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So You Want To Practice International (China) Law?

international law

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.

16 responses to “So You Want To Practice International (China) Law?”

  1. Hanging Up the Shingle
    In all honesty, I often question many of the UK/US lawyers-in-training who intend to start their professional practice in China and for whom that goal is paramount, because I havent yet heard a really good professional reason why theyve …

  2. As a California attorney working in China, I definitely agree that it’s a good idea to get a few years experience in your home jurisdiction before heading out to China, because if you don’t, it could be a rough transition if you ever decide to go back home.
    Also keep in mind that if you work for a foreign law firm in China and you haven’t passed the Chinese bar exam and been admitted to practice in China, technically speaking you are violating Chinese law (even though foreign lawyers are widely tolerated in China).
    However, you don’t need to pass the Chinese bar exam or be licensed in China to work as corporate counsel or as a “legal advisor” for a Chinese law firm.

  3. Mr. Carnes —
    Thanks for checking in. Foreign lawyers can legally work for foreign law firms in China, they just cannot legally practice Chinese law. You are right though that foreign lawyers are allowed to work for Chinese law firms as legal advisors/foreign law consultants. We actually broke the story on the Shanghai Bar Association’s memorandum regarding its anger at foreign lawyers practicing law in Shanghai. For more on that, go here:

  4. Should You Pursue an International Law Career
    China Law Blog recently linked to a post I wrote in June while I was living and working in Beijing entitled, The Allure of Working in China. My post was a pugnacious post written in response to a post on Asia Business Intelligence. I was venting my gen…

  5. I would echo this post completely. In my experience interviewing this fall with large international firms, with the exception of one British firm that wanted to send new hires straight to Hong Kong, all the firms suggested practicing in the US for two years before heading over to China. With two years of US experience, a young attorney will add much more value to the overseas office because of all the formal training they will get in the first two years in the home office. Having that experience at home should also make the transition back easier should that come up.
    Also, if you have language skills and decent grades, odds are the firms will be chasing you. So law students should try negotiating a stint in Hong Kong or mainland China as part of their summer experience. At least that way you will know what you are getting into should you want to transfer offices after your first two years.

  6. You’re right, I did speak too broadly. There is plenty of room for the practice of strictly foreign law in a variety of coss-border transactions. By the way, I worked for Richard Wang (of the Shanghai Bar Association) during most of 2005 and I can say from experience that his firm is as compentent as any forein investor could ask for.

  7. Ben —
    Thanks for checking in. You make a really good point about spending some summer time with a firm in China. I can see this as being good both for the student to determine if China is really the right thing and to convince the firm with which you interview that you are serious about China.

  8. I am a law student from Argentina and I am doing an internship in an important law firm in Buenos Aires. I have had the opportunity to start working on arbitration in China.
    I would like to ask you if the regulations, interpretations and notices of the Supreme People’s Court are posted somewhere on the internet. I have searched everywhere, but I can’t seem to find any.
    Thank you so much for any assistance you can provide me with,
    Estefana Santos

  9. Hiring In China’s Legal Industry
    “The seeds of our destiny are nurtured by the roots of our past.” Master Po (Kung Fu, Episode 7) I constantly receive emails and phone calls from college students, law students, and young lawyers seeking information on how to advance their China legal …

  10. So You Want To Be An International (China) Lawyer? Part III
    I am frequently emailed by college students, law students and even practitioners, seeking advice on what it takes to become an international lawyer. It seems the lawyer behind the Counterfeit Chic blog (an excellent blog, BTW) gets even more of these r…

  11. I am a student currently studying law overseas and are seeking internships in China. There seem to be no programs and I have tried contacting the HR from some firms directly with no success. Would you have any handy hints for gaining a summer internship with a barrister from the Shanghai Bar Association or from a major law firm?

  12. I think the ‘get two years experience in the US’ is a great idea, but I wonder how practical is it for some of us. Having graduated from a lesser-known law school in California, with hiring as tight as it is, the prospects of getting business law experience for me were not great (unless I wanted to work for free, like my clerkship). My most promising options were criminal or family law straight out of law school. I chose to go to China to work, beause I figured the experience I am getting now (working in the international department at a large chinese company) has more value than handling DUIs or divorces in California. I doubt knowing criminal procedure or the family code would help me at all in China. On the other hand, I deal with business people from five continents and international law here on a regular basis, and I think this will help me no matter where I go (back to US or elsewhere). I think time is the worst thing to waste, so if you aren’t getting relevant experience immediately and don’t have your heart set on being a partner at a US firm, I think the best thing to do is to just take a leap. Of course the risk is on you, but so is the reward.

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