It must have been an extraordinary year for the 2019/20 PCLL students. They have had to do classes online for most of the academic year because of the public order events in the latter half of 2019, followed by the outbreak of COVID-19 in the first half of 2020. Just when they were ready to take a much-deserved break after completion of the final examinations, the pandemic worsened, which meant no socializing and no travelling for their long summer holidays (which to most, were their last school holidays).
Fortunately, the public health situation improved when most of them started work in September. Things are gradually going back to normal.
However, no one can rule out a resurgence of COVID cases later in the year. If it does happen, law firms may have to revert to work-from-home arrangements again.
For newcomers to the legal profession, it could be a huge disappointment to have to experience working in a law firm from home when they have been homebound for school and holidays for over half a year.
Nevertheless, in terms of the quality of training and supervision, with the assistance of technology, work-from-home arrangements should not pose any problem as long as principals and trainees are committed to fulfilling their training obligations.
Traineeship manifests the fine tradition of mentoring within the legal profession, which I am proud to note is the most collegial of professions. It ensures entrants to the profession are given an opportunity, under the proper guidance of experienced practitioners, to build a solid foundation of the necessary practical skills and knowledge, that is complementary to institutional training, to serve the community upon their professional qualification.
In addition, principals are subject to statutory and contractual obligations under the Trainee Solicitors Rules Cap. 159J ("Rules") and the prescribed form of trainee solicitor contract to provide their trainee solicitors with the opportunity to learn the basic skills and characteristics associated with the practice and profession of a solicitor and to train in at least three basic legal topics.
The Rules also provide that a trainee solicitor shall during the whole period of his or her trainee solicitor contract be actually employed under the trainee-solicitor contract in the office of his or her principal. The training period must be conducted on a full-time basis for not less than two years, or such further period as may be approved by the Council.
While it is important to put in place special arrangements (e.g. work-from-home) for the protection of staff health, principals are reminded of their obligations to ensure that the training provided to trainee solicitors must not be compromised by any such arrangements.
Factors like method and frequency of communication between the principal and the trainee, management of work flow and monitor of the trainee’s work progress by the principal including review, feedback and access to the trainee’s work should be properly addressed in considering any training and supervision arrangement.
Provided that appropriate arrangements are put in place to ensure continual effective training and supervision of trainee solicitors within Hong Kong, remote training and supervision necessitated by the pandemic is acceptable in place of training in the principals’ offices. Members may refer to the details of the waiver in the relevant Law Society Circular.