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The Long March to Law Firm Success In China

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I know if I write on something relatively neutral and light like Chinese food or great Presidents I will get a lot of comments and no e-mails. I know if I write on a highly technical legal subject I will get just a few comments and a few probing e-mails. I now know that when I write about law firms in China, I get surprisingly few comments but a whole host of e-mails. My recent post on an ABA Journal story on foreign law firms in China is a great example of that.

I received a whole slew of e-mails in response to that post, many of them of the “isn’t such and such firm a joke” or can you even believe so and so China lawyer is still even in China” variety. Most of them concluded by asking me to do a post on what they had sent me. I usually respond to these sort of e-mails by saying I also am fascinated with this stuff, but I do not think I am terribly well positioned to write on such things and I am not sure I would want to even if I could.

A very loyal reader at an absolutely top tier mage international law firm with a very strong China presence wrote me the following e-mail in response to my ABA Journal post:

I read with interest your recent post ‘Chinese Foreign Lawyer Ethics Rules Unclear?’.

I didn’t post a comment on the blog, because this one is a bit close to home!

I’m very curious about anything on the legal services market in China, particularly on the different models law firms in China use, which have been successful and which have been unsuccessful, and especially which are predicted to be successful in the long term and why.

I think this ties in very closely with China business in general. I am always interested in reports on the issues foreign companies doing business in China encounter, especially management issues relating to Chinese staff, and reports of foreign companies just rolling out their international business plans in China, and failing. The common thread, as you and others have said many times, is that success in China requires some knowledge of local conditions.

I think some law firms approach China business in the same way they approach any country, and so far, because they don’t sell a product or deal with the Chinese marketplace, they don’t suffer, or at least don’t realize that they suffer.  However, on the basis that Chinese companies will more and more become clients of foreign law firms, and that foreign firms will become more and more savvy on the quality of their China advice, I don’t see this situation persisting. I see the distance between the true cross-cultural lawyers and the lawyers in China who only have a slim understanding of China widening rapidly. Do you agree?

A good example concerns international law firms whose China expertise is based in Hong Kong. Though Hong Kong is desperately trying to hang on to its position as the gateway to China, the mainland does not need Hong Kong to broker its deals any more. The knock on the lawyers is that native Hong Kong lawyers and foreign law firms whose business is based around China advice are facing more and more competition from mainland Chinese lawyers, and are behaving like the proverbial dog in the manger. They still push the view that Hong Kong is the place for China advice. Though there is of course a lot of expertise in Hong Kong, this is getting less and less true. Hong Kong lawyers are already at one remove, definitely from an environment like Beijing, which is very different to Hong Kong. Law firms often seem not to understand that Hong Kong Chinese are not mainland Chinese. I wonder if this is true of UK firms more than US firms!

The topic of which law firms will succeed in the long term in China, or at least what strategies will succeed, might be worth a post!

I’d be very interested to hear what views are out there.

I still check the China Law Blog almost daily, and agree with pretty much everything you post, unless the topic is the US!

To which I responded:

That is a good idea for a post, but I am not sure I can pull it off without looking like an ass.

You are right about the declining importance (other than in their own minds) of Hong Kong lawyers re China. The action for international lawyers is in Shanghai and Beijing.

I think you are also right about how the gap between those who really know China and those who are just there will continue increasing and that is exactly what is happening. This will be complete when more foreign lawyers speak and read Chinese.

At this point, hardly any Chinese companies make good clients for US and British law firms because they do not value lawyers enough and, more importantly, they are not willing to pay.

China’s market for foreign law firms is going to go just the way of the US (and UK?) in that you are going to have the international big firms that will succeed by doing big work for big companies and you will have the small firms that will succeed by doing everyday work for small and medium sized companies. Our law firm fills that small market and it is still woefully under-served.

There is little to no room for the medium market and those firms which go to China to open an office with no real reason for doing so, beyond being able to say they did will never make it. Those firms without a compelling person in China will not make it.

Mid-sized firms that think they can open a China office with a mid-tier Chinese national who got his or her law degree in the US or in the UK are going to get crushed.

How do I turn this into a real post?

To which I got this response:

I’ve been thinking about how to deal with this topic for a post, and I’ve canvassed a few views from colleagues. The topic is a bit like corruption – the only examples I can give are anecdotal, because no-one wants to jeopardize their position.

