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Saturday, October 21, 2006

Go East, Young Man - The New China Syndrome: US Lawyers Exporting Themselves to China

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Why the US is exporting lawyers to China and why you should think twice before joining them

Recently a plethora of articles have appeared in China-related blogs – How Do I Get to China? by Mark Agrasut in Asia Business Intelligence, The Allure of Working in China by Travis Hodgkins in the Transnational Law Blog, and So You Want to Practice China Law? by Dan Harris in the China Law Blog. So as a California attorney with several years’ working experience in China, I naturally felt the urge to put in my two cent’s worth (by the way it’s a penny for your thoughts, so now you know how this site makes money…).

Fifty years ago there was no such thing as international law, only domestic law advising clients with funny-sounding names. Although that situation has changed over the last few decades, the world is not yet as borderless as some sectors of the media would like us to believe. So You Want to Practice China Law? contains the quote, "Ten years ago if you went immediately to China you would be ending your career before it began." Likewise, The Allure of Working in China quotes a Hastings career counselor as advising, "If you start your career internationally without gaining foundational experience here in the US, your chances of coming home and practicing are limited if not impossible."

I beg to differ. I recall a young man who graduated from law school in 1996 with a 3.56 GPA and proficiency in Mandarin, hot on the heels of a Summer Associate position in Beijing with a major international law firm. He loved it so much he was already "back East" by the time they handed out diplomas. After a few years he decided to return to the US to test the theory that "you can't go home again". In only a few short months he was able to land a plum position as a driver for Pizza Hut at a full dollar an hour over minimum wage (plus tips!).

The Mirror Technique: In all seriousness, before you decide to start a career across the Pacific, look into the mirror and ask yourself a question: “Am I an ‘international Lawyer’ or an ‘International lawyer’?” (note the differences in capitalization). In other words, what is your second choice behind practicing law in China? Practicing law in your home jurisdiction, or teaching English in China? Is your primary focus on law, or on China? Because when it’s all said and done, the inside of an office is the inside of an office whether that office is in Beijing, Caracas or New York. And like it or not, the inside of an office is where you’re going to be spending most of your waking hours as a lawyer. Likewise, legal work is essentially legal work whether you’re drafting documents and consulting with clients in English, Chinese, or classical Arabic.

“Our China Office”: It’s all the rage these days for large and even medium-sized law firms to be able to talk about “our China Office” - and it makes for one impressive-looking bilingual business card. It’s such a status symbol that a number of firms (I suspect) are propping up money-losing operations in China just to be able to keep Beijing on the list of cities where their firm maintains offices. Especially for medium-sized law firms, a China office tends to prove one’s status as a Major International Player, kind of like a teenager who refuses to shave his peach fuzz because it “proves I’m a man”.

Forget the status of practicing “cutting-edge international law”. Having a high-status job is like dating a fashion model – it’s cool at first, but after a couple of months the newness wears off and all you have left is everyday life, for better or for worse.

“Our China Office” Revisited: “Our China Representative Office” is more like it. And in China, representative offices are not allowed to engage in profit-making activities. So how are Western law firms getting away with it? Well, some firms are primarily engaged in the Western legal side of truly international transactions (and not necessarily licensed by China to practice even the law of their home jurisdictions), but the rest are simply practicing Chinese law in blatant violation of Chinese law. They are able to get away with this in Beijing and Hong Kong (not so much in Shanghai) because the Chinese authorities are willing to turn their heads the other way, ignoring the wounded howls of jilted (and well-qualified) Chinese lawyers. After all, many Western investors still feel more comfortable retaining fellow Westerners to provide legal services, even though their Chinese counterparts are far more likely to understand linguistic and legal nuances that American lawyers miss.

American lawyers are tolerated in China because they help seduce Western investment into China. As the English language level of Chinese lawyers improves, numbers increase, and foreign investors develop greater confidence in the local legal system, American lawyers will become increasingly unnecessary. Since their presence in China is already illegal, it won’t even take a new law to throw them out – only enforcement of existing law. Repent! The end is coming soon - I can already envision a stream of former “cutting-edge” China lawyers returning to L.A., tattered briefcases in hand, all wearing sandwich boards reading “Will Litigate for Food”. Don’t get caught in mid-career all dressed up with no place to go.

Lawyers without Borders: Don’t be silly, there is no such organization (I don’t think so, anyway…). “Doctors without Borders” exists because human physiology is essentially the same no matter where you are in the world. Not so with human legal systems. Even with the increasing standardization of international transactions, there will always be significant differences and pesky little barriers like local bar associations that will impede your movements from West to East (or from East to West should you ever get sick of China). Law is not the best career to choose if you want to internationalize. Face it - you should have gotten an MBA.

Alternatives: Chinese law allows “legal advisors” (legal practitioners not admitted to the local bar association) to practice in many positions that would require bar association membership in the United States. Among these positions is corporate counsel – that’s right, nine to five positions that pay six figures. These sorts of positions are also famous for providing opportunities for real wealth as the company grows – stock options, etc. Chinese law firms are also hiring Chinese-speaking (and reading) foreign lawyers in increasing numbers and at higher salaries.

So in summary, my sage advice reads as follows: “Forget the prestigious law firms doing the big sexy deals. Get a few years of business law experience in your home jurisdiction, and then seek a position as corporate counsel with a Western company in China.”

By the way, in reference to my snide little remark about getting an MBA - if you do have an MBA along with your law degree, then don’t even bother reading this article because it would be a complete waste of your time. (-:


Blogger California Industrial City said...

Well, I think it's not a bad post...since I wrote it myself...

Saturday, October 21, 2006 8:00:00 AM  
Blogger California Industrial City said...

testing 1,2,3...

Saturday, October 21, 2006 8:01:00 AM  

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