Face to Face with Michael Lintern-Smith Past President of the Law Society of HK

Today Michael Lintern-Smith is the Senior Partner of Robertsons, having joined the firm in 1981. When he first came to Hong Kong, he expected to spend seven years in the city. Now, some 38 years later, and with a stint as president of the Law Society under his belt, he’s a regular speaker at legal conferences, and remains highly involved in the city’s legal happenings.A

fter working in Paris for seven years, Michael began interviewing for jobs further afield. It was then that an attractive position in Hong Kong came calling, he tells Hong Kong Lawyer.

The job offer appealed to his sense of adventure “because I’d never been to Hong Kong and I’d never been to Asia. I’d traveled a lot already in Europe, but not in Asia,” he says.

“They offered me the job and I said ‘great’. I didn’t know anything about it, but they were willing to give me a chance, and then I thought I’ll go off and see what Hong Kong is like. Because I’d done seven years in France, I kind of thought I’ll do another seven years,” he says.

“Typically people say ‘I bet he came for two years and then stayed forever’ but in my case I was thinking a bit longer. I remember, it was shortly before Christmas, they sent me the air ticket, I got on the flight at Heathrow airport,” he recalls. “They did the announcement: ‘we’re pleased to invite you onboard flight 001 to Anchorage Alaska,” he says with a laugh.

“I thought, am I on the wrong flight? But it turns out they had got me the cheapest ticket they could find, and the flight went Heathrow, Anchorage, Tokyo, Hong Kong, so I think the total flight was something like 28 hours. That flight doesn’t exist anymore,” he adds, amused. “So that was my introduction. I thought Hong Kong really is the other side of the world because of that.”

It wasn’t just a geographic change that Lintern-Smith was interested in, noting that he was ready to expand his expertise as well. “I’d only been doing commercial work in Paris – a lot of real estate related files. At the time there was a lot of British investment in France and they were buying a lot of properties,” he says.

“I was attracted to the fact that in Hong Kong there would be an opportunity to handle a wider spectrum of legal services. Solicitors have wide rights of audience in the courts and there would be a chance to do advocacy and litigation.”

Once he touched down in the city, his impression of Hong Kong was positive. He recalls it as a place of industry, energy and drive. Everything seemed to operate efficiently and effectively. “It was lively and colorful,” he said. He reflected on how much it has changed. The area around Central Market was very much the Central business district and government departments and professionals such as lawyers and accountants were located there. On the site of the building where his office is today, there were small narrow streets where people sewed flags with hand sewing machines and eggs were unloaded and re-despatched to other parts of Hong Kong. That has all changed now.

Serving the Public

Mr. Lintern-Smith said that he was never a committee person. However, after several years of practice, he was invited to join the Law Society’s Guidance Committee which met on an ad hoc basis. His membership eventually led to an invitation to join the Standing Committee on Standards and Development. He was elected to the Council of the Law Society in 1995 and remained a council member until 2018. His twenty-two and a half years service was probably the longest tenure in the Law Society’s history.

He was elected President of the Society in 2004. When asked about the major issues of the time of his presidency, Michael raised the subject of Professional Indemnity Insurance. There was a big debate about whether the existing scheme regulating the Solicitors’ Indemnity Fund was sufficient. Following the property crash in Hong Kong in 1998, there had been a lot of claims against the fund arising out of conveyancing matters. The increase in the number of claims affected the financial health of the indemnity fund and it was made worse when one of its reinsurance companies in Australia went into liquidation. Consequently, the Council decided to make a call on the fund and practitioners were required to pay additional sums into the Mutual Fund to meet the claims.

The debate was then whether to continue the existing scheme or to replace it with cover from the private insurance market.

There was consequently a lot of tension amongst practitioners. A motion of no confidence was brought against five of the then council members which resulted in the Law Society having to call an Extraordinary General Meeting of its members to consider the future of professional indemnity insurance for solicitors in Hong Kong. After lively debate at the EGM which Lintern-Smith chaired the members voted to remain with their existing scheme.