One colleague helpfully scribbled down a questionnaire on the topic:

“The Long March to Law Firm Success in China.”

Here are a few signposts for law firms to follow on the route:

1) Are you opening to “boast” of presence in China. If yes, leave now. If no, go to 2).
2) Does the head of your China office understand Chinese culture? If yes, go to 3). If no, book business class flight home now.
3) Is the head of your office able to relate across East West cultures? If yes, go to 4). If no, quit now if you are an equity partner.
4) Does the head of your office understand integration issues in a transition economy?
5) Does the head of your office understand the Chinese legal system?
6) Does the head of your office know how to relate to the Chinese media?
7) Does your China law office have a definite “client profile” to which it is aiming its product?
8) Does the head of your office know how to build client contacts in China?

I think it is obvious she feels the office head is very important.

A colleague also related a story of what a friend told her about his experience of looking for lawyers in China. The guy in question was an old friend of hers from law school, who had since become a private fund manager. The fund is fairly big, and employs about 500 people. She met him for lunch during one of his business trips to Beijing. She told me he said he had been looking for lawyers in Hong Kong, Shanghai, and Beijing, but could not find anyone in whom he had confidence.  He said he found there are generally two types of lawyers in China:

i) Foreign China attorneys who think they are managing but aren’t. They are not adapted to the market.  They have US or European products, which they are convinced are brilliant but which take no account of local conditions. The example he gave was that he had been advised that the best structure for a recent deal was a reverse takeover, when in fact a simple share offering would have been better and much cheaper. His main point was that he didn’t want someone to talk to him about London, he wanted someone who could talk to him about local conditions. He considered taking the lawyer to see the project, a port on the Yangtze River, but the HK lawyer he considered taking thought the Yangtze was in Guangdong. He soon realized that if he did take the lawyer, he would probably end up looking after the lawyer, not the other way around.

ii) The second type are local Chinese lawyers who are being kept down because of management concerns that they won’t be able to sell.

When asked what his ideal China lawyer would be, he said it should be a local person, with considerable overseas experience, who has good local knowledge, and good local commercial sense.

To this I would add that from what I have seen, local Chinese lawyers are kept down in foreign law firms not just because management are worried they can’t sell, but because international law firm management does not by and large understand Chinese culture or Chinese people, and does not have any interest in understanding Chinese culture or people. Because they don’t understand the Chinese staff, they don’t trust them.

My guess is that law firm management’s perception is that their Chinese staff are happy to work for a foreign law firm, and are generally happy with their lot.  My experience of Chinese staff at foreign law firms in China is that they make significant sacrifices to continue doing their jobs, for various perceived benefits. For example, maybe they feel that a few years at a foreign law firm will give them opportunities later. Whatever the reason, it is clear that the Chinese staff at foreign law firms make constant concessions. The key is that while the management feel that everything is peaceful, the Chinese staff are constantly working very hard to resolve ever-present conflicts.

The other thing that the international law firms do not sufficiently take into account is that the local Chinese foreign qualified lawyers are in a booming sellers’ market, and are in short supply. While not all are good, this is the pool that the good ones come from, and that pool is limited.

What this means is that far from being stable, there is a tipping point in the market. We are already seeing national confidence growing very fast in China, and to me it looks like there will be a point where the rug will suddenly be pulled from under the feet of the foreign law firms in China, and by and large, they will not see it coming. This point will come when the balance between the tensions the Chinese staff experience and other opportunities that exist changes sufficiently.

The market will divide along the lines of the firms which are sensitive to the cultural environment, the market, and their staff, and the firms which aren’t.

I responded by saying I loved the analysis and would post it pretty much word for word and I have.

I am in near total agreement with this person’s analysis of China’s legal market and I just love the questionnaire compiled by this person’s colleague. Hell, I even agree with the assessment of my being pro-U.S.

Anyway, let’s get some discussion going on here regarding these issues. Please.

Because we are offline in China right now (I hope and believe this is only temporary), I may end up keeping this post front and center for longer than usual.

