Provost and Vice Chancellor Professor Wong, Dean of the Faculty of Law Professor Fu, Distinguished Guests, Professors, Graduands, Ladies and Gentlemen –
It is a distinct honour to be asked to address the Class of 2023 of the Faculty of Law. While I hardly regard myself as deserving of such a great honour, I decided to accept the invitation in order to personally congratulate you all, and your families, for your extraordinary achievements.
Why your achievement is “extraordinary”
Most of you have started as freshmen during a tumultuous period that had left an indelible mark on the life of every citizen in Hong Kong. We had witnessed a rapidly polarised society where values and ideology at their extremes concussed, and information and disinformation fed hysterical crowds. It must have been distracting for the mind and upsetting for the emotions. When emotions flared high it might even have taken a toll on relationships that you had treasured.
But despite these challenges, you have kept your good sense and independent judgment as a young person, and not allowed yourself to be misguided to follow the paths of extremists. You have kept your sense of duty as a citizen not to regard personal rights and freedoms as boundless, and you have continued to prioritise your quest for knowledge as a reason for pursuing higher studies. You have held onto your hope and faith in Hong Kong in this dark period and persisted in completing what you had set out to complete. And that was no mean feat.
With the restoration of calm and societal order, you may now look back and be proud of the mental and emotional resilience you have demonstrated as you adapted to survive these extraordinary years to emerge a law graduate.
Against the backdrop of social unrests came COVID 19 that brought renewed interruptions to campus life even more pervasive and protracted. Remote learning and social distancing with your college friends as a new way of campus life was something that you never signed up for, but had had to adapt to and accept, regardless.
These new kinds of restrictions of freedom of movement, connectivity and access to resources that have always been taken for granted underline your exceptional achievements in overcoming them.
You have adapted to innovate in distance learning, and to use new tools for social interaction. You became aware of the safety and well-being of people around you, not just yourself.
More importantly, you have seen the value of compromise and positive adjustment when facing circumstances you cannot control or change.
Above all, you have adhered to your original goal to complete the law degree you are about to be conferred with, despite all the untruths told and misinformation spread about the alleged demise of the rule of law in Hong Kong. Had you given up your independent judgment and had swayed in your belief of the integrity of our legal system, there would have been no point for you to persist in the arduous training in law.
For all the above reasons, I commend you, Class of 2023, for you are an extraordinary cohort, tested by extreme circumstances in life.
As you take your stride from this point, you are likely to find more challenges ahead. I would offer for your reference my humble observations as a person who has taken the same stride, just as unsure as you would feel of what lies ahead. I have come to appreciate, from my own experience and from observing those who have come after me, that certain qualities are helpful along the way.
Qualities Needed to Navigate Changing Times
Staying skeptical and rational
When human emotion is triggered, one would easily fall victim to confirmation bias. The human brain is wired to conveniently interpret our observations to fit opinions already held. A recognition of the real limits to human rationality and human perception is a good start to overcoming these tendencies.
Staying skeptical and rational is not only important for our training as a lawyer. It is important for anyone who is troubled by how deeply misguided convictions have become realities about Hong Kong to people around the world. As a citizen of a city subjected to a smear campaign of an international scale, I encourage you to continue to be vigilant and skeptical of what are represented as facts or reports, and to be rational in your opinion of it. Engage the opposing argument head on, not its bearer – for only the loser of the argument would attack the bearer.
As lawyers we are trained to test legal propositions against facts and evidence. We are trained to argue our case with conviction. The value of a senior advocate is in his or her ability to analyse legal propositions and evidence objectively. His judgment of the strengths and weaknesses of various points enables him to deliver the best advice to the client, and to elucidate an argument with conviction.
Whether or not you choose to enter the legal profession, this is the value of legal training that stays with you despite changes and developments of the letters of the law. I hope you continue to develop this tool for elucidating legal or other arguments in service of the law and of Hong Kong.
It should not surprise you that more changes, obstacles and challenges lie ahead in life. Change is the only thing that is constant. The silver lining is there too. Challenges are indeed what you need to realise your potentials.
Out of the long list of your achievements I have identified, I would name adaptability as one of the most important personality traits that will continue to prove its value as you continue your journey.
My observations on the development of legal practice in Hong Kong has taught me so. Let me cite a few examples.
When I graduated in the Class of 1983, I had an impression that some 80% of the class believed their future legal career, at least in the short to medium term, lay in conveyancing practice.It was seen as a clear and quick path to commercial success.
The few classmates of mine who joined the Bar were either regarded as particularly clever (such as our Chief Justice Andrew Cheung and Permanent Judge of the CFA Johnson Lam), or not as clever but simply unpragmatic (such as myself). Few who joined the solicitors’ profession would envisage a career in litigation.
The profitability of the conveyancing practice abruptly disappeared before the turn of the century. The post-1997 market turmoil and the abolition of scale fees in conveyancing killed it. Many conveyancing solicitors began marketing themselves as litigation lawyers, relying heavily on barristers to handle drafting and advocacy.
