Set overview in Hong Kong Bar

Hong Kong, like many jurisdictions sharing a common law history with England, continues to have a split legal profession, with an independent Bar providing specialist courtroom advocacy skills and special advice on the most challenging and novel points of law. Like in the solicitors profession in Hong Kong, bountiful local talent rubs shoulders with many of those trained in other common law jurisdictions (typically England and Australia), some of whom indeed practiced in England or Australia prior to making a switch. This internationalism, one of the city’s calling cards alongside its commitment to economic freedom, cuts both ways with its members appearing in arbitrations in Mainland China and elsewhere in Asia either as counsel or sitting as arbitrators.

With a split profession often joining the common law, the natural comparison for any jurisdiction’s independent Bar is that of England and Wales, however, there are a number of similarities and differences to independent practice there.

The structure of named chambers situated in different buildings at first blush creates a visual resemblance to the structure of English chambers today, too, albeit with sets often taking after a founding or current head of chambers rather than their building. However, this appearance is somewhat misleading in that English-style clerking structures are not used. Hong Kong sets typically have an office manager and secretaries, with counsel managing their own diaries and workloads – in practice this may resemble the Irish law libraries in practice. That said, a number of sets have a more centralised practice development functions, such as Des Voeux Chambers (with a practice development function headed by Aparna Bundro) and Denis Chang’s Chambers (who recently had secondee Taylor Goodwin, formerly of what is now known as 9 Gough Chambers).

Like many other jurisdictions of its type, a number of the elite of the profession are recognised through the appointment of Silks: these are more select in numbers, with Jonathan Chang the sole appointment in 2020 and four appointed in each of 2019 and 2018. Following handover in 1999, they are referred to as SCs (although the QC title was used prior to hand-over and some continue to use the title). For ease of reading, The Legal 500 is using purely SC for those who are admitted to the Inner Bar in Hong Kong.

The Hong Kong Silk appointment system is much like the English system was prior to the Blair-era reforms. Generationally, many highly-esteemed expatriates, who may have trained either in Australia or England and then cemented stellar careers in Hong Kong, have retired in recent years, providing opportunities for newer Silks – many of them born and raised in Hong Kong and capable of delivering high-quality advocacy in both English and Chinese – to stamp their authority on the legal profession. At the other end of the seniority level, junior-juniors at the Hong Kong Bar often have eye-watering impressive academic CVs to match their peers at elite London sets, and due to the smaller, close-knit nature of the market, perhaps have the opportunity to stand out more prominently earlier on in their careers.

Temple Chambers competes with Des Voeux Chambers on the numbers of elite practitioners, to the extent that if not a duopoly it is easy to see them as clear leaders, however, there is still plenty of talent elsewhere. The Hong Kong Bar has more generalists, although Andrew Liao SC’s Chambers is particularly notable for intellectual property, competition, and similarly technology-infused matters, and Sir Oswald Cheung’s Chambers is another storied set with elite practitioners.

Temporary admission of English counsel is available for certain cases, but such matters typically involved the most exceptional cases and the absolute elite of the London Bar (indeed, some observers have suggested that for extremely difficult cases the Hong Kong government has a habit of  ‘pressing the Pannick button’, referring to Lord David Pannick QC). In the wake of geopolitical developments and the new National Security law, it remains to be seen if that will continue to such a great extent. For the avoidance of doubt, this guide only considers those with full, permanent admission to the Hong Kong Bar and are full members of Hong Kong sets, although a small number are door tenants or dual tenants of London sets.