33 responses to “The Long March to Law Firm Success In China”

  1. “When asked what his ideal China lawyer would be, he said it should be a local person, with considerable overseas experience, who has good local knowledge, and good local commercial sense.”
    Sure. Great. To my knowledge, though, these individuals very few and far between. That will change over time–but so will Chinese business culture, and foreigners’ relative understanding of it. I don’t envision parity, but somehow, I don’t see the difference as dramatically as the view expressed.
    Success also depends on the targeted clients, and their default cultural paradigm. For example, if the clients are Western, my experience has been that they much prefer communicating in the typical ‘Western’ mindset, with lawyers who can express to them, in perfect English, their various levels of certainty and uncertainty on various China issues. Miscommunication is time. Time is money. Obviously that can cut against foreign firms in many ways, too.
    If the targeted clients are Chinese, then I think the post is generally spot-on. Absolutely–foreign law firms need to attract top-quality Chinese lawyers. So far, to my knowledge, foreign firms have little trouble with this. Don’t foreign firms generally offer greater opportunities for training, a flashier name, and better pay? While I have witnessed some US lawyers operating with striking cultural insensitivity in China, I have also seen how some characteristics of ‘traditional’ Chinese culture impede the flow of accurate information within Chinese law firms.
    Domestic firms have the upper hand in relating to their employees and domestic Chinese clients–though ultimately, the clients will go to who can get the job done, and do it best. Like you’ve pointed out, who comes out on top will probably depend on who can best balance these inter-cultural issues.
    A last side-note– As a female lawyer-to-be intensely interested in China, the issue of how to effectively build a base of Chinese clientele hits especially close to home. Male lawyers–foreign or Chinese–have a seemingly insurmountable advantage over female ones if one considers certain traditional methods of wooing a prospective Chinese client, and the perceived role of women in these situations. It is my hope that transparency in China will continue to increase; it’s only by being able to see the lay of land, as it actually is–that people can make well-informed decisions, and pursue their own happiness. That goes for foreigners and Chinese alike.

  2. The incredibly dynamic nature of the development of China, a traditionally insular culture, will keep all of us Westerner lawyers scratching our heads for many years about what our optimal approaches are. I think it is reasonable to assume, however, that foreign clients will continue to feel more assured by having their US/UK/etc. law firms supervise, if not outright handle, their matters in China, for the total confidence which that yields. The confidence arises from their lawyers having a deep understanding of who the client is, what its corporate nature is, and what (and in what acceptable manner) it needs to accomplish its goals, no matter whether corporate work or litigation. Can there be crossover? Sure. But the time necessary to engender the requisite understanding of differing national and corporate cultures is huge, and most clients need matters handled sooner rather than later.
    In terms of serving Chinese clients, the confidence factor is equally important, and no matter how good our Mandarin is and how many years we have lived in China, we Westerners are at a cultural disadvantage. Our technical expertise is paramount in overcoming that challenge, as we attempt to bridge the cultural divide.

  3. In general I agree with the sentiments expressed in the article, but I also think Hong Kong will continue to be important, as more and more Chinese companies go to the Hong Kong market to raise capital and the rest of the world becomes more and more comfortable investing money in the Hong Kong market. Of course there is much more to doing legal work in China than in issuing securities in Hong Kong; as you say, the action is in Beijing and Shanghai.

  4. Wendy —
    Couple thoughts in reaction to your comment:
    1. I agree with you regarding the Western company preference for Western lawyers, for cultural reasons. It goes even further than that. We have a German lawyer in our office and even though nearly all our German clients speak perfect or near perfect English, they clearly prefer working with Nadja because she is considered “one of them.” Language does not equal culture and culture still, and will always, matter.
    2. I think you are right to be somewhat concerned about a female lawyer attracting Chinese clients, but at this point the gold is in the Western clients going to China, not the other way around. The hope would be that as the number of Chinese companies willing to pay Western legal fees increases, so will the role of women in those companies. That is just a hope though, as I would guess the willingness to spend will, for the most part, precede the openness towards female lawyers.

  5. “The hope would be that as the number of Chinese companies willing to pay Western legal fees increases,”
    Sorry to disappoint, but if the legal trend follows the banking trend, you’ll see chinese law firms opening up offices in the US only to serve chinese companies so that the legal fees are reduced. The big 4 chinese banks have a presence in the US to do just that (and because they can utilize Beijing backed financing, something they couldn’t do even with the biggest American or European banks).

