Rewarding opportunities are on offer for budding charity lawyers, says Withers consultant Michelle Chow
An increasing emphasis on governance in charitable organisations may be posing new challenges for charity lawyers, but is also opening the doors of opportunity. Michelle Chow, a consultant at Withers, lays out what it takes to be successful in charity law and philanthropy.
How has the local charity landscape changed in the last few years and what are the main factors affecting lawyers in Hong Kong?
Like any industry that begins to grow and evolve into complex organisations, the most significant change in Hong Kong’s charity landscape has been an increased focus on governance.
This is largely due to a report published by the charity subcommittee of the Law Reform Committee in 2013 and the government’s requirement for charities to develop their governance framework. This has encouraged charities to improve their governance standards, benefitting both the charities and the communities they serve.
The words “governance” and “compliance” may make budding lawyers everywhere squeal. But it is precisely those clear frameworks that give charity lawyers like myself the opportunity to help charities improve how they manage their resources and operations and advise, advising them on best practice guidelines and ultimately making them stronger in the long term.
The other big change is that young people are looking to engage in philanthropy, with a different perspective to their parents’ or grandparents’ generation. We already serve many of these families in other areas like matrimonial, tax and wealth planning, so philanthropy is a natural extension.
What are the main challenges in setting up charitable organisations in Hong Kong? What do lawyers need to look out for?
In addition to increasing governance requirements, charities must ensure they are charitable in nature. Hong Kong has strict rules on what activities are considered “charitable”. While social clubs, sports and recreational clubs, professional groups, and government agencies are not-for-profit organisations, they don’t have charitable purposes. When clients wish to engage in work that is beneficial to society but not charitable in nature, we help them think about how they can achieve such goals in a different way.
Many charities also work to solve social issues beyond Hong Kong. As the definition of “charity” may vary across different jurisdictions, we must ensure that they are able to lawfully raise funds and operate in other countries. This can be challenging, but I’m lucky to be part of a global philanthropic team at Withers, and we assist each other to provide our clients with the best advice they need to operate wherever situated.
What career paths and opportunities are open to those working in charities law and philanthropy?
This area of law holds rewarding and exciting opportunities for young lawyers, enabling them to provide the legal support for generous individuals or committed social groups to make the world a better place. I have loved both my roles in private legal practice and working ‘in-house’ for a charitable organisation.
In private practice, the range of clients and variety of work allows you to develop a broader range of technical knowledge and skills. When you work in-house, you focus on the missions of one organisation which provides a different kind of job satisfaction.
What separates a great charity lawyer from an average one? What makes a great charity lawyer?
This comes with experience and open-mindedness. You need to be able to see things from both sides of the equation – from the charity and from the donor – and you must be passionate about what you do.
In terms of legal knowledge, you need to be an all-rounder. My clients need advice on a range of legal issues, such as law relating to companies, trusts, employment, contracts, real estate, intellectual property and taxation. You need to be good at dealing with precise and detailed information. A budding charity lawyer needs to build up knowledge of what charities do and how they operate. We give our trainees exposure to a variety of charity law work, to ensure that they have a broad understanding of the sector.
You should share your expertise as much as possible – because you will learn an enormous amount in return. My clients say that I operate a “‘charity clinic”, with charities coming for help when they are sick. I frequently emphasise the importance of ”preventive health care” by building the charity’s immune system with good governance and guidelines.
Finally, you need to be able to discern the real needs of each charity. Some charities will remain small and local, and so their legal needs will be limited. On the other hand, a philanthropist with global ambitions will need to set up his or her charity with a well-planned legal structure and decision-making process in place. Failing to obtain proper legal advice could jeopardise both the charity’s goals and resources in the long run.
How early on does a lawyer need to decide to specialise in this area?
There is no rush. The key to being a good charity lawyer is having broad legal training. In your first years of legal training, you should also get to know charities by volunteering for one you support, and learning how it makes decisions and what challenges it faces. You can also reach out to the Law Society for ideas of pro bono work to support good causes in a meaningful way.
Once you have a few years post-qualification experience, continue to find volunteering opportunities to develop your professional charitable expertise, eventually aiming to sit on the boards of charities to share your time, professional skills and experience. I have been through this path myself and wouldn’t trade it for anything.
This article appeared in the Classified Post print edition as Guiding giving.