Certain professions tend to rise or fall in terms of public standing depending on a variety of economic or cultural factors. Generally speaking, however, the legal profession has always been held in high regard and is likely to remain a field which attracts talented students who are keen to pursue a career which is sure to be both challenging and rewarding.
"Law is essential in a world which is full of complexity, since it underlies social, political and governmental structures. It not only creates order in society, but also in the business community and helps us to regulate our daily lives," says Michael Jackson, lecturer in the Department of Law at the University of Hong Kong (HKU).
With 25 years of experience in the legal field, Mr Jackson confirms that the profession still enjoys a high status, but advises his students to look beyond that. "With reputation comes responsibility. If we earn respect, we must not forget our duty to uphold the legal system," he says.
Mr Jackson is an admissions tutor for the Bachelor of Laws (LLB) course and says the programme gives students the essentials of an education in the common law. In the recent academic year, 220 HKU undergraduates are taking either the LLB or one of three joint degree options which include law. In 2004, the course was extended to four years. The additional year allows students to choose electives, increases the chance of arranging international exchanges, and gives the opportunity to specialise in areas such as Chinese law.
An outstanding academic record is one of the key considerations for admission. Nowadays, candidates usually include local school leavers, graduates from overseas high schools, degree holders in other subjects and, increasingly, graduates in legal studies from the mainland. In fact, mainlanders might comprise up to 10 per cent of students in a typical LLB class.
Mr Jackson believes that Hong Kong has an advantage because of the established rule of law and its unique status within the "one country, two systems" framework. Nowhere else has had such an opportunity to deal with cross-border legal and political issues which relate to the mainland's legal system. This gives the study of law in Hong Kong a different, yet practical context and provides many examples and precedents derived from China's rapid modernisation.
When outlining what it takes to make a good lawyer, Mr Jackson specifies integrity, industry and intelligence. He adds that communication skills and creativity are also necessary. "Law is about people. You need to interact well and be sensitive to the needs of others. You must be able to adapt legal principles to particular situations, which is the sign of a good lawyer."
He thinks the profession will continue to prosper and will be helped by growing public awareness and social debate about issues which affect the wider community.
On completing their LLB degree, graduates usually move on to the one-year Postgraduate Certificate in Laws (PCLL), which is the statutory professional qualification for entering the legal profession. For aspiring solicitors, this is then followed by a two-year traineeship with a law firm. Monthly salaries at that stage can range from HK$10,000 to HK$40,000, depending on the firm. To become a barrister, the next step after the PCLL is to complete a 12-month pupilage with a pupil master, who is a senior barrister.
Since it takes at least 7 years' study to become a fully-fledged lawyer, those planning to enter the profession need to be highly motivated, a quality which allows the best students to stand out. "I look for that when teaching because it helps students to think about the world in a legal way."