  6. – Wendy
    “To my knowledge, though, these individuals very few and far between. That will change over time–but so will Chinese business culture, and foreigners’ relative understanding of it.”
    Without wanting to lack any respect to your personal opinion, I believe that your knowledge is somewhat outdated. Talented Chinese lawyers with international experience cannot be considered “very few and far between” anymore. Of course the talent pool still needs to grow, but efficient Chinese lawyers with a good understanding of western culture are not an exception anymore. The same is not true of foreign lawyers with regard to Chinese culture and language…
    You just need to know where to find these Chinese talents, how to identify them and how to retain them. And this is where foreign lawfirms are bad at. Just because you are a foreign lawfirm and pay higher salary does not mean you attract the best lawyers… I think it is wrong to believe that it is every Chinese lawyer’s dream to work for a foreign lawfirm. As mentioned in the original post, many Chinese lawyers see their time at a foreign lawfirm more like a sacrifice than as an ultimate career goal. This is also partly – if not mainly – due to the fact that they are not taken seriously as future leaders within the foreign lawfirm. This is not only arrogant, but also wrong from a management perspective.
    I totally agree with the orinigal post. As long as foreign lawfirms keep applying their western ways of communication and western business strategy, without adapting it to the local cultural environment, although they may be able to survive, they will not be able sustainably grow into the market.

  7. From a Chinese client development perspective, are the “best” Chinese lawyers necessarily persons with international experience whose English is good? (In my experience, some of the “best” Chinese lawyers are government officials and lawyers who don’t speak any (or very little) English.)
    The Chinese who can bring in the big Chinese clients are typically the well-connected Chinese who do not fit the standard Chinese overseas student-returnee profile.
    Thank you.

  8. __________ –
    Thank you for pointing out at least one of the weaker aspects of my anaysis–my lack of up-to-date knowledge on the legal market there. But, I’d like to make sure we’re both referring to the same type of ‘ideal’ Chinese lawyer. When I hear “local person, with considerable overseas experience”–I think of Chinese-born lawyers who have either received formal legal training in the US or UK (i.e., a JD or LLM), or who have somehow otherwise garnered a great deal of relevant cultural knowledge through actual physical time spent in a ‘Western’ country.
    Are you defining “talented Chinese lawyers with international experience” in this way? I only ask because, on its face, the phrase seems it could be less stringent.
    I did not mean to suggest that it is every Chinese lawyers’ dream to work for a foreign law firm, and I do know that “talented Chinese lawyers with international experience” exist–they may, in fact, exist in droves. How are their english language skills? This is an actual, critical question. If a partner were to hand a Western client to a skilled Chinese lawyer with ‘international experience,’ but the client could not communicate smoothly with that lawyer (or is simply under the impression that communication is not happening smoothly), then the partner taking a risk. That isn’t a ‘China’ problem; communication is an issue everywhere–interculturally and intraculturally. Even if the lawyer is bright and understands everything perfectly clearly, if the client feels uneasy, that’s a problem.

  9. I have been watching this blog and like it very much. This is my first time to post and hope it will provide something meaningful to the readers here.
    I am a Chinese (grew up in Taiwan), having a US JD and some years of US work experience prior to JD education. I can say that there are many people in the United States who meet the description of an “idea Chinese lawyer.” Last year, a Chinese alumnus of my law school was recruited back to Beijing by a big international law firm. I know he will eventually come back to the United States and his firm should know it, too. The reason is obvious: most overseas Chinese perceive the US as a better place for living and education (for their children). Besides, his wife is a permanent resident holding a tenure in a US University. I talked to some of my Chinese JD classmates. None of them wanted to go back to China (I am an exception). They don’t like the environment there. They also think they would be treated in China not as good as in the United States (in terms of salary and social respect). Average Chinese tend to have a negative perception about lawyers.
    So, if you are looking for ideal Chinese lawyers, try to find out their true motivations for working in China. Furthermore, foreign experience is certainly good. A Chinese with little foreign experience but speaks fluent English is not bad. What you want is a Chinese who can deal with local and legal matters very well and can communicate effectively with you and your foreign clients.
    Hiring an idea Chinese lawyer is only one step toward your firm’s success. Think about your firm’s competitive advantages and find ways to utilize them. How can your firm be distinguished from other law firms, Chinese or international firms? Size matters, but is less important if you distinguish your firm. Don’t forget the potential clients from Taiwan, Hong Kong and Japan. They invest heavily in China. Your firm is not limited to English speaking clients. Make use of your Chinese speaking staffs.
    Cultural gap is definite an issue. I see many foreigners who know a little more about China than other foreigners and think they know China a lot. They tend to categorize Chinese when dealing with Chinese. Remember, the Chinese you are dealing with could be from all kinds of backgrounds. Even Chinese themselves would need lots of caution dealing with other Chinese. The key is not to assume or categorize things. Try to understand the real situations you are dealing with. Helps from local Chinese would be very useful. But be careful because most Chinese are very self-protective when speaking to foreigners. One way to get better information from a Chinese is to ask with hypo without involving this person in the situation.
    Hope this comment helps. Good Luck!

