Talk at Faculty Opening Ceremony
31 August 2018
By Alexa Lam
To most of you here, today is a special day. It marks the start of a new chapter of your life. It is a relatively short chapter – you are spending just a few years here, but it will probably be one of the most important chapters, because it is during this time that you will develop the moral and intellectual compass which you will use to navigate your life journey.
Your sense of pride and excitement, tempered perhaps by a bit of foreboding, is almost palpable. There is ample justification for this. Not only have you gotten into a prestigious university in the region, you actually managed to enroll in its top 20 world-ranking law school. Once you get over the next few years of lectures, tutorials, assignments and exams, you will join the profession of smart men and women in black robes, funny wigs and lawyer-speak in glamorous downtown Central, where successful professionals spend most of their waking hours.
You wanted to do law, and your wish has been granted. I have heard anecdotally that our LLB freshmen are increasingly a sophisticated bunch. Before they stepped foot into Cheng Yu Tung Tower on the first day, they had worked out what courses are the least rigorous and the most likely to yield a good grade, who are the teachers to avoid in the next four years because they are mean with their grades, how they could sail through law school with minimum work, etc. Our Department Head Professor Zhao Yun told us that you all came with top admission scores, which means that at age 18, you already have the ability to grapple with knowledge in a broad range of academic subjects. I therefore cannot believe that you are here just for the purpose of getting a ticket to the exclusive club of legal practice and big money. You would be doing yourself a great disservice, indeed you would be throwing away the opportunity of a lifetime, if you did not take advantage of the environment that university provides to equip yourselves with skills that will enable you to get the greatest intellectual and emotional satisfaction out of not just work but life in general. Life is a long journey – if it is just work and nothing else, it is a journey of hardship. You may become rich, but yours is an impoverished life.
To enjoy a rich life (and money does not equate a rich life), you must have passion for what you do and what you believe in. Passion drives your desire to participate, use your creativity, innovate solutions and in the end excel. The joy is not just in the result but the process. Let me illustrate with a story.
In the course that I teach, students are required to take part in a moot. They are given a life case – a hearing pending before the Market Misconduct Tribunal on an insider dealing complaint brought by the securities market regulator, the Securities and Futures Commission. Students were told that they should themselves form moot groups of four each - two for the regulator and two the defendants. The facts of the case are set out in a Notice filed by the regulator and available on the Tribunal’s website. Effectively a statement of claim by the regulator, the notice is of course a one-sided document setting out facts and allegations in the regulator’s favour. Other than this, there was very little structure. Students were advised that members of a group could agree among themselves on any additional facts that would give the defendants a good defence. That of course would make the regulator’s case more difficult but it would even the odds and render the hearing more interesting. When students were first told about this, they looked distinctly unhappy. I could just see what was on their minds: "Why does this professor have to be so marfan? Why can’t she just talk about the case in lecture? How am I to figure out a group to join? What a waste of my time!" Some emailed me right after class asking if I could do the grouping for them as they did not know one another. One even questioned if it was not the responsibility of the teacher to set up and assign students to groups.
I sent around a list of names of students in the class with their contact email address. In my message I made clear that a student’s ability to organize his group, agree with his group members the facts of the case and a fair allocation of work for each team member, and work with his team members to deliver results would go towards the student’s overall grade. The mention of the word “grade” worked like magic. Everyone rushed to email me with details of his group. As students started working with their group members, I noticed a sea change of attitude. I started getting enthusiastic emails asking for clarification of the Tribunal’s procedures and telling me about the additional facts on which their group had agreed. On the day of the mooting, students came before me, men and women smartly dressed in black, displaying a command of the facts, an understanding of the law, an ability to advocate a seamlessly woven legal argument and a poise and eloquence worthy of the best that this Law Faculty has ever produced. Some even prepared their bundles of documents, which included actual announcements, financial reports and media publications relevant to the company whose shares the regulator claimed were the subject matter of the insider dealing. Their enthusiasm in presenting their case in the best light was almost contagious. After their mooting, brimming with pride and satisfaction, students told me how much they had enjoyed the process, and they thanked one another in their group for a great experience together.
The central theme of the story is that in the next four or five years at HKU, there is nothing about learning that is a waste of your time. Learning comes in all forms and modes. Your teacher is only a small part of it. You learn because of your own intellectual curiosity and imagination, which drive thinking, debates, research and analysis. You learn from your peers, and you learn from actual and vicarious experiences.
Let me talk about your peers. Your class is big – some 200 students. Apart from those who are “your type”, many come from schools whose students you have never interacted with. Then there are those who went to high schools abroad, and still others who come from Mainland China, or other common law jurisdictions. They are an important part of your learning. In a world where technology continues to disrupt incumbents and open new theatres of opportunities, hard facts and skills that you learn today may become completely obsolete tomorrow. Your role model – the smart men and women in black in downtown Central, could be replaced one day by robot advisers. In Mainland China, they are already experimenting with virtual trials where cases are argued and adjudicated on the web. To stay relevant, you have to be agile and adaptable. Diversity, therefore, is the key to success in the tomorrow’s world.
Many of your classmates come from a different history and culture. Get to know them. You will find that there is something that you can learn from one another, or something about them that could help you better understand yourself. Explore the different activities, forums, clubs and programs that are available. They do not have to be law related. They are never a waste of time. Even if in the end you find that you do not enjoy any particular activity, you will have given yourself the opportunity of trying it. Understanding yourself, who you are and what you stand for, is crucial. The next four or five years is a time for you to do that. That is what I meant about building your moral and intellectual compass. You will need that as your guide when you come to crossroads in your life journey.
“That all sounds grand, but then what about my law studies? Where do I find to study law, which is my first priority?” Those of you who have been warned about the onerous workload of a law undergraduate may wonder. Let me share with you the provocative words of Lord Sumption, Justice of the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom in a recent debate in Cambridge on the motion “Those who wish to practise law should not study law at university”. Lord Sumption made the comment that “…law is dead easy. Most of it is common sense with knobs on. The difficulty is in the facts. Once you understand and strip away 95% of the facts which are not relevant, the legal solution is obvious…” While that may be over simplifying the process of legal reasoning, and I am certainly not suggesting that the next four years will be dead easy, what Lord Sumption said reminds us that the practice of law requires not just knowledge of the rules in the statue book and in cases – that is the easy part, but more importantly an understanding of the history, culture, values and sensibilities of society that the law serves. That understanding comes from acquiring a broad knowledge of the world and of humanity, and from the sharing of ideas in a liberal environment with a diverse body of contemporaries.
So far, I have focused on how you could prepare for a successful legal career and an intellectually fulfilling life. I now wish to say a few words to those of you who are not sure that you want to practice law, or whether you even wish to be here in the first place. I had 20 academic advisees last year. Among them was one who told me that he was studying law only because both his parents wanted it. I have heard similar stories in medical student circles. For these students, I would urge you to look at the next four years as an investment in a richer life ahead. An undergraduate law degree is a rigorous intellectual grounding in legal reasoning, logical analysis and dialectical debates within a historical, cultural, literary and political context that are relevant to the world you live in today. These are excellent tools for almost any other discipline or profession that you may wish to take up later in life. History is full of stories of successful men and women who first trained in law and subsequently excelled in other fields. More than half of the presidents of the United States for instance were trained as lawyers. Your law studies here could well be a prelude to more exciting things to come. Use the time here to open you mind to the ideas and opportunities that a liberal university environment has to offer. You will not be disappointed.
With that, let me draw this to a close by wishing you all an enriching experience at HKU.