The Hong Kong Legal Walk begins on 20th October 2023, marking only the second event in its history. As the opening ceremony approaches, Phil Taylor looks at what makes the event special, and what it means for its participants, benefactors and charities
Walking for a just cause may be in lawyers’ bones. Over the years, and across the world, countless causes have been supported in this way. Walking together in public is a way of showing solidarity, speaking out, or raising money for those less fortunate, and lawyers have often been at the forefront of these movements.
It was while mulling over thoughts like these in late 2020, that Jonathan Bell, an entrepreneur with extensive background in the legal sector, realised that something was missing in Hong Kong. The London Legal Walk, a popular annual fundraising event supporting free legal advice services, is approaching its 20th anniversary and has raised around £10 million over that time. Similar events take place in other cities. But there was a noticeable gap in Hong Kong.
“This idea came to me: there’s that great initiative in London, so let’s take that initiative and that model, and run it in Hong Kong – or walk it, for that matter,” says Bell.
And so the Hong Kong Legal Walk (HKLW) was born. The timing could not have been much better. After the challenges of the past few years, including the long months of lockdown and isolation, many people were keen to get outside and get involved in something bigger.
Speaking to the Hong Kong Legal Talk podcast in September, Amanda Rasmussen, Managing Director of FTI Consulting, summarised this succinctly.
“It came at a really good moment. I think we were all feeling very frustrated throughout Covid, and this was an opportunity to get together with peers at a time when we couldn’t really do that – but we could actually walk together,” she explained.
Bell’s first step in turning his idea into a reality was to approach a number of key organisations including the Hong Kong Bar Association (HKBA), the Hong Kong International Arbitration Centre (HKIAC) and the Association of Corporate Counsel (ACC), who were all quick to lend their support. Support was also voiced by Bob Nightingale MBE, a founder of the London Legal Support Trust (the charity behind London’s walk), as well as two former Presidents of the United Kingdom Supreme Court, Lord Phillips and Lord Neuberger.
“This certainly put the wind in our sails; to have their support early on was extremely encouraging,” Bell says.
From there, things grew quickly. The HKLW was formally launched in October 2021, at an event hosted by the Bar Association, and the first walk took place a year later with the organisers setting an aspirational goal.
“The plan was to raise a million Hong Kong dollars for four charities,” explains Bell. “We hit a million dollars on the day of our closing ceremony, with the last donation coming in. It was high drama and the vibe in that room was incredible. And I could genuinely say to our supporters: ‘Thanks a million!’”
This attracted wide attention and laid a solid foundation for the next year’s event, which has the same financial goal, and Bell says that more than 100,000 HKD has already been raised before the opening ceremony yet to take place.
Helping out, in many ways
This year, the HKLW has selected the charities Mind HK, Equal Justice Hong Kong and Justice Without Borders to benefit from fundraising initiatives of the participants. Angel Wong, Vice Chair of the HKLW Steering Committee and Charities Lead for the organisation, explains that recipient charities are selected carefully, with due diligence carried out examining their allocation of funds, efficiency, past achievements, future prospects and impact on Hong Kong.
“The overall theme we want to follow is to support charities that do things for the general good of Hong Kong, but also we want to support those that provide some sort of pro bono or legal-related service,” explains Wong. “So we select two charities who work generally for Hong Kong and two who run legal initiatives.”
The impact of HKLW on these chosen charities can not be overestimated. Catherine Husted, Allen & Overy’s Head of Social Impact Hong Kong, noted on the Hong Kong Legal Talk Podcast that as well as the obvious and important fundraising element, HKLW significantly raises awareness about what the charities do. This is positive for them and their beneficiaries.
“Hopefully, some other law firms would then step forward separately to do pro bono work for those charities – and others,” added Husted. This could include firms or barristers chambers who are new to pro bono work
On the same podcast, Stephen Lai, HKLW’s Head of Media, explained how the initiative has been able to help charities which otherwise may not have the resources, skills or ability to promote themselves and what they do for the community. He also pointed out how, despite the amount of money in Hong Kong, there are unfortunately some members of society who can get left behind. Lai’s view, echoed by the other podcast guests, is that initiatives such as HKLW provide valuable moral and financial support to those who are less fortunate.
“It’s really good, I think, to look after them and say – we’re all part of Hong Kong, we’re in the same team, we haven’t forgotten about you,” commented Lai.
A message of unity
Those behind the HKLW have been keen to put a message of unity at the front and centre of the organisation and everything it does.
“We’re passionate about helping Hong Kong and local communities but it’s about more than that: it’s about uniting Hong Kong and getting the legal community to come together to work on something that’s greater than themselves, that’s bigger than the billable hour, and bigger than any standalone pro bono initiative,” Bell says.