  10. John–
    I appreciate the reminder about potential clients from Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Japan. Actually, one international recruiter I spoke with last fall specifically mentioned hoping to recruit students fluent in both Chinese and Japanese.

  11. Todd Platek —
    I completely agree.
    My firm has been doing work in Korea for 15 years with incredibly capable Korean lawyers who speak excellent English. But, it seems that whenever an American company uses these same lawyers directly, the American company becomes incredibly unahappy and typically fires them. The cultures are just too different. I think the same is and will be true of China. We have a German lawyer on staff and it never ceases to amaze me how much better she is with our German clients than anyone else in the office and how much more they trust her and prefer her. And not a one of them does not speak perfect or near perfect English. Culture matters.

  12. Anon —
    I think you are overrating the ease Chinese lawyers have and will have in relating to foreign clients. My view is that there are very few Western lawyers who can come close to bridging the gap and there are very few Chinese lawyers who can come close to bridging the gap. Having worked with Chinese companies coming to the US and foreign companies going to China, I would say the foreign companies have a better understanding of how to do things in China than the Chinese companies do as to how to do things in China. China is relatively new at this “opening up” thing and it is going to take it a while. But the fact that foreign law firms have such a difficult time “relating” shows how difficult this all really is.

  13. Steven Blayney —
    You raise a very good point and the answer really is, it depends. There are many excellent Chinese lawyers out there who do not speak a word of English. We have worked with plenty of them when international knowledge is irrelevant or when necessity demands it. For example, we handled a fairly large criminal case a year or so ago in Shanghai and since the top criminal lawyers do not speak English, we went with one of those. But, if you are going to be using an attorney to help an American company register its WFOE, there is almost no way a domestic Chinese lawyer can do that work.

  14. Wendy Jackson —
    Not sure if your questions are of me or someone who commented, but I agree with what you are saying in that it takes a lot more than “good” English to make a foreign client comfortable. Many Chinese lawyers speak “good” English, but far fewer of them understand what, let’s say, an American client wants.
    Co-blogger, Steve Dickinson, reads and speaks Chinese as well as English and has spent the last 30+ years of his life immersed in China and, yet, I am confident he would tell you he is far more comfortable with American clients than with Chinese clients. I know I am. This is normal.

  15. nh —
    That video to which you refer readers is nearly completely irrelevant to this blog. It deals with American companies trying to game the immigration system so as to be able to hire foreign workers in the US. What’s that got to do with China?

  16. Wendy Jackson —
    Our lead lawyer in China, co-blogger Steve Dickinson, actually started his legal career by spending a couple years with a top Tokyo law firm and for many years in the US, much of his work was for Japanese clients. So far, however, we have been too overwhelmed with our work from mostly American and European clients to make any effort at getting Japanese clients and, probably due in large measure to this, we have had almost none.

  17. Interesting range of opinions. For what it’s worth, most of the UK firms I’m aware of with a presence in Hong Kong and China have been keen to make up to partner ethnically Chinese people (often from Hong Kong or overseas) with experience in one of the major common law jurisdictions: I suppose I have in mind London, New York and Hong Kong. If you look at recent Asian partnerships for the magic circle firms and, I’m sure, for their US equivalents also, you’ll see this being repeated.
    On an amused sidenote to John’s very valid points, as a westerner, one should absolutely avoid categorising the Chinese. Apart from anything else, the Chinese do it far better than we can – not surprising when you consider that they have some 5,000 years of practice. I refer anyone with a suitably wry sense of humour to the book ???? if they can find it, which sets out in all seriousness the defining characteristics of businesspeople from each different province in China. The principal foreign nations also get a look in, although there is presumably less diversity in the USA than in Shandong, based on the space allocated to each.

