the consultation and subsequent recommendations, due to be made in February next year.
Bryan Bachner, associate professor and chairman of the City University's committee on legal education and training, said that CityU was planning to introduce more practical courses at both undergraduate and graduate levels, in areas such as negotiation skills, law drafting, mediation and client counselling.
The Bachelor of Laws degree (LLB) programme in particular had over-emphasised substance, said Professor Bachner. He also criticised the basic education law students had received. "Secondary schools do not encourage analytical, independent thinking needed in legal education," he said.
The university had helped first-year law students have a better understanding of the profession by inviting deputy solicitor-general, Stephen Wong Kai-yi, to give a talk at the beginning of the school year, he said.
The Dean of HKU's Law Faculty, Albert Chen Hung-yee, agreed on the need for curricular changes, and changes in teaching methods at both LLB and Postgraduate Certificate in Laws (PCLL) levels. The faculty would review its courses, he said.
Space's law division hopes to make its courses more skill-based. In addition, it hopes to provide a "genuine" part-time PCLL programme with classes at weekends and in the evening rather than day-time, as is the case now, according to division head Mike Fisher.
But the universities defend the quality of local legal training. "Local graduates do not necessarily have poorer English or standards than their overseas counterparts. It not only matters what they learn at universities, but the kind of practical training they have as solicitors too," said HKU's Professor Chen.
In its own 40-page report to the committee, CityU refutes the Australian experts' views of the low quality of local law graduates.
"They have painted a far too negative, inaccurate picture of law graduates," said Professor Bachner. "Their report should have been more comprehensive, instead of being limited to views on fresh graduates."
Views differ among law firms and law teachers contacted by Education Post on the standards of local graduates and whether they could meet the needs of the law profession.
Katy Lang, principal of Hughes Castell, an international recruitment agency for legal professionals, said: "Local graduates are at a disadvantage when it comes to seeking jobs at international law firms which demand high English standards and modern knowledge, say in e-commerce."
International firms in particular were opting for overseas-educated lawyers as a result, she said.
The Bar Association is proposing changes in the curriculum of the PCLL so students can opt for training for either solicitors or barristers in the second half of the one-year programme, instead of being lumped together as is the case now. All law graduates are required to take the PCLL before entering the legal profession.
The association also favours making advanced legal education courses compulsory for pupil barristers to enhance their ability.
"Training for solicitors should focus more on areas related to their work, such as conveyancing, while that for barristers should focus more on advocacy," said Clive Grossman SC, chairman of a review committee under the Bar Association. "The problem is students who were to be barristers had concentrated on subjects not suitable to nor practical for them."
But he thinks the standards of fresh law graduates here are quite high, though "there's always room for improvement in every profession".
Mr Fisher and Professor Bachner agree legal education and training in Hong Kong has failed to move ahead with the times.
"The problem is it has been monopolised, and there was no impetus for it to change, until the review came," said Mr Fisher, referring to the fact that only HKU and CityU provided local courses.
The bulk of fresh graduates come from HKU and Space, which produce about 300 graduates each year, compared with 45 PCCL students from CityU.
Space is the only institution offering preparation courses with face-to-face classes for an external University of London LLB degree. There are a few other providers of distance-learning courses preparing students for the University of London exam, such as Britain's Holborn College.
Concern has been raised by some over the standards of students trained in overseas jurisdictions who may not be familiar with local laws.
But Mr Fisher dismissed the worry and said those who passed the University of London examination were of a high standard.