[Editor's Note: Now and again, this writer hears from young men and women who wish to build a career in China, echoing aspirations I heard and similarly uttered whiles ago, when most of that vast nation was off-limits to foreigners. For me, who had been given extraordinary linguistic talents, China was the locus of a range of fascinating sounds and expressive concepts, which nation, by extension, must also have been as exotic, mystical and enjoyable in every other aspect.
That youthful idealism was highly imaginative, I found, upon arrival in a country where the traditional culture we had studied and venerated had been smashed; where ordained restrictions upon thought and behavior prevented the natural development of mind and spirit which thrives in liberty; where even the mere fulfillment of the bare necessities of daily life had become so onerous that one could hardly develop a life beyond it.
Some enthusiastically report that China has been transformed since those times. From my own experience in China, I would indeed agree that life now is easier for very many, certainly in the urban centers, but it does not approach the Valhalla imagined in the minds of many in the West, who seem to think their futures lie "over there," instead of "right here." This grossly expanding phenomenon is indicative of serious changes in the American mindset, as if Americans can no longer envision a future at home.
We are grateful to Mark Agrasut for today's post. Mark discusses legal careers specifically, but his post will likely prove helpful as well to those considering what might be called a China career. Mark is a solicitor with Linklaters, specialising on energy and infrastructure transactions, as well as project finance. He has also been a research associate and programme director at the Centre for East Asian Law at the School of Oriental and African Studies, London University (SOAS), The opinions expressed in this post are his own and do not represent the views of his firm.]
Possibly more so than ever, international law firms are targeting Asia, and especially Greater China. More and more newly-qualified lawyers are starting their careers with aspirations and intentions to work in Asia, and many are approaching the path as "Asia specialists" first, lawyers second. Having spoken to a number of aspiring China law specialists, trained in the UK/US, about career options, one notices more and more looking to spend a greater and greater proportion of their professional lives in the PRC. This note is a (slightly) amended posting which was made in relation to one such query (from a US-trained law student), detailing my point of view on the subject of starting a legal career at a China office of an international law firm. Let me qualify this by emphasising that this is all just based on unofficial information/personal views, and from informal discussions I have had with colleagues and lawyers in similar positions. Further, my intent is not to ignore the importance and accomplishments of the developing China-business environment, but to focus mainly on the potential breadth of experience at the cutting edge of commerce-side legal developments offered in more established legal/regulatory environments to lawyers trained within them, exposure to which may allow an aspirant China-specialist, for example, to bring more to the table when the time comes.
I think one needs to have in mind a long-term view when considering this sort of move. Starting your career and being hired to be in China may have a slightly limiting effect on your long-term options to practice anywhere else. My personal view on this is that in most areas of practice, starting out as a China-based foreign attorney may not serve you well if you intend to move back to a more mature jurisdiction later, especially if you're thinking of competing to secure your place working on complex, ground-breaking international deals in markets like London or New York. My experience has been that the ability to move laterally from a position in China (or any developing market) to an equivalent position in London is limited if you have no real grounding/transactional experience in the more mature legal markets.
I'd also say that the work you get in fast-developing markets has also often been more subject to macro movements in the market; you start as an energy/infrastructure sector lawyer, and then find yourself working on general IPOs the next year. In that context, you might find yourself being a China lawyer first and foremost, and a specialist in any particular field of law through necessity rather than choice. Of course, I also accept that there may be much to be said for "regional" specialisms, much as there are "industry/sector" specialisms: but it has always seemed to be the case that the process of globalisation diminishes the need for the former, whilst increasingly-sophisticated business practices demand the latter. On current trends, my inclination is to believe that sector specialism to be marginally more important.
That being said, an excellent lawyer anywhere should be an excellent lawyer no matter what, and there is a lot of valuable experience you can gain in China. Of course, you may only wish to practice in China, and not to practice in your "home" jurisdiction, in which case the position is different: bear in mind, however, the fact that foreign lawyers/law firms in China currently occupy a unique, but essentially medium-term position, that will erode as PRC law firms gain experience and expertise operating in and dealing with international standard environments/documentation. As the dynamic between foreign and domestic law firms changes, so will the profile of the lawyers involved. It may take a while, but I think it must happen, and at that stage you will be competing with PRC nationals who (forgive me for making quite an assumption) will in most cases have a greater grasp, linguistically and legally, of the nuances of the domestic market; as well as foreign lawyers entering a maturing market which is demanding cutting-edge legal products which you may not have expertise in.
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 haven't yet heard a really good professional reason why they've chosen to set out their stand and declare for China so early in their career; I do, however, hear an awful lot of personal reasons (and many reasons which are ostensibly professional but which often do not bear up to close scrutiny in the context of anything other than academia or certain types of development/NGO work). Essentially, my view is that the very best training and experience (with the greatest degree of transferability) is probably more easily found in the more mature legal jurisdictions, amongst those firms who consistently practice at the forefront of their fields of expertise. Unless the US firms are very different in their approach, I'd think long-term on this point, and bear in mind that (until China becomes an exporter of legal services on the scale of New York and London) the widest range of options are reserved for the lawyers with the greatest exposure to the widest spectrum of deals, who can practice almost anywhere they choose.