  18. China is a huge country with a whole host of diversity. Categorizing is usually just not all that helpful. But, it is sometimes necessary as starting point when one has no other real basis on which to operate.

  19. From the foregoing insightful comments, it sounds like the “best” lawyer for handling China work is someone like Steve Dickinson, i.e., someone who can communicate effectively with foreign clients, but who can liaise with the “best” local Chinese lawyers and Chinese government officials.
    I understand that the Chinese, overseas student returnee profile is the standard profile held up by law firm headhunters, but I suspect that this may be because the foreign law firms need someone to do the work and may be somewhat lost in China, particularly if their lawyers have just been seconded to a China office from overseas.
    But from a client perspective, I would want someone like Steve Dickinson who is fluent in Chinese (spoken and written) with a knowledge of Chinese foreign investment law who can supervise the file.
    I would NOT want to pay a foreign lawyer who cannot supervise the Chinese lawyer because such foreign lawyer cannot read Chinese. In other words, I would want a lawyer like Steve Dickinson, or a similar lawyer at another law firm.
    Thank you.

  20. @ wendy …
    perhaps i didnt read carefully; but i am confused about your take on law in china …
    u indicate that u are a neophyte (still articling?), and that you dont have (any? recent) experience in china …
    but yet you assert:
    “Male lawyers–foreign or Chinese–have a seemingly insurmountable advantage over female ones if one considers certain traditional methods of wooing a prospective Chinese client, and the perceived role of women in these situations.”
    what exactly do you mean – which methods of cultivating clients?
    this seems to be a very concerte complaint for someone who has yet to start their legal career or even their life in china?
    did i miss something?
    … i am not necessarily doubting the acciuracy of your contention per se (though i have not heard this complaint from female chinese lawyers that i know) but i am curious about your grounds for making it (eg PC hyperbole versus first hand experience).

  21. Steven Blayney —
    I am certainly not going to try to dissuade you or anyone else from using Steve Dickinson, but the reality is that the analysis we have discussed here is really only one step. There is also the issue regarding substantive knowledge and heft. Good lawyers like Steve recognize they are not expert in all areas of law and are constantly referring work out because of this. On top of that, there are deals that are simply too big for our firm and we refer those out to the big firms like yours. BTW, please say hello to my long-time good friend at your office, Steve DeGracia. Seriously.

  22. Dan,
    I agree with your comments with regard to scope of advice. For larger deals, of course, you’ll always need a cross-jurisdictional team.
    My comments are mostly limited to the “China side” of the equation.
    In this regard, in respect of Chinese business development and local Chinese advice, I don’t see any particular advantage with overseas Chinese student returnees if you’ve got someone like a Steve Dickinson in place who can liaise directly with Chinese lawyers and Chinese government officials. Rethinking the “ideal law firm business model in China” may become more relevant as China begins to harmonize its legal regimes applicable to local Chinese and foreigners as some are foreseeing in the prospective new Foreign Investment Guidance Catalogue.
    Thank you.

  23. interesting. I am a case of constant rejections by foreign law firms in China since 2003. I got a JD from a small ABA law school in US, licensed in 2 US states, got my undergraduate LLB from a top Chinese Univ. in early 90s , worked as a judge for one year in a Chinese court, yet, i could not find a US or foreign firm willing to grant a formal interview except for one firm in Beijing where its partner was more interested in lecturing me how inadequate a lawyer is if he does not have a phd in science etc. I am frustrated. can’t make sense, out of the 10 years US education and experience, 4 years of China-work experience, native Mandarin speaking and reading, i am unemployable. Perhaps time to start my own? anyway, will be glad to hear from any of you out there in Beijing, Shanghai etc.

