On Becoming an International Lawyer

Law students and recent law school graduates are always contacting me to ask how they can become international lawyers focused on China law. My response is usually a somewhat rambling dissertation on the need to build a solid legal foundation while working on improving language skills. I then talk about how almost every lawyer I know just 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.

But this last time when a law student who speaks some Chinese wrote me about becoming a China lawyer and started asking specific questions, I decided I should refer him instead to another law student I know who has spent considerable time in China and just returned from interviewing with a number of big international law firms in their US and China offices. I ended up being cc’ed on their initial e-mail discussions and, with just a bit of editing (I mean, these were informal e-mails between law students), I am passing on the salient information:

It is my impression that many international firms in mainland China are desperate for attorneys with knowledge of Chinese. However, due to current restrictions from the Chinese government, it is difficult to immediately enter the China market without previous experience in the United States.

As I am sure you know, there is a law that requires “Foreign Representative Attorneys” to have two years experience in another jurisdiction before they can work in China. It is a strange law, but it seems that most big American firms are following it (smaller firms maybe not so much). However, many lawyers get around it by splitting time between another jurisdiction (including Hong Kong) and China. If you spend 6 months + 1 day in the home jurisdiction, and the rest of the time in China, that counts as a year in your home jurisdiction. If you do that for two years, you are eligible to work in China. You still cannot “practice” law there, but you can work there.

I think the way to go is to practice for a few years in a major US market (preferably doing at least some international law), and then go to China to practice for a couple more years. This way the skill set you bring to China will be an American legal education and American experience. Even if your Chinese is very good, your added value to a law firm in China is your American legal background. If you go to China immediately after graduation you cut into what you can offer.

On the other hand, there is something to be said for going there immediately. It is an exciting legal market and trends are changing. Ten years ago if you went immediately to China you would be ending your legal career before it began. Now with an increasing emphasis on globalization it is still a little risky, but less so. If you don’t want to be a partner at a major law firm then going there first is fine. However, if you are looking for a legal career in BigLaw I encourage you to stay in the States for another couple of years.

For more on getting into China law, check out the Transnational Law Blog’s post, The Allure of Working in China.

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