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So You Want To Be An International (China Lawyer), Part IV. Do You Really?

Posted in Legal News

I must receive at least a 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:

Though nothing has really changed on this front since I last wrote on this issue in 2008, it is probably time for a new post.  I thought about that today when a law student emailed me a link to a Quora question and answer session regarding what it takes for someone to succeed in working for a company in China as a foreigner. The law student specifically referred to answers given by David Wolf and asked whether those things apply to lawyers as well.  Yes, Virginia, they do. They really do.
The specific question on Quora was “What are the key skills needed to succeed working for a company in China as a foreigner?” David Wolf’s excellent answer shows as number one because the highest number (including a number of prominent China bloggers) voted it number one.  Wolf’s answer is as follows:
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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. Integrity. This is in many respects everything. The lawyer-client relationship is based on trust and it cannot work without it.
  7. 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.
  8. Creativity.  Far more important for the law than most law students realize.
  9. A demonstrated commitment to China.  See number 5 above.
What do you think?  What else?
  • Tyler

    I haven’t been a lawyer in China – yet – but I have managed and been an employee in the country.

    My experience in hiring foreign employees was that number four is the most frequently overlooked. People come in with varying degrees of language skills, and it’s not so hard to find someone with passion in building their opportunities in China. However, it seemed that for every 10 non-Chinese applicants we had, the biggest skill/selling-point on the resume of 9 of them was “I live in China and speak a bit of/fairly good Chinese”. There seems to be a sense among a lot of younger foreigners that merely being almost-bilingual is sufficient to be useful to a company in China, or that knowing weibo and general cultural facts will make you a useful coworker.

    Those are table stakes. You still need a skill set in order for me to want to hire you. If you want to work in a bilingual office, then yes, of course being bilingual is a big help. But you still need all the other skills that go into a position. All too frequently, the people I interviewed lacked a selling point aside from general China handy-ness.

    To the list, I would add that you need a functioning ventilation system. China is frustrating, for a whole list of reasons with which anyone reading this blog is already familiar. The part of ‘rolling with the punches’ that a lot of people overlook is finding a healthy, stable, reliable ventilation system to cope with that frustration. This is true anywhere, but it’s particularly true when (1) you’re in a place that feels as unnecessarily frustrating as China can, (2) somewhere in the back of your mind the thought ‘I could just go home’ always lingers. If you’ve got an escape plan – and every foreign employee does – you better have a ventilation system that makes for a good release before your thoughts get to the escape route.

  • Dallas Injury Lawyer

    I must agree with you that number 5 is the most critical factor to consider when considering someone for this position. You will not go anywhere if you don’t have passion with what you are doing. Don’t do it by profession, but do it by passion.

  • Chris Carr

    Good post.