On Becoming an International/China Lawyer

Law students and recent law school graduates are always contacting our China lawyers to ask what they should do to become international lawyers focused on China law. My advice is usually a somewhat rambling dissertation on the need to build a solid legal foundation while constantly working to improve your foreign language skills. I then talk about how almost every lawyer I know fell into/morphed into their practice area after many years as a lawyer. I always get the sense this is exactly what these law students/young lawyers do not want to hear.

They want specifics and I am giving lectures on following one’s heart, foundations, basics, training, morphing, and luck. They want to become an international attorney tomorrow and I tell them how if they follow an unclear, difficult, and convoluted path they might become one some day.

Here then are some specifics, some of which are my own ramblings, and some of which I appropriated from others.

1. International Lawyer Career Paths 

It is important to note that Westerners generally cannot become licensed China lawyers; they can only become Foreign Representative Attorneys, and there is a law requiring Foreign Representative Attorneys have at least two years’ experience in another jurisdiction before they can work in China.

Generally, the best way to do this is to spend your first few years practicing law at a major international law firm and then go to China to practice for a couple more years. This way you bring an American or European legal education and the requisite high level law firm experience. Even if your Chinese is excellent, your added value to a law firm in China is your American/European legal background. If you go to China immediately after graduation, you cut into what you can offer. The real key to increasing your value as a foreign lawyer doing China law is to be able to read and write in Chinese. Being able to order a beer or discuss the weather in Chinese is great as a tourist, but nearly meaningless as a new lawyer whose chief job is usually to research and analyze written laws and contracts.

On the other hand, there is something to be said for going to China right after law school. Ten years ago if you went immediately to China you would arguably be ending your legal career before it began. I know a ton of fine lawyers who went to Japan, Korea or China, and spent decades in those countries and by doing so became virtually unemployable as lawyers in the United States. Globalization is changing this rapidly, but it is still a little risky and I frankly do not know the current situation well enough to advise anyone. I have heard though that if you don’t want to be a partner at a major law firm, going to China first is probably fine. However, if you are looking for an American legal career, It is probably still best to stay in the States for at least a couple of years after graduating law school.

2. Law Schools

Speaking of law school, one of the more common emails our international lawyers get comes from law students and potential law students, asking what they should start doing now to prepare themselves for a career practicing international law. My advice on that is also probably a bit too Zen-like for their tastes, but here goes. Get into the best law school you can in the United States or Europe. Take as many corporate and intellectual property and private international law courses as you can. Get the best grades as you can. Travel as much as you can. Hone your foreign language skills as much as you can.

Lately, I have been getting many emails from people who are already working in Asia in non-lawyer jobs, asking about getting a law degree from an English language law school program tied in with a Asian law school. My response to them is to ask what that degree will allow them to do once they complete it, because it is my understanding that it will NOT allow you to practice law in either China or the United States. If anyone believes I have this wrong or if anyone is aware of a country that does permit a graduate with one of these degrees to practice law, please let me know via a comment below.

3. Requisite Traits of International Lawyers

Practicing law tends to require certain traits. Practicing law overseas also requires certain traits. Far too many people get into law when it is not suited for them and they end up unhappy. You should passionately want to become a lawyer or not bother. You should passionately want to become an international lawyer or not bother.

The book, China CEO: Voices of Experience from 20 International Business Leaders, lists the traits CEOs seek in their expat managers for China and these traits are pretty much the same traits needed to be a good international lawyer or a good China lawyer. Here is the list, with my comments in italics:

1. Technical and Corporate Expertise: Select people with a rock-solid professional background and an excellent knowledge of the company. In the legal arena, this means smart people who understand complex legal issues, no matter what the country. 

2. International Expertise: A posting in China becomes more manageable after an assignment either in an Asian location or another developing market, or both. The person who has spent time in another country tends to be better equipped to deal with other countries, including those countries to which they have never been. I have seen this time and again with both lawyers and clients. We have many clients who when their business dried up in one country moved nearly effortlessly to another country. We also see domestic companies that simply cannot make the leap to go international at all, even when they should. What you learn in one country (but obviously not everything) will help you in another country.

3. Multicultural Mindset: When selecting an executive for an overseas posting, look for someone with an adventurous spirit, a sense of humor, and an open mind. This also applies to lawyers. In a 2004 article, I wrote how doing business in emerging market countries means taking nothing for granted:

I have a mantra for my own legal work in these countries that translates well to the business world: ‘Assume nothing, but assume that you are assuming things without even realizing you are doing so.’”

Things will be different. Very different. Things you take for granted in your home country might not exist in the emerging market country. Things you take for granted in your home country might be the exact opposite in the emerging market country. Things you think will be totally different in the emerging market country may be exactly the same. Things you thought you knew about emerging market countries based on what you know from another emerging market country may be completely different in a neighboring country, or even in another region within the same country.

The principle, one more time: Keep an open mind, and assume nothing.

4. Commitment to Learn: Learn from those around you. Listen to your employees, JV partners, clients, and customers. This is equally true for international lawyers.

5. Humility: Be humble and avoid using an authoritarian style. Influencing and coaching is the way to get the best out of your Chinese employees. Of course. This is also the way to get the best out of the lawyers in other countries with whom you will be working.

