Fiction or Reality

Fictional television programmes may exert a powerful influence on community attitudes towards a subject matter or a class of people because of their broad reach and appeal. The viewers may get so carried away by the charming actors (who do their best to realistically portray the characters that they play) and the intriguing plot that they forget where the line of fiction ends and reality begins.

It may still be possible to stay “unconfused” with respect to non-local television programmes so that the experiences of, for example, Harvey Specter in Suits and Annalise Keating in How to Get Away with Murder are remembered as fictional scenes. However, it becomes more difficult to draw the line if the fictional characters and plots share the same local background as the viewers’ and speak the same language.

A recent local television soap opera portraying the work of a Hong Kong law firm has caused concerns in the profession, precisely because of the potential adverse impact it can have on the community if the fictional portrayal is taken as reality. There is no intention to repeat the outrageously unprofessional conduct displayed by the fictional characters in the programme. Suffice it to say, the abundance of professional misconduct in the soap opera will make it perfect teaching materials for testing law students as to which professional ethical standards have been breached.

Going back to reality, we must never forget that our society is founded on respect for the Rule of Law. Lawyers who are professionally trained to uphold the Rule of Law have a special role to fulfill in society. The public expectation in lawyers performing this special role is met by the requirement on lawyers’ strict adherence to the core principles of professional conduct that guide the practice of lawyers. These core principles are universal, save for slight variations in different jurisdictions. They include essentially:

(a) Independence: the independence of the lawyer, and the freedom of the lawyer to pursue the client’s case without any undue pressure from anyone;
(b) Confidentiality: the right and duty of the lawyer to keep clients’ matters confidential, which is essential to the creation of a relationship of trust between the lawyer and his clients;
(c) Conflicts of interest: avoiding conflicts of interest, whether between different clients or between the client and the lawyer;
(d) Clients’ interests: the fiduciary duty of the lawyer to act loyally, openly and fairly towards his clients and in the best interests of his clients;
(e) Competence: the duty of the lawyer to be competent in any services undertaken on behalf of his clients;
(f) Dignity and honour of the profession and integrity of individual lawyers: the highest standards of honesty, integrity and fairness towards not only the lawyer’s clients, but also the court, colleagues and all those with whom the lawyer comes into professional contact;
(g) Fees: fair treatment of clients in relation to fees; and
(h) Lawyers’ undertaking: the duty of the lawyer to honour his professional undertakings.

These core principles lay down the framework for the detailed provisions of the code of professional conduct for lawyers. Our main reference on the requirements of a solicitor’s professional conduct is the Hong Kong Solicitors’ Guide to Professional Conduct Volume 1 (“Guide”). The Principles and Commentaries in the Guide echo the aforementioned core principles.

In addition to the Guide, the requirements of a solicitor’s professional conduct are also derived from other sources. These include the Legal Practitioners Ordinance (Cap. 159) and subsidiary legislation, the Rules of the High Court (Cap. 4 Sub. Leg. A), decisions of the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal and the court, as well as the Law Society’s Circulars and Practice Directions.

The core principles are the defining characteristics of the legal profession. Deviation from the Guide or any other ethical requirements is professional misconduct and will be sanctioned.

The soap opera is a fiction to the extreme.

Secretary-General, Law Society of Hong Kong