Face to Face with Winnie Tam SC

EDUCATION

Winnie was educated at St Paul’s Co-educational College in Hong Kong before she read law at the University of Hong Kong. At first, Winnie decided by way of elimination that she wanted to become a barrister. “I decided to become a barrister as soon as I had completed my summer internship with a law firm, mainly doing conveyancing work, which was considered the most lucrative work in the mid 1980s. Most of my classmates wanted to become solicitors. But I have always been a contrarian growing up, so I was already telling myself it was not for me. The internship confirmed it beyond doubt.” Winnie also had an offer to join a major City firm to do “China trade”, as it was called in those days but turned it down because she didn’t find it interesting. “I did not fancy always travelling to China in those days so I declined. I quite enjoyed public speaking and debating, and writing and organising arguments, although in those days there were no opportunities in school to develop these skills. In the first half of my pupilage, it became obvious to me that I was in the right profession. I very much enjoyed the action in court where one has to respond instantly to all sorts of happenings.”

After graduation, she practiced for two years at the Chambers of Gilbert Rodway QC, and managed to save some money in order to enable her to pursue further studies abroad. She was accepted to read LL.M. at University College London. During that time, she was also seconded to a set of chambers in London specialising in intellectual property law. When it was time for the term-end examination, Winnie was invited to return to Hong Kong so she could take up a patent case on an urgent basis. The case later became the first patent trial in Hong Kong. “I do not have much regret about not completing the exams, but in hindsight, I learned that I could have asked for the exams to be deferred! I did not know at the time, and I happily gave it up in favour of “doing the real thing” in court.”

INTELLECTUAL PROPERTY

Winnie is the first woman intellectual property specialist to be appointed Senior Counsel of the Hong Kong Bar by the Chief Justice. “My interest in IP springs from my lifelong interest in music. Even as a school girl with no resources, I was already making amateur attempts in music composition. I became aware of music copyright and found it quite fascinating.” At the University of Hong Kong, IP was offered as two half elective subjects for the first time in her third year. As it turned out, she was unable to fit the course into her timetable, but she was determined to pursue it even by self-study. In the end, she wrote a dissertation paper on music copyright on her own as part of the graduation requirements. “To me, IP is a subject that is very close to the daily lives of ordinary people, at least when compared with banking, corporate law, commercial law, personal injuries and crime. I felt it come to life when I started studying it, and it has never stopped evolving alongside the progression of human society. New issues keep arising, calling for new ways of application of the law and reforms. That is why I love it so much to this day.”

When she started at the Hong Kong Bar as a pupil, she felt that she should train in general practice in order to gain a broader experience to enable her to commence practice. So she pursued pupilage not in IP, but in general civil law and in crime. She was determined to go to London to pursue a further year of specialised training in IP from renowned practitioners who wrote some of the best textbooks on the subject. Moreover, international commercial litigation involves conflict of laws – a subject that had always been very interesting to Winnie. With the increase in cross-border trade and commerce, it has only become more and more relevant, particularly with the rise of arbitration as a favoured means of dispute resolution in international commercial dealings, with or without IP elements.

THREE TIPS

Winnie shared three tips for succeeding as a lawyer. “First, I would say keep your eyes and ears open, and embrace changes, instead of dodging reality or resisting the waves of change. Maintaining this mindset at all times is very important, as changes always happen faster than you think. Once you have developed lethargy or a fear of change, it will take so much longer for you to get back to a neutral position before you can get up and running to catch up! Second, do not confine your professional interests to one or two areas. Be open-minded about developing new areas of practice, even though you may feel very cosy in the one or two areas you have been successful in. Third, pursue areas of law that you are really interested in, rather than those you would only do because they are lucrative. Interest sustains passion. Without passion, your pursuit becomes a drag especially when it becomes less rewarding in material terms than you thought it might be.”

In her own life, Winnie lives by three mottos that are most helpful to her. The first is with regard to how she conducts herself. The second has to do with how she chooses her words when it comes to human relationships: “it is easy for people with training as an advocate to forget they are not always in verbal combat.” The third has to do with how she thinks about things around her, for her own emotional health. The three mottos are: 1) never stop learning; 2) 話到口中留半句,理從是處讓三分 which means “never utter hurtful words in harsh criticism - give a little concession even though you may be entirely in the right”; and 3) when you cannot change the undesirable things that happen around you, you can change the way you look at them.