6. Strength: Be unyielding in defending core corporate values and culture. In the legal context, this means doing things by the law, even if you see others around you not doing so. This also means always telling your clients the truth.

7. Patience: Be patient; use a step-by-step approach in China, not a Big Bang approach. I will borrow again from my emerging markets article:

Exercise Extreme Patience.  This principle stems from the maxim that everything takes twice as long as you think it will. If it takes twice as long in the West, triple that in emerging market countries. You’ll go in both as a businessperson and a teacher — and in both roles, the learning curve of your partner will almost certainly take way more time to deal with than you think.

For example, many emerging market countries have a history where “bad business” meant “thinking long-term.” A year or two after the fall of Soviet communism, I was involved in a matter where an investor put $250,000 into a Russian joint venture. The business very quickly was making good money and all indicators pointed towards steadily increasing profitability. But, quite quickly, the Russian company stole the $250,000. Was it so irrational for him to think so short term in a country where the government and tax systems had such a history of unpredictability?

8. Guanxi-BuildingBuild your guanxi not only internally (with subordinates, peers and superiors) but also externally with clients, suppliers and government officials). A strong guanxi network is a fundamental element of your success in China. As a lawyer, both you and your practice will benefit by you doing more than just staying in your office poring over law books. Get to know your clients, your fellow lawyers, and good people in the industries in which you are working, and treat them with respect. This is basic good business for anyone. 

9. Speed: Be flexible and quick. Stay well informed; the business environment in China is in a constant and rapid flux, probably much more so than in other markets. This is true of international law as well, and if you are going to practice in this area, yous should enjoy and thrive on constant change and even constant uncertainty. You need to be prepared to work tirelessly just to keep up.

4. Are You Sure You Want to Be an International Lawyer?

A law student once sent me a link to a Quora question and answer session on what it takes for someone to succeed in working for a company in China as a foreigner. The law student asked whether those things apply to China lawyers as well. They most certainly do.

The specific question on Quora was “What are the key skills needed to succeed in working for a company in China as a foreigner?” The number one answer was that “as someone who has hired on behalf of large and small companies here in China, I can tell you the kind of young foreigner who gets hired has most or all of the following: (my comments are in italics)

1. Chinese language skills: Language is the key to culture, and if you don’t understand the culture here, you aren’t going to add much value, and you’ll be gone within 2-3 years. Sure, a lot of people speak English, and it is easy to operate in an English bubble in larger companies. But the better your Chinese and the better your appreciation for the culture, the better you’ll fit in. For lawyers, being able to read and write a language are more important than being able to speak it and law students need to realize this. Being able to order a beer in Chinese is great, but being able to read and analyze Section 308 of such and such code and being able to read a ten-page contract in Chinese in the same amount of time it would take you to read it in English is what law firms need.

2. Communications skills: Industry specific knowledge and skills can be learned. You need to come in with the clear ability to express yourself in both written and spoken form. Absolutely. Want to piss off a client?  Send them a long email giving them six options without making any recommendation. Want to make a client happy?  Send them an email clearly explaining and ranking their best three options.

3. An ability to roll with the punches: Operating in a cross-cultural environment is trying at the best of times, and at the worst of times it would test the patience of a saint. If you are high-strung or expect things to work the way they’re supposed to all the time, don’t even get on the plane to come here. This is particularly true at smaller law firms and companies and this is a crucial element in my law firm’s hiring at all levels. One of our lawyers began with us as a legal assistant and we hired her for that position because she had great marks as a cocktail waitress at a Las Vegas casino. We figured if she could keep her cool with a bunch of drunk losers, she could keep her cool in a fast-paced office. We once hired a receptionist who had been the interface between a private school and the students’ parents because we figured if she could deal with concerned parents, she could deal with concerned clients. I love asking potential hires about their travels and I do so because I want to know if they like going to the same ski resort every year or prefer going to remote villages in Guatemala (which was true of another of our legal assistants). The person who treks to Guatemala in their spare time has learned to roll with the punches.

4. A very clear idea of what you offer that is hard to find or is unobtainable from among your Chinese peers, and the ability to express that well. If you can’t concisely tell me what you have that I need but can’t get from a fresh Tsinghua University graduate, you are wasting your time and mine. If a potential hire cannot pitch me on their skillset, it is unlikely they will be able to instill confidence in our clients.

5. Passion for the business that is so real others can feel it walking into the room. If you interview with me and I think you are talking to me just because you want a job (as opposed to this job), you have no chance. I stretch this even further by wanting to see passion in other things as well. I want someone who shows passion for something and I do not care what it is. Passion translates. The last kind of person I want to hire (for a million reasons) is the person who doesn’t seem to care about anything.

6. Integrity: Like few other places on the planet, China will test your character and your ethics. If you do not know when or how to stick to your principles when the chips are down, you’re part of the problem. This is in many respects everything. The lawyer-client relationship is based on trust and it cannot work without it. 

7. Excellent project management skills: This is something in fairly short supply among people coming out of school in China, and it is expected from expats. This is very important, but in law there is generally a high correlation between high grades and the ability to develop these skills.

8. Creativity: I don’t mean Pixar-style creativity, but the ability to come up with new ideas, to not only think outside of the box but burn the box altogether. Far more important for the law than most law students realize, and more important in an international context than a domestic one.

Go forth and prosper.

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