Back to Office

The first COVID-19 case in Hong Kong was confirmed on 29 January 2020. Since then, it has been a long roller coaster ride posing unprecedented challenges throughout for every walk of life.

For the legal profession, the first blow was the closure of courts. One week after the first confirmed case, the Judiciary announced that all court proceedings with the exception of urgent and essential business would be adjourned. The general adjournment then lasted for more than three months from 29 January to 3 May 2020. Consequently, a substantial number of cases had to be adjourned and re-fixed. To deal with the backlog of cases, the Judiciary has permitted remote hearings via video-conferencing facilities for suitable civil cases since April 2020.

For law firms, for the protection of the health and safety of staff, some have switched to home office to minimize the risks of infection while maintaining business continuity.

The legal profession has generally been very agile in migrating to new ways of work since the outbreak of the pandemic.

The issue now is whether, for the long term, the new ways of work are to be continued after the public health situation has stabilised.

As I wrote earlier in the “Hybrid Trend” (June 2021 issue), no matter how technology can simulate an office work environment, it can never re-create the spontaneity of face-to-face social interaction, which builds mutual trust, inspire collaboration and contribute to the work culture. More importantly, for professional training that adopts the apprenticeship model like the legal profession, training and mentorship done remotely via a virtual platform is a challenge and should only be resorted to as a backup mode when face-to-face training is not possible.

This was highlighted when the Council resolved to grant a waiver to all trainee solicitors from the requirement under rule 9(1) of the Trainee Solicitors Rules to have their training conducted in the offices of their principals (Circular 20-472) with effect from 1 January 2020. The waiver granted is expressly subject to the condition that the need for remote training and supervision is a direct response to COVID-19 and appropriate arrangements are in place to ensure effective supervision of trainee solicitors. Key factors facilitating supervision include effective and frequent communication between the principal and the trainee by telephone, email and video conferencing and close monitoring of work progress via regular oral and written review and feedback.

Another important aspect of face-to-face social interaction in a physical work environment is the nurturing of social intelligence, which is the capacity to know oneself and to know others. It cannot develop from long hours of isolated interaction with a grid screen. Social intelligence develops from experience with people and learning from success and failures in social settings.

What is traditionally expected from lawyers are their substantive legal knowledge and skills of, for example, how to interpret the law and relevant cases, how to organise complex facts and extract relevant information and so on. However, the practice of law is not immune from technological development and the risks posed by automation. The impact of artificial intelligence (“AI”) on the routine tasks of day-to-day practice like legal research, contract review or due diligence analysis will only continue to intensify in the years ahead. Legal roles that involve repetition and pattern recognition are expected to be increasingly AI automated. A profound question that we need to consider is in the long run, what roles and tasks will be left for qualified legal practitioners to meaningfully undertake.

In answering this question, we need to consider what value humans can still retain over machine automation. In addition to creativity and complex reasoning, one other feature that stands out from machine automation is social intelligence, the human ability to negotiate complex social relationships effectively, which is essential to a lawyer’s role as a trusted adviser to his or her clients.

To prepare our future generation of lawyers for the changes, apart from advocating appropriate changes to the legal education curriculum to include courses that enhance their ability to apply technology in their work, we should also encourage and provide them with a suitable work environment that allows normal social interaction and further development of their social intelligence.

As we look forward to bidding farewell to the pandemic, a different set of issues may arise for some operations, such as incentivizing staff to return to work in the office. Innovative incentives have been reported from time to time, including hiring a gym coach at the firm’s expense for those staff who return to work in the office to train and lose some “home office weight”!

The professional indemnity cover for law firms for the 2020/2021 indemnity year will expire on Thursday, 30 September 2021. To renew indemnity, principals of law firms should file an Application for Indemnity and a Gross Fee Income Report with the Scheme Manager, ESSAR Insurance Services Ltd on or before 15 August 2021.

Monthly Statistics on the Profession

(updated as of 30 June 2021):

Members (with or without Practising Certificate) 12,491
Members with Practising Certificate

10,929(out of whom 7,996 (73%) are in private practice)

Trainee Solicitors 1,126
Registered Foreign Lawyers

1,529

(from 34 jurisdictions)

Hong Kong Law Firms

948 (47% are sole proprietorships and 41% are firms with 2 to 5 partners, 50 are limited liability partnerships formed pursuant to the Legal Practitioners Ordinance)

Registered Foreign Law Firms

85 (from 22 jurisdictions, 15 are limited liability partnerships formed pursuant to the Legal Practitioners Ordinance)

Civil Celebrants of Marriages 2,160
Reverse Mortgage Counsellors 405
Solicitor Advocates

78 (72 in civil proceedings, 6 in criminal proceedings)

Student Members 194
Registered Associations between Hong Kong law firms and registered foreign law firms (including Mainland law firms) 37

Secretary-General, Law Society of Hong Kong