Face to Face with Professor Lutz-Christian Wolff, Incoming Dean, Faculty of Law, The Chinese University of Hong Kong

Lutz-Christian Wolff is no stranger to Hong Kong’s legal landscape, as he has lived and worked in the city since 1999. Having been with The Chinese University of Hong Kong’s Faculty of Law since its establishment in 2005, Wolff will take over as its Dean in September. In this interview with the Hong Kong Lawyer, Wolff talks about what drew him to China (and Hong Kong in particular), his plans for his new role, and the state of legal education in Hong Kong.

Education and China are two of Professor Lutz-Christian Wolff’s obvious passions. He has now been in academia for more than two decades, in Germany and later a shorter stint at City University of Hong Kong (CityU) preceding a longer association with The Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK). At CUHK, he helped found the Faculty of Law (then the School of Law) and served in a number of different capacities since. In September, he will take over as the Dean, succeeding Professor Christopher Gane, who has been in the role since 2011.

Wolff’s interest in China, however, goes back to his student days. “I was raised and have studied law in Germany,” he says. “I was lucky that my university offered special language training for law students. I studied Chinese because a friend of my father, a professor of economics, said that Chinese would open every door in the future. This was in 1980 and that professor was truly visionary. After my second year of law studies in Germany, I spent one year at Fudan University in Shanghai and it was then when I really fell in love with China.”

After graduating in 1987, Wolff spent some months in Taiwan, honing his Chinese-language skills, and also starting work on his first PhD covering the introduction of the labour contract law system on the Chinese mainland. “Practical training, research and work stays in Düsseldorf, Germany (1988-1989, 1990-1991), Beijing (1988-1989), New York (1990) followed until I started my first job as associate with one of the major law firms in Germany,” recalls Wolff. “After only two years I returned to my alma mater to obtain my second PhD – with a thesis on the doctrinal similarities of contract law, property law and the law of unjust enrichment.”

Moving to Hong Kong

Having completed his second PhD, Wolff moved into private practice again, his work with an international law firm eventually bringing him to Hong Kong in 1999. His return to academia came a few years later. “After some time at CityU, I became a founding member of the CUHK Faculty of Law in 2005,” says Wolff. “I have served our Faculty amongst others, as programme director of three LLM programmes, as Associate Dean and as Acting Dean on various occasions.” Promoted to the rank of chair professor in 2008, Wolff says he was “fortunate” to receive several teaching and research prizes, including the CUHK University Education Award. “In 2014 CUHK acknowledged my contributions to legal research and education by awarding me the Wei Lun Professorship of Law. For the last five years I have served as Dean of the CUHK Graduate School being in charge of the management of over 12,000 postgraduate students and overseeing all postgraduate programmes across faculties.”

Even though he moved to Hong Kong in 1999, Wolff’s desire to live and work in the city dates back to much earlier. “I visited Hong Kong for the first time during a trip from Shanghai over Christmas 1983,” he recounts. “I remember one evening when I was sitting at the Tsim Sha Tsui harborfront. While taking in Hong Kong Island’s impressive skyline, it became clear to me that I really wanted to live and work at this fascinating place. It took me some time, but in 1999 I was finally able to make the move to Hong Kong, and I have been happy about this decision for every single day of the past twenty years that I have spent here. Since my academic and practical work focuses on international and Chinese business law, comparative law and private international law, Hong Kong is an ideal place for me.”

Indeed, much of Wolff’s career has been spent straddling different worlds – academia and the legal profession. A German Attorney-at-Law (Rechtsanwalt) since 1991, he has also held a practicing certificate as a solicitor of England & Wales since 2004. “My practical work has inspired my research and is very important for my teaching which – I believe – students appreciate a lot,” shares Wolff. “I am still involved in some consultancy work, but the focus of my professional life has clearly shifted to academia since I joined CUHK. I once heard that ‘success is where you enjoy,’ and it is not only from this point of view that I feel that I am extremely successful. I love to work with our students, I have been able to conduct fascinating research and in my various administrative capacities I am extremely grateful for having been given the chance to work with highly skilled and motivated colleagues at different levels of CUHK.”

Building CUHK Law from Scratch

Among Wolff’s fondest memories of his time in Hong Kong are the heady days of 2005, when he was involved in establishing the CUHK Faculty of Law. “Back then, there were eight offices around a construction site, which was to become our first boardroom,” he recalls. “We had one year to create all programmes, to build the CUHK Graduate Law Center in the Bank of America Tower in Central, to recruit more colleagues and last but not least to attract potential students to join us one year later. Those were tough times, with thick layers of dust on our desks every morning, constant noise from the construction works and of course we were extremely busy often with email discussions until long after midnight.”

However, all of those inconveniences have paid off in the form of a world-class institution. “Building a new law school was a fantastic once-in-a-lifetime experience. And, we succeeded!” says Wolff. “The CUHK Faculty of Law is not even 15 years old but already ranked amongst the top 50 of the world. According to the Times Higher Education World University Rankings 2018 (Law Subject), we were even No.1 in terms of ‘international outlook.’ In the last Research Assessment Exercise, we emerged as the top law school in Hong Kong. Ranking results may of course change year by year. But, in fact we do have great teaching programmes and do research with significant impact. I trust that the success of our Faculty is recognised locally, regionally and internationally.”