The message of working for a common cause has been very effective, say the organisers, and it is clear that they have done an effective job in bringing people from across the legal sector together after a difficult period.
This was strongly recognised in a keynote speech given by Winnie Tam, a Senior Counsel and former Chair of the Hong Kong Bar Association, during the 2022 closing ceremony held at the Hong Kong Club on 19th November.
“We hope this is just the beginning of a period of working together; we put aside our political differences, ideological differences or competitiveness in practice,” said Tam. “We have all come together because we believe in Hong Kong and that we need to be working together to help bring Hong Kong to the forefront again in the face of all sorts of challenging circumstances.”
Together in diversity
This sense of unity has been achieved despite the HKLW following a slightly different format from the London walk, and others like it. Rather than hosting a single, centralised, mass-walking event on one day, participants (whether groups or individuals) are encouraged to register and then organise their own event at a date and time that suits them within the HKLW period. In 2023, the walk will take place between Friday, 20th October and Sunday, 26th November.
Participants record their walks using an app of their choice, and share the results with the HKLW central team for verification. People are also strongly encouraged to publicise their experiences on social media, helping create a buzz and more of that sense of togetherness.
Although this format initially came about because of Covid-19, it has proved successful for a number of reasons. Firms can incorporate the HKLW into corporate team-building events, or use it as part of their broader wellness, pro bono and Corporate Social Responsibility programmes, and busy lawyers may find it preferable not to have to commit to one set date, dictated centrally. Meanwhile, others from outside the immediate legal community may feel more inclined to join in, adding to the positive experience.
“People can bring their kids or dogs on the walk with them, and because they’re walking in their own groups, they’re pretty relaxed,” Wong says.
And doubtless the profile-raising aspect of the walk appeals to the participant firms’ marketing teams, too. Photos on the HKLW from 2022 show smiling teams wearing branded T-shirts, as well as featuring plenty of dogs and babies, and some firms have chosen to host their own spin-off events at venues around the city.
This way of organising the walk gained the favour of Lord Neuberger (who is also a Non-Permanent Judge of the Hong Kong Court of Final Appeal) who commented in 2022 that it gives the feeling that there are walks happening everywhere, anytime, Wong reports.
It is easy to see why HKLW has chosen to continue with this way of operating in 2023.
Along with walks of all shapes and sizes taking place over the five-week period, participants will be raising money in many different and creative ways, something very much encouraged by the HKLW organisers.
“Each firm takes a bit of a different approach,” says Bell. “There are different levels of participation.”
Some participants wear fancy dress – Wong recalls seeing a giant chicken in 2022 – and last year, one international firm walked the streets along with a trolley selling bubble tea, manned by the firm’s Asia Managing Partner.
This instils an element of friendly competition, as do some other incentives offered by the HKLW organisers.
“We recommend that people walk at least 7.5km,” says Wong, “but if they want to, they can walk 10km or even more. We have an award for the longest distance walked by an individual, last year we gave a best-dressed award, and this year we’re hosting a bakery challenge, too, where the runner up will be asked to donate to the winner’s chosen charitable cause.”
Individuals can participate as a Walker, a Trekker (walking more than 7.5km) or a Challenger (over 25km). Some take this to extremes: Bell highlights that David Swain, an IP lawyer and General Counsel of Hong Kong-listed bio-pharmaceutical company Essex Bio-Technology, walked 254 km in a month for the 2022 event.
For firms, there is the chance for corporate recognition, too. High fundraisers will appear on a public leaderboard posted on LinkedIn, with an award for the most funds raised presented at the closing ceremony. Those organisations which raise at least 15,000 HKD will be labelled Benefactors and have their names featured on the HKLW website and social media feeds. Firms which reach a higher tier by raising 35,000 HKD will achieve Leading Benefactor status. This entitles the firm to provide a public quote from its managing partner and will gain it a feature on HKLW’s advertising campaign on the MTR, Hong Kong’s subway system.
Bell comes back again to the community benefits of the walk.
“Firms have all sorts of motivations – the PR bit is great – but we’re doing it because of the unifying message,” he says, pointing out that for firms this is a great way to improve employee engagement, emphasise wellness and vitality, and enhancing vital pro bono and CSR programmes. “There are so many great positive points that are covered by getting involved with an initiative like this.”
HKLW has been warmly welcomed and embraced by numerous organisations and individuals across Hong Kong, and has already had a significant impact, with the goals and values of the organisation clearly resonating with many in the legal community.