“I recall that England and Wales had had very similar problems”. The President of the English Law Society attended Hong Kong and passed on to lawyers his experience of the disadvantages which solicitors in England had experienced when they decided to switch to private insurance. Some firms had become uninsurable. “Upon reflection, therefore, I think that the solicitors in Hong Kong made the right decision”. The Law Society stayed with its existing scheme and with careful management, it has grown to a very healthy surplus which has meant that the society has been able to reduce the amount of contributions which solicitors are required to make into the fund on an annual basis.

Michael stayed as President for one year. When asked if this was a sufficient stint, he said that he thought it was. There are many talented lawyers in Hong Kong and many of them were sitting on the Law Society Council at that time. Most of them deserved to have the opportunity to become the President.

His ability to manage difficult situations and his way with words has served Lintern-Smith well throughout his career. As well as spending a year as the President of the Law Society, today he is a regular speaker at legal conferences where he talks about China-related matters and law firm management.

During his presidency, a limited liability partnership scheme was put to the Government and a Group Practice regulatory system introduced for solicitors’ firms. He led a review of the investigation of complaints and referral of matters to the Solicitors’ Disciplinary Tribunal. This resulted in fixed penalties being introduced for minor breaches of regulations. He also worked with the Judiciary towards introduction of electronic filing of pleadings which despite the Government proposing what he considered to be a very effective system has not yet been introduced.

In his final message, Lintern-Smith wrote of his time as President “It is an experience that I have enjoyed immensely. I have tried to place emphasis on the Law Society’s public face by communicating frequently with members, the public and the press. At Law Society functions and at my regular curry lunches in the Club House, I have had the opportunity to meet many members of the Law Society who were previously unknown to me. The overall response has been supportive. Most members have ideas on the running of the profession. In fact, most of us have very similar and positive ideas. Many members are slow to put them forward, however, as they are under the misapprehension that their views are not valued. I pride myself on being a good listener and hope I have also been able to explain projects which are in the pipeline to members in a personal face-to-face environment.”

Looking Forward

While there is little doubt the legal market has changed across the world, today when considering the challenges faced in Hong Kong by legal professionals and the opportunities available, Lintern-Smith has a clear sense of the city’s advantages and challenges.

“There are big challenges. Many people have big expectations for China’s Belt and Road policy, but I’m not confident it will have a big effect on Hong Kong,” he notes, adding that Hong Kong’s integration into the Greater Bay Area is more likely to have a positive effect on legal practice.

“Hong Kong is earmarked to be a financial services hub. We need to ensure that we build upon our reputation for excellence in our judicial system and our clear rule of law to become the prime dispute resolution centre for the region. The promotion of Hong Kong courts as well as its International arbitration centre and its effective mediation system are necessary to ensure that it remains to be recognised as a key dispute resolution centre. Efficiency is essential when resolving disputes and AI, computerisation and blockchain technology will all need to be embraced to provide a system that works efficiently and speedily.

When asked what advice he would give to new lawyers joining the profession, he stated that “specialisation is the key”. In future, we will need specialists in all areas of commercial law but also areas which have not been specifically embraced in Hong Kong such as Environmental law and Social law. “I cannot say I followed that advice myself. At the time I arrived in Hong Kong, there were few practicing solicitors and we all engaged upon a wide range of differing cases. It was one of the great attractions of Hong Kong that you could work on diverse legal matters and gain expertise which normally you could not expect to encounter until later in your career in other jurisdictions. With a growing number of solicitors admitted to practice, it has become more competitive and there is a clear need to specialise”.

During his career, Mr. Lintern-Smith had many titles. As well as being Past President of the Law Society, he had served on the Judicial Officers Recommendaion Commission, which is tasked with making recommendations to the Chief Executive about the appointment and promotion of judges and has been a member of the High Court Rules Committee and the Court of Final Appeal Rules Committee. He also reflects fondly on his past term as Chairman of the Buildings Appeal Tribunal and Chairman of the Disciplinary Committee of the Hong Kong Confederation of Insurance Brokers.

We asked him what motto he has tried to adhere to during his professional life and whether it has served him well during his career. After reflection, he identified a quote from Albert Einstein which is “Try not to become a man of success: rather become a man of value”. 

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North Asia Journalist, Thomson Reuters