Taking CUHK Law to the Next Level

Wolff has nothing but praise for the founding dean Professor Mike McConville and the current dean Professor Christopher Gane. “They have been extremely successful in first establishing and then leading the CUHK Faculty of Law into the post start-up consolidation phase,” he points out. “It is now time for us to assume a more active leadership role regionally and internationally. In particular, China’s Belt and Road initiative and the Greater Bay Area plan offer lots of opportunities in this regard. It is only natural to make our globally recognised expertise in Chinese law even stronger.”

In addition, he says that CUHK Law will reinforce its core common law competencies in areas such as contract, tort, property and company law with a focus on Hong Kong specifics. “Furthermore, legal issues related to cross-border transactions must play an important role in legal education at an international place like Hong Kong. Emerging topics such as LawTech and RegTech, LGBTI law and China’s Belt and Road initiative will as well require our full attention,” says Wolff. “And, we are permanently working on the enhancement of our curricula by adding new electives, experimenting with innovative teaching methods and improving our skills training modules to ensure that our students are equipped to become future leaders in Hong Kong’s legal market and beyond.”

Wolff also expects CUHK Law will increase its knowledge transfer activities to foster the exchange between academia and legal practice. “My colleague Professor Steven Gallagher and I have been organising a Greater China Legal History seminar series for the last five years,” he says. “The series has become a real household name with often more than 150 participants many of whom from private practice. We will enhance activities of this kind and of course venture also into more practical topics.”

Keeping Up with Developments

While he sets these plans into motion, Wolff appreciates that the road ahead won’t be entirely smooth. “The biggest challenge for me as Dean will be the rapid change that legal markets are currently encountering,” he notes. “My Faculty and I – and in fact any law school in the world – have to ensure that legal education and research keep up with these developments. This is not an easy task. For example, the increasing digitisation of the business world and the globalisation of the world’s economies demand swift and appropriate responses from lawmakers, the legal profession and last but not least also the providers of legal education.”

At the same time law and legal services are also becoming increasingly digitised and globalised, thus leading to significant changes of the legal landscape, he feels. “In the years to come it will be necessary for us to stay on top of these and other developments and not to shy away from unconventional approaches to ensure that our students understand and are able to take full advantage of the evolving features,” he says.

Wolff appreciates that Hong Kong’s other two law schools are in the same boat, and it is important that the three work well together. “The relationship amongst the three law schools in Hong Kong is excellent,” he notes. “We work with colleagues from Kowloon Tong and Pokfulam regularly on many projects relating to teaching and research. Of course, the three law schools are not only working together, we are also competing with each other. I believe that this competition is healthy and – in my eyes – beneficial for the development of legal education in Hong Kong.”

Nurturing Future Lawyers

The legal marketplace today is vastly different from what it was a generation, or even a decade ago. Lawyers are required to be increasingly versatile, technology savvy and demonstrate a wide array of non-legal skills. Wolff firmly believes law schools in Hong Kong are ensuring that graduates are primed for success not only in the legal profession, but in other sectors as well. “I trust that the law schools in Hong Kong are doing a very good job in preparing graduates for the modern legal marketplace,” he says. “It must not be forgotten in this context, however, that law graduates also have excellent career opportunities in non-law sectors and our educational work has in fact created some real leaders in those fields. Of course, we can do even better. For example, as already mentioned, in times of globalisation even more emphasis has to be placed on legal aspects related to cross-border legal transactions.”

Wolff is appreciative of the fact that at least 50 percent of a practicing lawyer’s work is non-law related, and concerns issues like management, budgeting and business development. “Related non-law skills are therefore essential for successful lawyering at all levels and in its different forms,” says Wolff. “As I mentioned earlier, we are constantly working on the enhancement of the skills training modules offered in various forms at undergraduate and postgraduate level. I have rather concrete plans how to move things forward in order to align our curricula with practical needs for the benefit of our students and ultimately their future employers as well as the society as such. I will assume the Deanship of the CUHK Faculty of Law in September and we will start with the implementation of these plans straight away.”

About the PCLL

He also weighs in on the current PCLL programme, which qualifies law graduates before they can become trainee solicitors or pupil barristers. “The PCLL programme delivery mode as such has many advantages as compared, for example, with the German model where law graduates have to undergo two years of practical training during which they work for judges, prosecutors, administrative bodies and private law firms followed by the second state examination. The one-year PCLL programme is much more focused and allows students to select their area of professional specialisation right after graduation,” says Wolff.

He adds that he feels that CUHK’s own PCLL programme is very strong and its PCLL graduates leave the Faculty well-prepared for legal practice. “Our PCLL courses are taught by full-time teachers who are experienced practitioners. The PCLL curriculum entails lots of in-class simulations and skills-training modules. While it stands to reason that nothing can replace the legal training on the job, our PCLL programme equips our graduates with the practical knowledge and skills which are needed for a successful career in law,” Wolff says.

Advice to Prospective Law Students

So what advice does Wolff have for those considering the study of law? “Most importantly, they must understand that law is not just a(nother) tool to make money. In contrast, law is key to protect the core values of every society and ultimately to achieve justice. Second, law studies and the work as a lawyer are not always a walk in the park. However, aspiring law students can rest assured that nothing (nothing!) can be more exciting than engaging with law in its different facets. Finally, it is important to join only the best school and - I have to say - this would of course be the CUHK Faculty of Law,” says Wolff with a broad smile.