Before 2000 there was a thriving practice in shipping disputes mostly dominated by UK-based law firms. That disappeared as shipping companies resolved to change the jurisdiction and means for resolving disputes for greater efficiency.
Intellectual property practice was a new and thriving practice area in the late 1980’s for a small and specialised IP Bar. By the turn of the century, enforcement of low-tech IP rights gradually shifted to Guangdong as the coastal cities developed their own port facilities for direct export.
In the midst of these market changes, the low-value IP work for honing the skills of a fledging barrister has all but disappeared, making it impractical to sustain a specialist practice at the junior level.
It is not difficult to imagine the disappointment junior lawyers who have set out on a planned career path, only to find it blocked by obstacles. American Psychologist Angela Duckworth in a commencement speech for the U Penn Class of 2020 encouraged graduates to think of themselves as the single-cell organism, the paramecium. Whenever it gets stuck, it backs up and changes course, sometimes radically. It makes its way through life by trial and error.
There is no cause for concern if you have not had your life all mapped out at this moment. You should only be worried if you get too fixated, too comfortable, or too conservative. Navigating your future career will involve taking some risks, stepping outside your comfort zone and venturing into the unknown.
The viability of the legal profession depends on adaptability, innovation and resilience.
A Broad Outlook
It would already have become apparent that in order to adapt well to changes, a broad outlook would be a useful tool whichever branch of the profession one may choose to join.
A broad mindset requires overcoming prejudices and abandoning outdated perceptions. Take for example the perception of being an in-house counsel. The role used to be regarded as a job for the solicitor-turned-housewife. It was never the profit centre, only the scapegoat whenever someone was to blame.
Times have changed. With increasing complexities in doing business around the world, risk management has become critically important. A study carried out by ACC Chief Legal Officers Survey in 2020 shows 80% of general counsel report directly to the CEO.
However, it would take a broad outlook of the business world to abandon old perceptions. I was recently informed that there was a queue of 70 lawyers for a corporate legal counsel position. With the sharp downturn in corporate transactional work, many would now regret not to have seen the potential of such a position earlier.
The broadening of views requires us, as human beings, to stay curious and open-minded about things around us . This includes getting curious about opportunities that lies beyond the well-trodden path, and rules, practice and cultures in other parts of the world, all of which may appear at first brush to be not directly relevant or tasteful.
I contend that it is a sense of curiosity and respect for different cultures that will help you see value in opportunities others fail to see. Conversely, preconceived ideas or prejudices will put blinkers over your eyes.
The development of the Greater Bay Area adjacent to Hong Kong opens up a much wider market for legal services than Hong Kong lawyers could ever have imagined. The real value of the opportunity is still held in doubt by many, as it does not immediately translate into high remuneration for Hong Kong lawyers. As the next generation of lawyers, it would be foolish to ignore the opportunity. There is nothing wrong in a cautious assessment of opportunity cost against value, but value is not all about quick profit.
Giving back in service
I have often been asked the same question by colleagues who are so accustomed to billing by the hour: why do you make yourself so busy with work that doesn’t even pay? That is an understandable question: at the Bar, being known for having a busy life outside of legal practice would infer a lack of devotion to one’s practice. Raising a family, serving on a professional or public body – these are all taken to have a negative effect on building a career. It could well have been an excuse, albeit subconscious, to stay trapped in the treadmill of billable hours.
As I have to admit, it took years before I was able to free myself from the mindset of being afraid to serve the profession and the public, for fear of not being taken seriously as a professional. When I found that freedom< I discovered the joy of serving others in the same community.
To take up roles of service as you become a legal professional is therefore counter-intuitive, and requires curiosity, empathy, a sense of mission, and a suppression of any self-interest or agenda. Along the path, you will find yourself interacting with people from all walks of life, learning new skills, and gaining new insights and inspirations that will shape you as a person.
I do hope that you will find personal fulfilment on top of career success. I do wish you have the support of your loved ones and know the true value of time spent outside work with them. I hope you will continue to pursue your interests and passions in life to help you find the equilibrium.
Just as you are the pride of your family today, I wish you will find role models and mentors around you that will guide you along the way and instil into you values that will make you the pride of your profession. I wish you will in due course enjoy a deeper sense of achievement, knowing that you have contributed to the development of the profession, and to worthy causes in the community you call home.
Allow me to conclude by sharing something dear to my heart. It was not until 2017 to 2018 that I became inspired to work on a set of Cantonese lyrics to the Law Anthem. It was when sectors of Hong Kong people seemed to have lost memory on what a long way Hong Kong has come under One Country Two Systems. This will be my personal gift to the Faculty to mark the 40th year of my graduation.
To the extraordinary Class of 2023, again my warmest congratulations to you and your families. To those who are perched to enter the profession, may I extend to you a very warm welcome and my best wishes to you. May God bless you all.