Co-founder and partner of pioneering private client law firm Hugill & Ip, Alfred Ip chats with Gafencu about wealth and estate security law, supporting the LGBTQ+ community and sharing a few laughs in the comfort of his home.
What was your upbringing like? Any fond memories from childhood?
I come from a rather humble family. I grew up in Shek Kip Mei, where I went to school. We weren’t affluent but we didn’t exactly have many financial difficulties either. I remember thinking to myself that if I don’t make it for myself, no one else will make it for me, but that didn’t make me a grade A student. I was lucky to get into Hong Kong University to study law at a time when there were a lot of uncertainties about how things would change after the ’97 handover. Because I can honestly tell you, with my grades at the time, I would not have been able to get into HKU today.
I would have to say watching Hong Kong fly through the ’80s and ’90s, sitting in front of the TV, watching Anita Mui and Leslie Cheung, or variety shows like Miss Hong Kong Pageant or charity events (it was common for people to rush back home to watch these shows pre-internet), that was my fondest memory growing up. I witnessed Hong Kong at its prime and how it’s developed over the years. I didn’t realise it at the time but looking back now, the drive of the Hong Kong people – what we call the Lion Rock Spirit – was a value that I am grateful to have grown up with. It makes me very proud to be a Hongkonger.
Did you always want to become a lawyer or did you have other aspirations growing up?
Speaking honestly, being a lawyer was not my first choice. I had always wanted to be an architect, but fortunately that did not happen as it turns out, I was not very good at the subject anyway. But I have no regrets because fortunately, this pivot led me to take up law instead which is actually quite perfect for me because there is a lot of common sense in it, and I’m a Libra!
Jokes aside, I think the greatest satisfaction I get from my job is helping people with genuine issues. For many clients, problematic situations such as divorces and sibling rivalries result in consequences that can haunt them for the rest of their lives. What we do as lawyers is to help clients resolve their issues. It can be complicated and we cannot guarantee our clients that we will win a case – especially when nobody really wins in a divorce or estate dispute. What we can do is minimise the pain, suffering and loss of an unfavourable situation.
Is there an experience throughout your career that stands out to you?
I would have to say serving on the judiciary at the District Court was one experience that changed me, in terms of practice as well as a person. Sitting in a position that high – both literally and metaphorically – gives you a huge sense of responsibility. You have to look at cases from an objective point of view, to look at both sides of the argument, think deeper and judge whether the person is credible or just trying to fool you. You learn to look at things differently and become somewhat of a cynical person. But it is what is required of our legal system and what makes it a reliable and respected system.
“Serving on the judiciary at the District Court was one experience that changed me. Sitting in a position that high gives you a huge sense of responsibility”
You co-founded your private practice Hugill & Ip four years ago. Tell us more about that.
One Sunday afternoon, my partner and I were outside Staunton’s Bar talking and the idea just sprung up. We saw the needs of a private client market, the issues that needed to be addressed professionally, be it in employment, estate planning, or divorce issues and realised that there was a strong synergy between his practice specialty and mine.
I specialise in private client, which is something that is rather new in Hong Kong. The needs of high-end clients only came up when wealth accumulated over the past few decades. Now, there are private client lawyers, like ourselves, to resolve those issues.
What advice do you have for potential clients regarding wealth and estate security?
Generally, I would advise them to have all their documents in place. Nobody ever plans to get divorced or for sudden death and the emotional trauma that comes with it, but it’s always important to have an exit strategy. In cases where you don’t, we need to first, understand the client, help them figure out what they want and need because more often than not they are just as unsure how to communicate the situation. It takes a high level of empathy, understanding, patience and heart to help clients navigate the situation.
HKSAR doesn’t recognise same sex marriage. What are the barriers facing marriage equality?
When one man and one man or one woman and one woman want to get married, why can’t they? For those who value the romantic gesture, they can always get married outside of Hong Kong. But I think it’s important for the city to recognise same sex marriage, otherwise that leaves same sex couples in a vulnerable situation and unprotected by the law.
There are laws that protect individuals through a divorce or when a spouse passes away, but I’m very sad to say that at present those laws cannot be applied to same sex couples who want to protect themselves, their children and family, or fight for what should be entitled to them. We have had to, and are still, handling many such cases at the firm. I believe the law should be helping those that are vulnerable. That is what we stand for in our career and at our law firm – guiding people in genuine need of help. That is the most important thing for me.
Can more can be done? I’d say, certainly, but it takes everyone in society to pay more attention to the topic, listen more and don’t judge.
“It’s important for Hong Kong to recognise same sex marriage as same sex couples can’t get a divorce in this city – leaving them vulnerable (and) unprotected by the law”
If you could choose a superpower, what would it be and why?
If I could read people’s minds, that would save me a lot of time and energy to try to understand what people are doing and why. I’m a very straight forward person and I prefer people to treat me the same way. I’ve spent a lot of time in the closet, I don’t really need to be in there anymore [laughs]. Just let your hair down, let your guard down, and be who you are.
Finally, could you share with us one thing that’s on your bucket list?
I’m not quite sure if I should admit this, but I’ll go ahead and say it: I’d like to one day get a tattoo! I’m not sure if that is something I have the courage to do just yet, but if I were to do it, I’d probably get a cross on my arm, just below the shoulder. I’m not a religious person but growing up in a catholic school, I appreciate the symbolism behind the cross – how one person’s pain, suffering and sacrifice was made for another’s future. To me, it means to be grateful for what you have, be humble of what you achieve and be kind to everyone.
Now that I’ve actually said it, I might as well just do it!
(Interview by: Roberliza Eugenio; Photographer: Jack Law; Art Direction and Styling: Jhoshwa Ledesma; Videographer: Andy Wan)