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Legal career rules

City’s law schools give their students in-demand academic edge

The rule of law is often held up as one of Hong Kong’s greatest strengths. The importance, though, goes well beyond commerce and banking, as it touches every aspect of society and the way individuals conduct their lives.

That helps to explain why the legal profession enjoys such high status. By extension, it is also why demand for postgraduate courses that enhance prospects for advancement to the higher reaches of the sector remains so consistently strong.

For instance, the Faculty of Law at the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) offers five postgraduate programmes: the Juris Doctor (JD); the Master of Laws (LLM) in Common Law, Chinese Business Law or International Economic Law; and the Postgraduate Certificate of Laws (PCLL).

Applicants who don’t have an undergraduate degree in law, but want to join Hong Kong’s legal profession as either a solicitor or a barrister, can apply to take the JD and then the PCLL. Those looking to acquire advanced knowledge and skills in a specialised field should opt for one of the LLM programmes.

In general, the competition for places on any course is fierce. Indeed, CUHK received more than 3,000 applications from 24 countries for the current academic year, with only about 600 students actually admitted.

For the master’s programmes, in particular, the aim is to train students to be critical, independent thinkers with generic skills and specialist know-how. They should emerge with the ability to solve problems creatively across different disciplines and to apply their knowledge in practice. To keep master’s students up to date, recently introduced courses include those on competition law, cultural heritage law, ethics and professional virtue, Chinese intellectual property law, and corporate insolvency.

“Our courses are under regular review to respond to market needs, local and international changes, and the constantly increasing quality and diversity of students,” says Professor Lutz-Christian Wolff, associate dean and head of the graduate division of CUHK’s Faculty of Law.

“Legal education is currently undergoing far-reaching changes with the development of e-learning tools and [the forces of] globalisation. In line with these trends, we are always working on the introduction of innovative teaching approaches to ensure our students are equipped to take up leadership roles in increasingly internationalised legal markets.”

Such developments mean that courses must give an understanding of both cross-jurisdictional and cross-cultural aspects of the law. As a result, curriculum content and teaching methods have to evolve to meet the changing needs and expectations of a steadily more diverse intake.

“Hardly any enterprise nowadays is not involved in cross-border business transactions,” Wolff says. “Cross-jurisdictional aspects are also increasingly important in other areas, such as family law, criminal law and the law of procedure – for example, in the context of the enforcement of awards or the taking of evidence abroad. Programmes have to be designed accordingly, and this is very true in an international city like Hong Kong.”

Current students and recent graduates prove the point. Dini Sejko, an Albanian who previously studied at Bocconi University in Italy, is taking an LLM in international economic law. He has found the course “an enriching experience” personally and academically.

“The programme is taught in a multicultural environment and provides a great opportunity to study the theory and get an in-depth view of how cross-border transactions are handled in practice,” Sejko says.

Fresh LLM graduate Jean-Bernard Spinoit, from Belgium, echoes those sentiments. He adds that law students should have an international outlook and a global expertise.

“CUHK is a great place to meet people from all over the world,” Spinoit says. “I learned a lot – and not only in the field of law – by my immersion in the mix of cultures which is so typical of Hong Kong.”

Catherine Hui is currently taking the PCLL, which acts as a bridge between an academic degree and the first steps in the profession. She is confident that the programme is providing the foundations needed for a successful legal career.

“The group sessions, where everyone interacts, have enhanced my understanding of key principles,” Hui says. “They are also an opportunity to apply skills which are essential in any legal practice.”

At the University of Hong Kong, the Faculty of Law offers a Master of Common Law (MCL) and taught LLM courses in human rights, corporate and financial law, arbitration and dispute resolution, Chinese law, and information technology and intellectual property law. This is in addition to its JD and PCLL programmes.

“The LLM programmes meet a need in various specialist areas important to Hong Kong and its locality,” says the department head, Professor Douglas Arner. “They also offer modules which Hong Kong is perhaps uniquely placed to provide.”

Typically, students come from diverse backgrounds and, not surprisingly, admission standards are described as highly competitive. In terms of teaching methods, various approaches are used to ensure engagement and intended outcomes, and these are continually adapted in response to changing needs. Each class has about 35 to 40 students.

“Interest in all of the programmes continues to be very strong,” Arner says. “Our courses tend to have a regional focus which students find highly attractive, and we now offer a diverse and comprehensive range of courses to rival any major law school in the world.”

The School of Law at City University (CityU) can probably make a similar claim, with its research and professional doctorate programmes in addition to its taught JD, PCLL and LLM courses. Advanced research students can work towards an MPhil or a PhD or, with a more practical emphasis, aim to become a doctor of juridical science (JSD) or a JSDCJ, where the last two letters of the acronym stand for “Chinese judges”.

In each case, curriculum content is constantly reviewed and updated to ensure relevance and, where appropriate, an international perspective. For example, a new JD programme structure was introduced last September, giving students more scope to take electives. Also, with no core courses during the summer, students can gain useful experience by signing up for legal placements or attending supplementary courses on the mainland or overseas.

Three new courses have recently been added to CityU’s LLM programme. These focus, respectively, on copyright law and practice, trademark law, and patent law and practice in Hong Kong. These subjects pave the way for a new specialist degree in intellectual property and technology which, once approved by the university, should be available in the 2014-15 academic year.

Postgraduate students already have the option of an LLM in European and Legal Studies through a CityU link-up with the University of Vienna in Austria. Meanwhile, those taking the PCLL can choose any two from a number of “cutting edge” electives. These include international arbitration practice, family law and personal injuries, mainland-related legal transactions, and financial regulatory practice.

“Our LLM and JSD programmes are designed not only to emphasise the common-law foundation of the Hong Kong legal system, but also to take account of the increasing importance of legal concepts and methods in the mainland from a comparative law perspective,” says Dr Anna Lui, CityU’s LLM associate programme leader. “Classes involve lectures, presentations and case discussions, with some taught through video-link facilities by scholars from leading overseas law schools.”

Broadly speaking, the school’s objective is to give students commercial awareness, advocacy and drafting skills, and the ability to analyse problems critically. Where necessary, students will be taught to come up with novel solutions.

“There is more focus on developing soft skills to respond to societal problems that might arise in future,” adds Dr Surya Deva, JD programme leader at CityU’s School of Law. “Graduates should be able to understand clients’ needs, communicate in a coherent manner, and behave in an ethical way to deal with the ever changing and diverse [challenges] in Hong Kong and globally.”