On its LinkedIn page, HKLW has found the opportunity to share feedback from a number of supporters and participants. Ann Ng, Head of Investment Funds Asia, at offshore firm Maples Group, recently highlighted the opportunity that the walk gave members of her firm “to come together for a common cause of raising awareness and resources for those in need.” Responding to questions posed by HKLW, Ng specifically noted how HKLW’s goal of improving access to justice appealed to her firm’s values, as well as how the event gave Hong Kong’s lawyers an opportunity to show their “resilience and empathy.”
“It’s a reminder of the positive change that can occur when we prioritize social responsibility and community well-being,” she added.
HKLW provides an opportunity for other businesses to play their part in this community effort, too. This year, there are three headline sponsors: FTI Consulting, Rede Chambers and Ashford Benjamin. HKLW is staffed by volunteers, and so the financial support of these businesses is vital to ensure that the walks themselves, as well as the various satellite initiatives, take place and run efficiently.
“Their money is kind of our war chest for the organisation of the walk and being able to host events. For example, we’re organising a Family Fun Day for everyone that takes part – a community event with games and activities for kids to do.”
Others have contributed in different ways. In 2022, two art galleries, Wei Gallery and Artyze, donated works of art to be awarded as prizes; while events company WeRaise donated prizes and hosted a silent auction.
The success of HKLW so far is a testament not only to the financial and practical support of sponsors and benefactors, but to the careful, strategic and business-savvy planning which Bell and his fellow organisers have applied.
Onwards and upwards
Looking to the future, Bell again points to the success of the London Legal Walk, and is clearly inspired and enthused by the£10 million fundraising achievement over the history of that organisation.
“If we were able to raise a million dollars in our first year, then just imagine where we can take this in 5, 10, 20 years. It’s a tremendous opportunity for us to make this the go-to charitable event in the legal calendar in Hong Kong,” he says.
There is clearly vast potential, and HKLW is riding an impressive wave of momentum, based, Bell says, on its message alone. Last year, 830 walkers took part in the inaugural event, and with 10,000 lawyers in Hong Kong, there is room for plenty more to be added.
“We’d love to see a strong showing from that group, from the larger law firm side, from the barristers chambers side – there’s great potential to make this an annual staple,” says Bell. “More scale, more charities benefited, more members of our community having their lives impacted is what it’s all about.”
Wong echoes this sentiment and repeats HKLW’s goal of uniting the whole legal profession. “We hope the event becomes known by every entity in the legal industry,” she says.
Speaking to the Hong Kong Legal Talk podcast, Allen & Overy’s Husted listed a number of reasons why her firm had been motivated to support this cause.
“For us, it was a really good opportunity to support,with our fellow lawyers, these great organisations. We get approached all the time and we have to be selective about what we do, but this was new, and it’s always good to support something new to Hong Kong. And, the fact is that it was supporting four great NGOs, two of which we already worked with.”
Husted also noted that HKLW had tapped into a genuine community spirit in the city.
“Across Hong Kong within the legal profession, people are extremely collaborative when it comes to things like pro bono, volunteering or community investment. Bringing everyone together … proved to be really special,” she explained.
On the podcast, Rasmussen explained FTI Consulting’s motivation for becoming a key sponsor and getting involved in HKLW.
“Giving time, donations and charity to something that engenders endorphins is always a good idea,” she said. “More seriously, it’s always a challenge for corporates to think about what charities to support and how to support them. Charities tend to be looking for long-term support that means that they can ensure sustainability and that their programmes have longevity. This model puts each of them on a pedestal and then allows law firms and others to explore ways of advancing other programmes with those charities.”
HKLW’s skill, and doubtless a key to its success, has been the ability to tap into a changing attitude among businesses towards CSR and charitable initiatives. Things have come a long way since the days when a company would simply hand over a cheque, treating charitable giving like a business transaction. Organisations such as HKLW give supporters of all types and at all levels a platform, but also a way of connecting more deeply and directly with the community.
Based on its record so far, HKLW will doubtless continue to grow rapidly, assisting many good causes and making a difference to many more lives. That growth is also likely to translate into a spread beyond Hong Kong’s borders. The model has been proven, and the seed has been sown. That can only be a good thing.
The 2023 Hong Kong Legal Walk Opening Ceremony takes place on 20th October, and will feature a ‘fireside chat’ with The Honourable Mr Justice Robert Tang GBM SBS in conversation with HKLW Vice Chair, Angel Wong.
More details on all aspects of the Hong Kong Legal Walk, including its supporters and chosen charities, can be found on its website: https://legalwalkhk.ic.hk/ and on its LinkedIn feed.