The career path of a barrister is far from clear-cut. While some scrape by, never knowing when their next client will bring them a new brief, others are as in demand as film stars. According to Edward Chan SC, chairman of the Hong Kong Bar Association and a practising barrister with nearly 30 years' experience, analytical ability, time management skills and diligence are the determining factors for success.
Indeed, while a good barrister needs a good memory, more importantly he or she must be analytical. The "power of analysis and assimilation" - which Mr Chan describes as the ability to "analyse and synthesise thought and articulate it in an understandable way" - is crucial.
What ultimately separates good barristers from the truly successful ones is, however, diligence. Barristers must spend a great deal of time poring over details of cases and ensuring they are familiar with all the facts. "There is no substitute for being diligent," he stresses. "It doesn't matter how bright you are; if you haven't read the papers, you haven't read them."
The reward for this time and effort comes from the sense of achievement in helping clients find solutions. But, like a true barrister - serious and analytical - Mr Chan adds: "Every barrister likes to win cases, but this is not a yardstick of success. You have to realise that you can't win all the cases."
The path to the top is undoubtedly arduous. In addition to rigorous academic requirements - three years of law school, followed by the year-long Postgraduate Certificate of Laws (PCLL), offered only at the University of Hong Kong (HKU) or City University of Hong Kong - aspiring barristers must also apply for pupilage with barristers qualified to be pupil masters. After six months of pupilage, candidates can be called to the Bar, but must complete a further six months' pupilage before becoming qualified barristers.
"Every barrister likes to win cases, but this is not a yardstick of success"
After beginning his studies in HKU's Law Department, Mr Chan opted for a Master's in law in the UK and was called to the English Bar and completed his pupilage in England. Based on this, he was admitted to the Hong Kong Bar in 1975 and has practised as a barrister ever since, reaching the senior title of Queen's Counsel - or, in post-1997 terminology, Senior Counsel - in 1989. From 2001, he served as vice-chairman of the Hong Kong Bar Association before his election as chairman in January 2003.
His current responsibilities range from chairing general meetings to making day-to-day decisions on behalf of the Bar and acting as its spokesperson on a wide range of issues. However, these duties occupy only part of his day. As a full-time general practitioner, Mr Chan advises clients, appears in court - usually with junior counsel - meets with witnesses and does appeal work. Today, the bulk of his practice is in civil work, such as probate, contract, banking and land-related cases.
An average day is spent juggling roles: appearing in court for five hours or more, reviewing and responding to correspondence from the Bar Secretariat, preparing briefings for Bar Association meetings and working on ongoing cases, while providing guidance and advice to junior counsel. "I must have good time management skills," he says, adding that this is true of barristers in general, who regularly divide their time between several cases and responsibilities.
One of Mr Chan's most pressing concerns is whether the Bar will continue to attract good, young, talented people. With the Law Society's recent push to grant solicitors the right of audience - the ability to appear in certain courts - he worries that competition between barristers and solicitors and the fear of financial uncertainty will discourage potential candidates.
He also warns that "there is no easy, well-paid work in this profession". Indeed, barristers can only charge for as much work as they produce. Still, top players can demand very high fees. More importantly, financial rewards depend upon each individual's qualifications. For good barristers, Mr Chan notes, the bar is always set high.
In the wake of the Closer Economic Partnership Arrangement (CEPA), the possibility exists for Hong Kong barristers to be employed in China as Hong Kong lawyers - but not as barristers. According to Mr Chan, large law firms in China often like to employ people who are qualified in Hong Kong. There is also a high demand in China for legal services provided by barristers based in Hong Kong.
However, Mr Chan notes that Hong Kong barristers can only provide services to mainland clients with respect to Hong Kong law or common law. Barristers must also adjust their fees downwards for these clients to reflect the cost of living in China.