Face to Face with Herbert Tsoi BBS JP

The Hong Kong Law Society maintains a Roll of Honour, which consists of the names of solicitors who have distinguished themselves through their service to the Law Society or its Council, by their contributions to the development of the legal profession in Hong Kong or to the practice of law. To be nominated for admission, a three-quarters majority of the Council must agree that the contributions of the solicitor warrant special recognition.

This year’s honouree, Herbert Tsoi BBS JP, speaks about his nomination and admission, while reflecting on his legal career and participation in the work of the Law Society.

Mr. Tsoi indicated that he has mixed feelings about his nomination and appointment by the Council to the Roll of Honour. On the one hand, he feels surprised and honoured to join the ranks of such eminent solicitors. On the other, he feels his appointment is out of place. “I see many of the previous Honourees as my sifus, my masters. Even though I never actually worked for them, they set an example for me and showed me how a lawyer should be. Suddenly, I ask myself, ‘Why should I also be here?’ In a way, I feel as if I should still be a mentee or a disciple.”

Despite conflicting emotions, Mr. Tsoi is certain about one thing – that the honour he has received belongs to the entire profession. He explained that his appointment will continue to be an honour so long as the profession can demand and receive the respect of the people of Hong Kong and so long as the profession is regarded as an honourable calling.

As a Hong Kong Solicitor

Mr. Tsoi entered the profession in 1976 after earning a Bachelor of Laws from the College of Law, London. He was admitted as a solicitor in England & Wales and Hong Kong in 1976.

He is currently the Senior Partner at Herbert Tsoi & Partners, located in Central. His main area of practice is probate and probate litigation. He indicated that he finds being a lawyer in Hong Kong to be exciting. “You see so many clients and meet so many people. You learn a lot.”

Of the challenges he faced when he started practising in Hong Kong, he found learning how to deal with clients to be unexpectedly difficult. “When I started, I was thrown into the deep end,” he explained. “Not only was I expected to know how to answer whatever problem clients brought to us, I also was expected to speak to clients in Cantonese. This was difficult at first because I was accustomed to thinking about the law and legal issues in English – I obtained my law degree and completed my training in London. English was also not spoken as prevalently 40 years ago and many of my clients were of an older generation that did not understand it. While I am quite apt at doing it now, it took me a long time to learn how to converse and give advice to clients solely in Chinese and Cantonese without one word of English.”

Life for young solicitors is quite different today, Mr. Tsoi continued. After finishing the PCLL, they are assigned to a department if they pursue work at a firm. Thus, it’s a bit of luck about where they are placed and what they learn during their traineeship – unless they have a clear understanding of where they want to be and communicate that with the firm. But for most, what they specialise in will depend on the department and firm that they work in, he explained.

Given the current situation, Mr. Tsoi advises young solicitors to become acquainted with as many areas of law as possible. “During the progression of your legal career, you will not only be dealing with cases and deals, but also with people – a wider knowledge of the law will invariably be quite helpful.”

A Life in Service

Mr. Tsoi has dedicated a large portion of his career to public service work. Some of his numerous public service roles include: member of the Executive Council of the City University of Hong Kong; member of the ICAC Corruption Prevention Advisory Committee and Operations Review Committee; member of the Charity Subcommittee of the Law Reform Commission; member of the Hospital Governing Committee of the United Christian Hospital; honorary legal adviser of the Society for the Protection of Children, the SKH St. Christopher’s Home; the Young Women Christian Association; as well as being a school council member of several Hong Kong secondary schools including his alma mater St. Paul’s Co-educational College and The Hong Kong True Light Middle School.

Mr. Tsoi said that he enjoys giving back to the community through volunteering, as it has enabled him to learn a lot about other people, organisations and areas of law outside of his specialty. “That, to me, is also a great reward because you have the chance to learn how very successful and intelligent people in different walks of life think and do things,” he said.

Contributions to the Law Society

Mr. Tsoi has contributed to the Law Society’s work in a variety of capacities throughout his career. He served on the Council from 1993 to 2005, during which time he was elected Vice President (1997–2000) and President (2000–2002). He is also the past Chairman of the Probate Committee, the Standing Committee of Compliance and the Standing Committee on Policy & Resources.

Mr. Tsoi said that he was lucky during his presidency, as his predecessor, Anthony Chow, had aptly handled many of the controversial issues facing the Law Society before he took up the role. Mr. Chow became the President in 1997, after the Hand Over. However, he does recall the hullabaloo during his time at the helm over the bankruptcy of the Law Society’s insurance company, which provided professional indemnity coverage to Law Society members. “It was quite a mess to find a new insurance company and many in the profession were not very happy about having to pay extra premiums,” he said.

Among his many accomplishments as the Law Society President, he fondly recalls being instrumental in engaging the Government to consider amending the Marriage Ordinance (Cap. 81) to allow lawyers to act as civil celebrants in marriage ceremonies. “Before, couples getting married in Hong Kong had to go through the Marriage Registry. On an auspicious day in the Chinese almanac, the Registry would be overflowing with wedding ceremonies; on some other days, the Registry would be very quiet. While the Ordinance was amended well after I stepped down, the amendment providing for lawyers to act as civil celebrants allows couples more flexibility in arranging a time and place to get married. It has also created a new area of practice for solicitors, new business for the hospitality industry and led to cost-savings for the Government, as the work of the Marriage Registry has been slimmed down. It is a win-win situation for everyone,” he said.

Not All Has Changed

While reflecting on how the profession has changed over the 40 years he has practised, Mr. Tsoi first looked at the numbers. He noted that when he began practising in Hong Kong, the number of Law Society members with practising certificates was around 400. The population in Hong Kong at that time was slightly less than 5 million. “Mathematically speaking, there was approximately one lawyer for every 12,500 persons in Hong Kong in 1976,” he said. “The current population in Hong Kong is around 7 million. According to the Law Society’s latest annual report, in 2015 there were around 8,647 solicitors holding practising certificates in Hong Kong, although 22 percent of them were not in private practice. So today, there is approximately one lawyer for every 1,000 persons in Hong Kong. The good news is that people in Hong Kong should have no difficulty in finding a lawyer. The bad news is that competition for business amongst lawyers has become very keen.”

He also noted that the practice of law in Hong Kong has changed over the course of his career. “In 1976, most of us were general practitioners. But Hong Kong has changed a lot since then. It is much more commercialised, and has become a centre for world business. Following world trends and the increasing complexity of international transactions, it is inevitable that practitioners in Hong Kong must specialise in specific areas of law, instead of being generalists.”

In spite of all of the changes, Mr. Tsoi believes that one important factor has remained unchanged in Hong Kong – solicitors’ passion for law. “We take pride in using our knowledge to assist our clients with solving their legal problems; and we take pride in ensuring that the legal process is carried out fairly.”

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Editor, Hong Kong Lawyer
Legal Media Group
Thomson Reuters
cynthia.claytor@thomsonreuters.com