In order to meet the ongoing need for qualified lawyers with specialist expertise, the Department of Justice is offering a legal trainee scheme which may lead to openings to work as a government counsel.
Under the programme, graduates in law have two initial options. They can either apply to train for one year as a barrister or two years as a solicitor. The former includes a posting as a judge's marshal while the latter includes an attachment to a private law firm for experience in the commercial sector.
Olivia Tsang, who is now a government counsel in the prosecutions division of the Department of Justice, believes that the scheme provides some of the best all-round legal training available in Hong Kong.
She signed on immediately after graduating from the University of Hong Kong's Faculty of Law in 2000 and completed her basic training two years later. The logical next step was to apply for a role as counsel for the prosecutions division.
"After finishing the initial training, it is possible to act as a prosecutor in a magistrates' court," Ms Tsang explains. "If you are in the private sector as a trainee barrister or solicitor, you don't have the opportunity for that kind of exposure so early in your career." After a six-week course in criminal advocacy and a few mock trials supervised by government counsels, she found herself acting as prosecutor in court and has never looked back. "That's for real," she says. "You are in at the deep end and don't just sit in an office compiling case files."
Now, Ms Tsang's responsibilities have greatly increased. She also handles appeals on behalf of the government, provides detailed advice to law enforcement agencies, and offers insights to other government departments about the criminal law aspects of proposed legislation. "What I enjoy most is appearing in court, and being a government counsel gives me plenty of opportunity to do just that," she says.
Not surprisingly, she says that the work is consistently challenging and involves long hours, especially since the number of appeal cases is steadily increasing.
"There are now many more appeals for us to handle, and the increase partly coincided with the freeze in manpower in effect a few years ago," Ms Tsang says. She adds that the public also has higher expectations of civil servants nowadays and the department therefore realises that transparency is a key issue.
Every lawyer, of course, needs exceptional language skills and analytical abilities. "English is still very much the official language for legal studies in Hong Kong," Ms Tsang explains. "However, as bilingual counsels, we need to prepare cases in both Chinese and English because most of the time, the choice of language used in district courts and magistrates' courts is determined at the very last minute."
For that reason, the Department of Justice has set up language training programmes. Ms Tsang took one of them last year ¡Ð a course offered by Zhongshan University in Guangzhou, which focused on the skills needed to write legal documents in Chinese.
There is a range of other professional development programmes, including in-house seminars led by senior counsels and judges. They are invited to give talks on specific legal issues. Government counsels are also given the chance to attend courses overseas on advocacy and other job-related topics.
The many courtroom dramas seen on TV may be entertaining, but they don't reflect the true face of the legal professions. "As prosecutors in real life, we don't stroll across the courtroom telling stories," Ms Tsang says. "Different legal professionals play their respective parts. Our core responsibility is to present the prosecution's case and evidence to the judge, not to seek to obtain a conviction."
She also notes that prosecutors must be able to take an unbiased and impartial view of any case. "However minor it may seem, each case can potentially affect a person's life and livelihood," she says. "Therefore, we must exercise utmost caution when dealing with whatever comes before us."