  24. I was chatting with one of our Chinese associates yesterday, and we were talking about our office and the way it is going. He said that he had been reading ‘China Law Blog’ and had seen an interesting post on foreign law firms in China which he pretty much agreed with. Obviously, he didn’t realize that the post was discussing our firm, or that I was involved.
    He then went on to talk about his own future, and spoke of some of his friends who at a similar age now occupy very senior positions at local firms, and are running very big projects. He made the point that when the opportunities to participate in management and decision making exist at local firms, when the opportunity exists to have more responsibility in large projects sooner, and when you add up all the problems with cultural integration and lockstep at a foreign law firm, a local firm begins to look like a good option. This guy is an excellent lawyer, very diligent, with fantastic English and cross-cultural communication skills. In other words, he is gold dust for a large foreign law firm. The interesting thing is, he doesn’t seem very motivated to stay – it is by no means the only option for him.
    We aren’t talking about ‘overseas Chinese student returnees’. We are talking about local Chinese lawyers with significant cross-cultural legal and commercial skills. The second pool may be drawn in part from the first, but they are by no means the same thing. I understand that Steve Dickinson’s legal knowledge and skills and his Chinese are all excellent, and he has gravitas. However, I’m sure he would be the first to admit that there are many things he can’t accomplish in China as a non-Chinese.
    The point is that the equivalent local talent is there. Of course it isn’t plentiful, but it is there. Some foreign law firms do not recognise that talent and do not know how it utilize it, and some do. The successful firms will be the ones that do.

  25. zahadum —
    I certainly do not claim expertise in this arena, but two things I have picked up on regarading female attorneys in China. First, they SEEM to be treated pretty well. By all appearances better than female attorneys in Korea, for instance.
    I would love to hear more regarding female attorneys in China.

  26. Very Loyal Reader —
    “So, the ideal lawyer relates equally well to both cultures. Of course, this is almost unheard of, so what is required are teams which have both elements.” I for one have never known such a person. In fact, I was today talking with another loyal reader, Todd Platek, and I was telling him how the really good “Korean” attorneys in Seattle are often criticized by Koreans for not speaking Korean nearly well enough and even for not being Korean enough. My comment was that this almost has to be the case because to be a really good lawyer in Seattle, it really helps to understand Seattle and American culture and legal culture and if you did not grow up in the U.S., this is nearly impossible. Co-blogger Steve has been involved with China for about 35 years. He has lived in China for huge stretches of time. His wife is Chinese. He speaks Chinese at least as much as he speaks English and he reads and writes in Chinese more than in English. He would be the first to admit his knowledge of Chinese culture will never be that of a Chinese lawyer.

  27. Steven Blayney —
    Interpreters will always tell you that the best way to interpret is to have two interpreters, with, let’s say, the Chinese interpreter interpreting from English into Chinese and the American interpreter interpreting from Chinese into English. I think something similar is at play with respect to legal work as well and that is the best way to go is for an American lawyer to handle the American client going into China (usually with the assistance of Chinese counsel) and for the Chinese lawyer to handle the Chinese client going into, let’s say, the United States, with the assitance of the American lawyer as counsel.
    I can say this is certainly true of my own experiences involving many different countries and work going both ways.

  28. frustrated native Chinese -US licensed lawyer –
    I think what you are facing is, to a certain extent prejudice. American firms may be reluctant to hire you as an “American” lawyer in China because they are not impressed by your law school/grades and they may also be concerned that you will not relate well with their American clients. They may also be reluctant to hire you as a Chinese lawyer, believing that you have been out of the market too long to really know what is going on in China. This is my thinking on what American (substitute British as well here) firms may be thinking but I would love to hear from others on this as well.
    I know there are countless of others out there with similar backgrounds and credentials having real trouble finding jobs and I expect that to only get worse as more Chinese students are getting law degrees overseas.
    Comments, please!

  29. Very Loyal Reader —
    Steve just today landed in Spain for a quick vacation (of course this means that we got hit with an unbelievable client crisis involving China today, but that is another story) so I will have to jump in here for him and say that Steve would admit this right off the bat. He is always saying that there are many things he knows how to do but would never do himself because he needs a Chinese lawyer there.
    There are analogous sitatuations involving US law as well. I would never represent a criminal client in Seattle even on something like a plea bargain even though I know how to plea bargain. I would not do it because I have zero credibility with the prosecutors here in town because they have no clue who I am.
    We could not function in China without our cadre of top flight Chinese law firms and attorneys who are constantly assisting us.

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