Career Path: how to become a paralegal in Hong Kong
In recent years, former actress Meghan Markle (now Duchess of Sussex) glamourised the role of a paralegal as Rachel Zane at Pearson Specter Litt a fictional major commercial law firm in New York through the American hit TV show, Suits. In this article, we will explore the career of a paralegal in the equally bright lights of Hong Kong.
Role of Paralegals
Paralegals assist lawyers in the delivery of legal services. Paralegalling as a career began in the late 1960’s when law firms sought ways to improve the efficiency and cost-effectiveness of delivery of legal services.
Nowadays, paralegals are employed by lawyers, law firms, companies, banks/financial services and government regulators to perform specifically delegated legal work for which a lawyer is responsible. In a law firm setting, a paralegal's time that is spent on substantive legal work is billed to clients at market rates, similar to other professional staff, but often at a lower rate. This distinguishes paralegals from other non-lawyer staff members. As a general rule, a paralegal’s time spent on administrative or clerical duties is not billable.
Paralegals (or Legal Executives), play a significant role in both law firm and in-house legal department setting. In a law firm, paralegals could be the direct point of contact with clients and external parties. In an in-house legal department, paralegals play a significant role in advising various department on any legal and compliance issues. Paralegals are also responsible in managing case files and case documentation, engaging in legal research and drafting legal documents.
Who should be a Paralegal or a Legal Manager?
Individuals who have studied law and/or are potentially interested in pursuing a legal career but who are unsure as to whether they want to qualify as a lawyer are good candidates to become paralegals. Some specific skills that a paralegal should have include good language and communication skills, research and investigation skills as well as the ability to multi-task. For those who have not studied a law degree or post graduate diploma, it's worth considering that some law firms and organisations still hire paralegals who haven't studied law.
If you are interested in this career, or if you possess the necessary skills, a career as a paralegal may be the right choice for you!
How to Become a Paralegal?
Whilst some countries have qualifications to become a paralegal (the US and Canada, for example, whilst the UK has a chartered legal executive profession governed by CILEX), there is no formal qualification required in Hong Kong. Rather, the majority of international firms in Hong Kong hire graduates with an LL.B, but if you do not have a law degree, there are alternatives to obtain a full-length LL.B degree: The Graduate Diploma in English and Hong Kong Law (GDEHKL), The Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL) and the Juris Doctor (JD).
The GDEHKL is a two-year part-time course jointly offered by HKU SPACE as the course operator, and Manchester Metropolitan University as the qualification awarding institution. For those who intend to take Postgraduate Certificate in Laws (PCLL) and practice law in Hong Kong, the GDEHKL is the only law programme in Hong Kong which substantially satisfies the entry requirements into PCLL. The GDEHKL also fulfils the requirements for entry into the Legal Practice Course (LPC) and the English Bar Professional Training Course (BPTC) for those who intend to practice in England and Wales.
The Graduate Diploma in Law is a two-year structured course, in which students can choose to take the programmes online, and take their assessments in their Hong Kong Campus. After completion of the GDL, graduates of GDL can register to obtain a Qualifying LL.B in as little as three months.
A full-time Juris Doctor (JD) course in Hong Kong takes about 2-3 years to complete, part-time students take about 3.5 years to complete. The JD in Hong Kong is offered by the three law schools in Hong Kong: Hong Kong University, City University of Hong Kong and Chinese University of Hong Kong.
For further reading:
- Graduate Diploma in English and Hong Kong Law (Common Professional Examination), HKU SPACE. Click here to learn more.
- Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL) and Online Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL Online), The University of Law. Click here to learn more.
- Juris Doctor (JD), City University of Hong Kong. Click here to learn more.
- Juris Doctor (JD), The Chinese University of Hong Kong. Click here to learn more.
- Juris Doctor (JD), The University of Hong Kong. Click here to learn more.
For many law students, being a paralegal is only the first step to a legal career. A natural step for a number of paralegals is to apply to study the PCLL in Hong Kong or pursue legal qualification in other common law jurisdictions (the Australian and US Bars are popular choices) to become a lawyer.
Long term career paths are available for paralegals at certain law firms, particularly those who don't wish to, or are unable to obtain full legal qualification (for example, because of financial constraints), and many go on to lead successful careers, eventually transitioning to become legal managers, paralegal managers (managing a pool of paralegals) or legal executives — terms loosely to denote the more experienced professionals who started out as paralegals.
The Upside of Being a Paralegal
As paralegals perform a broader and more complex range of tasks than say, secretaries, paralegals earnings continue to rise steady. Some paralegals often earn more through bonuses, especially overtime bonuses, which add most significantly to their salaries.
Well-respected Member of the Team
A paralegal’s work is intellectually challenging and involves a range of high-level skills. The most successful paralegals are problem-solvers as well as great communicators. For some paralegals, they are the direct contact of clients and in some practice areas, such as matrimonial and personal injury, these paralegals provide troubled clients informal counselling and support which are the most rewarding aspects of the job.
Whilst a junior level paralegal will focus on providing ancillary support through proof reading, legal research, drafting of ancillary documents (e.g. resolutions, board minutes, Land Registry or Companies Registry forms), preparation of discovery (on litigious matters) or due diligence (on transactional matters) documents, the more experienced and senior a paralegal becomes, the more likely they are to be empowered with drafting and negotiating more substantive documents and taking a lead on on matters. This is typical in conveyancing and landlord and tenant matters, and for in-house paralegals, drafting and negotiating commercial agreements. It's not unknown for the knowledge and experience of an in-house legal manager with over 10 years' experience to be greater than some counsels in the same legal team.