PREVIOUS COLUMNS of Lexicon have explored issues concerning the regulation of lawyers, both domestic lawyers and foreign lawyers, in mainland China and other jurisdictions (see China Business Law Journal volume 1 issue 6: Terms for describing lawyers and why they matter; volume 3 issue 4: I solemnly swear; volume 4 issue 6: Partnership; volume 4 issue 7: Liberalisation and integration; and volume 7 issue 5: Legal services and FTAs). This column considers the purpose of bar examinations as a prerequisite to admission to practice. It begins by examining the announcement by the Law Society of Hong Kong to introduce a bar examination by 2021. It then outlines the position in two other jurisdictions, Singapore and mainland China, and concludes by noting some of the arguments for and against bar examinations.


Following a consultation process that began in 2013, the Law Society of Hong Kong announced in January 2016 that a common entrance examination (CEE) would be introduced by 2021. Under the announcement, a person would be able to enter into a trainee solicitor contract only if that person had passed the CEE. The CEE would be set and marked by the Law Society.

The announcement stated that the purposes of the CEE were: (1) to uphold the quality of the entrants to the solicitors’ profession; (2) to provide access to those who had the ability to qualify as a solicitor; and (3) to maintain the standards of the profession and to protect public interest.

The announcement has generated a high level of debate and controversy among the law schools and the legal profession, including from barristers who would not be subject to the examination. For example, the Bar Association has queried the argument that it is necessary to uphold the quality of solicitors, arguing that there is no concern about the quality of those solicitors who join the bar. Further, in response to the argument about the need to provide greater access to the profession, the Bar Association noted that the market cannot absorb all graduates who want to enter legal practice and that the professional training course in Hong Kong – the postgraduate certificate in laws (PCLL) – is the appropriate mechanism for preparing lawyers for practice.

One of the reasons for the debate is the uncertainty over the status and role of the PCLL under the new system. In its announcement concerning the CEE, the Law Society stated that it would require completion of the PCLL course, but it would not require any examination to be set by the providers of the PCLL. The current providers of the PCLL courses are the University of Hong Kong, Chinese University of Hong Kong, and City University of Hong Kong.

The University of Hong Kong Faculty of Law responded to the announcement by noting that it was pleased that the Law Society recognised the importance of the PCLL, but arguing that the Law Society had not provided any justification for the necessity of the CEE. The Law Society countered by stating that as the regulator of the solicitors’ branch of the profession, the Law Society had an obligation to ensure consistency in professional standards for entrants to the profession, and that it was necessary to keep the standards constantly under review “with the increase in the number of law schools and the development of legal education landscape over the years”.

In particular, the Law Society asserted that the law schools had a conflict of interest, given that they provide undergraduate degrees and also administer the PCLL examinations to their own students. Instead, the Law Society argued, the institutions teaching the PCLL should be separate from the institution administering the examination, to ensure impartiality in the examinations and also consistency by assessing solicitors using the same “rigorous” standards.

The concern about a conflict of interest is interesting, as it suggests that the law schools have a misplaced incentive to pass as many students as possible, given that they provide them with undergraduate law degrees. To the contrary, some have argued that a conflict of interest would arise on the part of the Law Society if the criteria for entering the legal profession were to be set solely by the profession itself (i.e. the Law Society).

In terms of concerns about quality, some have argued that these concerns are not justified, as all PCLL courses are monitored by the Law Society, the external examiners of which vet the distinction, borderline and failed exam scripts each year. Consequently, the law schools do not have unlimited discretion to administer the PCLL and determine who should pass.

Further, it could be argued that the highly competitive admission standards for the PCLL in all of the three universities already go some way toward achieving the goal of quality and competence as identified by the Law Society.

Interestingly, the announcement by the Law Society of Hong Kong coincided with a detailed review of legal education in Hong Kong, which is currently being undertaken by the Standing Committee on Legal Education and Training (SCLET). The SCLET is expected to issue its report in the first quarter of 2017. The report will examine a range of areas, including legal education and pre-qualification vocational training.

Under the current system in Hong Kong, graduates who have completed the PCLL are required to complete a two-year vocational training contract before they can gain admission to practise as a solicitor. This is similar to the approach in England, where a two-year vocational training period follows the completion of the professional training course, which is known as the Legal Practice Course (LPC).

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葛安德 Andrew Godwin
Andrew Godwin

A former partner of Linklaters Shanghai, Andrew Godwin teaches law at Melbourne Law School in Australia, where he is an associate director of its Asian Law Centre. Andrew’s new book is a compilation of China Business Law Journal’s popular Lexicon series, entitled China Lexicon: Defining and translating legal terms. The book is published by Vantage Asia and available at