CHALLENGES

Winnie says her greatest challenges have come during her stint as Bar Chairman between the years 2015 and 2017. During tumultuous times, when the wider public was more interested in hearing the Bar’s opinion on political matters, she managed to balance the inevitable need of the association to deal with politics against the even more pressing need to do real work in expanding practice opportunities for the Bar, and more importantly, in creating an awareness for the need to change the mindsets of barristers when it came to practice development.

But her current role brings with it its challenges as well. “My present position as Chair of the Communication Authority will present significant challenges, but I am yet to feel the brunt of it after the initial two months. I am sure they will come.” The role of the Communications Authority is that of a watchdog, guarding the interest of the public as users of telecommunication and broadcasting services, advancing and balancing the interests of members of the related industries, regulating the conduct of licensees, ensuring the fair distribution of resources (eg allocation of bandwidth) and shaping policies on all the above duties. “I see my role as a moderator of what sometimes will be seen as conflicting duties and views, where I hope to be guided by the principle of fairness. On the shaping of policies, I hope to be open-minded, cautious, yet progressive.”

PASSION FOR PUBLIC SERVICE

Winnie is truly passionate about public service. She has been involved with the West Kowloon Cultural District Board for more than a year now. “Although I consider myself very much an amateur musician, having raised two musical children, my passion in supporting fledgling artists in the performing arts has never waned. My position as one of the trustees of the HKJC Music and Dance Funds also enabled me to see the needs of young artists with high potential at close range, and to bring about reforms in the relevant rules to better focus on providing for their needs.” Winnie has also been involved as a board member of the Tourism Board in the past few years. ” It also broadened my perspective of Hong Kong, and I was able to view it from the lens of visitors and potential visitors.” She is additionally involved in Advisory Committee on Corruption of the ICAC. “My work in ICAC initially in the Operations Review, started over ten years ago.” Finally, she is also on the Judicial Officers Recommendation Commission as a representative of the Bar.

Winnie shared her view on the proposed development of the Greater Bay Area. “I would say this is the most grounded proposal for the development of Hong Kong in recent years. With the backing of the mainland and Hong Kong governments, the opportunities are enormous for Hong Kong professionals. For lawyers, some form of collaboration or association with mainland firms may be seen to be advantageous if not essential as a start, but before law firms and individual practitioners jump at the opportunity to collaborate, it is highly important to take the opportunity to achieve a good mutual understanding of each others’ style of practice, capabilities, and strengths and weaknesses. The association, in order to be successful and sustainable, will have to be complementary and not exploitative, substantial and not superficial.”

ADVICE FOR LAWYERS

When asked about the most pressing issues facing the legal profession in Hong Kong and how those issues should be addressed, she said: “For both branches of the profession, it is about building the ability and flexibility to adapt to the fast-changing practice environment. We should not fear fair competition, but should embrace them and find our own respective positioning that will enable our potential to be realised. For those who face difficulties in finding their positions in the legal services market, they must find the courage to move on to greener pastures elsewhere. A broad outlook, adaptability, industry, and courage are what I consider to be some of the most important qualities for lawyers, or indeed all professionals, of this generation.”

Are Hong Kong lawyers well prepared for the rapid developments in the world economy and the growing collaboration and comperition with legal practitioners from different jurisdictions? “Some are more prepared than others. Those who are unprepared and unable to compete will be blaming others for their misfortune, such as insufficient government funding, etc. In fact the profession itself should bear the primary responsibility of creating its own sustainability. Our interactions with mainland practitioners will continue to heighten. While most of them are very humble and claim to have much to learn from Hong Kong lawyers, especially in their standard of professionalism and concepts of rule of law, in truth many of them are even more advanced than we are in terms of professional exposure and global outlook because of their hunger for knowledge and overseas exposure. The window of opportunity for Hong Kong lawyers to stay in the position of leadership is forever dwindling.”

Jurisdictions: 

Legal Counsel, Bookazine

Navin is currently pursuing his Doctorate in Law focusing on arbitration. He is an in-house legal counsel for Bookazine. He is also an accredited general mediator of the Hong Kong International Arbitration Centre and Hong Kong Mediation Accreditation Association Ltd. He has been a Visiting Fellow at City University of Hong Kong and was their team coach for the Vis Moot in 2016-2017.  He has also had several years of legal publishing experience.