I must receive at least twenty emails every single week (no exaggeration) from law students (mostly), potential law students, and even lawyers asking me what they should be doing to become a China lawyer or an international lawyer. In most cases I respond by telling them that they should go to the best law school they can (if they are not already in one), get the highest grades that they can and master as many foreign languages as they can. I then refer them to this blog and the following posts I have written on this topic:
- So You Want To Be An International/China Lawyer? Part III (2008)
- So You Want To Practice International Law/China Law? Part II (2007)
- So You Want To Practice International (China) Law? (2006)
As someone who has hired on behalf of large and small companies here in China, I can tell you the kind of young foreigner who gets hired has most or all of the following.
1. Chinese language skills: Language is the key to culture, and if you don’t understand the culture here, you aren’t going to add much value, and you’ll be gone within 2-3 years. Sure, a lot of people speak English, and it is easy to operate in an English bubble in larger companies. But the better your Chinese and the better your appreciation for the culture, the better you’ll fit in.
2. Communications skills: industry specific knowledge and skills can be learned. You need to come in with the clear ability to express yourself in both written and spoken form.
3. An ability to roll with the punches: operating in a cross-cultural environment is trying at the best of times, and at the worst of times would test the patience of a saint. If you are high-strung or expect things to work the way they’re supposed to all the time, don’t even get on the plane to come here.
4. A very clear idea of what you offer that is hard to find or is unobtainable from among your Chinese peers, and the ability to express that well. If you can’t tell me in 50 words or less what you have that I need but I can’t get from a fresh Tsinghua University graduate, you are wasting your time and mine.
5. Passion for the business that is so real that others can feel it walking into the room.
6. Integrity: Like few other places on the planet, China will test your character and your ethics. If you do not know when or how to stick to your principles when the chips are down, you’re part of the problem.
7. Excellent project management skills: This is something in fairly short supply among people coming out of school in China, and it is expected from expats.
8. Creativity: I don’t mean Pixar-style creativity, but the ability to come up with new ideas, to not only think outside of the box but burn the box altogether.
9. Last and by no means least, a demonstrated commitment to China: Most hiring decisions for China and Asia positions — even for multinational companies — are made on the ground here in the region. If anything, this is more the case now than it was a decade ago, as most firms have so expanded their operations in the region that the Asia HR function is managed separately.
I will go through the above one by one and analyze how they apply to international law.
- Chinese language skills. For lawyers, being able to read and write a language are more important than being able to speak it and law students need to realize this. Being able to order a beer in Chinese is great, but being able to read and analyze Section 308 of such and such code and being able to read a ten page contract in Chinese in the same amount of time it would take you to read it in English is what law firms really need.
- Communication skills. Absolutely. Want to piss off a client? Send them a long email giving them six options without making any recommendation. Want to make a client happy? Send them an email ranking three options.
- Ability to roll with the punches. Absolutely. This is particularly true at smaller law firms and companies and this is a crucial element in how we hire at all levels. One of our lawyers began with us as a legal assistant and we hired her because she had great marks as a cocktail waitress at a Vegas casino — we figured if she could keep her cool while dealing with a bunch of drunk losers, she could keep her cool in a fast-paced office. We just hired a new receptionist who used to be the interface between a private school and the students’ parents. I love asking potential hires about their travels and I do so because I want to know if they like going to the same ski resort every year or prefer to go to remote villages in Guatemala. I figure that the person who treks to Guatemala in her spare time has learned to roll with the punches.
- A very clear idea of what you offer. Sure. If a potential hire cannot pitch me on his or her skill-set, it is unlikely they will be able to instill confidence in others.
- Passion for the business. If you interview with me and I think you have not spent hours poring over our website or that you are doing so just because you want a job (as opposed to this job), you have no chance. I stretch this even further by wanting to see passion in other things as well. I want someone who shows passion for something and I do not care what it is. Passion translates. The last kind of person I want to hire (for a million reasons) is the person who just doesn’t seem to care about anything.
- Integrity. This is in many respects everything. The lawyer-client relationship is based on trust and it cannot work without it.
- Excellent project management skills. This is very important, but generally there is (at least in law) a fairly high correlation between high grades and the ability to develop these skills.
- Creativity. Far more important for the law than most law students realize.
- A demonstrated commitment to China. See number 5 above.