The Asia Business Intelligence Blog (ABI) posted “How Do I Get to China?” The post has an introduction by the blog’s editor, Rich Kuslan, and the post was written by Mark Agrasut, who has been a research associate and programme director at the Center for East Asian Law at the School of Oriental and African Studies, London University (SOAS). The post addresses the growing phenomenon of young people who want to live and work in China as lawyers. As the post puts it, “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.”
According to the post, the aspiring Asian specialist who someday wishes to return to his or her home jurisdiction should consider the long-term ramifications of starting out as a China-based foreign attorney. Specializing in a region as opposed to an industry/sector can preclude a foreign attorney from returning to their home jurisdiction. The possibility of moving laterally from a position in any developing market to an equivalent position in a more mature legal market is limited by the foreign attorney’s lack of experience in the more mature legal market. As the post mentions, a fast-developing market requires the foreign attorney to be “a China lawyer first and foremost, and a specialist in any particular field of law through necessity rather than choice.”
This is the very same rhetoric my career counselor at UC Hastings keeps telling me and my classmates. “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.” This may very well be true, but I think it primarily applies to people who want to make a lateral move from a big firm to another big firm. Everyone in law school assumes that everyone wants to land that big law firm job and make mountains of money. Since I was raised as an American, mammonism is a natural part of my psychological makeup, but I also have aspirations other than the desire to make money (yeah, I just said it!).
In his post, Agrasut said, “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.” Is there anything other than personal reasons?! What would a professional reason be?! Will someone please illuminate my dim, milk-like perception of the division between personal and professional reasons!
The majority of the people I’ve met who want to start their law careers in China have developed a penchant for Mandarin and adventure prior to beginning law school. The best advice I can give to anyone that is considering a career abroad is to live there prior to making that decision. I spent the first three weeks of this summer in a study abroad program and a number of the students had never been to China and I doubt they will ever come back. I love China but in all honesty it is not a nice place to live. IT IS A DEVELOPING COUNTRY! Especially the urban areas! Beijing is dirty, polluted, loud, extremely hot and muggy during the summer and freezing during the winter, and the people are loud, rude, and dishonest. If I wanted to live in a nice place and work as an attorney, I would move to the Caribbean or Hawaii or I would stay right here in lovely San Francisco.
Most of the people I know who live and work or want to live and work in China have a love of the language—no, that’s not exactly right. What I should say is that they are OBSESSED with the language, and this obsession trumps any need for the comforts of home or a traditional law career because what is of the utmost importance to them is being in a place where they can use and study the language. Even the editor of ABI, Kuslan, said in his introduction:
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.
Then why is Mr. Kuslan a “China guy”? I’m going to go out on a limb here and posit the notion that Mr. Kuslan is a “China guy” because he has a mild obsession with the language.
I’m not saying that everyone living and working in China or abroad has an obsession with learning languages. I have also met the truly inexplicable person who desires to live and work in China but has no knowledge of the language and no desire whatsoever to learn it. Honestly, I think without knowing the language their career options are rather limited (and so are their dining options), but they do exist and some of them have very lucrative careers.
In the end, who can explain why people are rushing to work abroad. Kuslan said, “This grossly expanding phenomenon is indicative of serious changes in the American mindset, as if Americans can no longer envision a future at home.” As I lightly stated in my previous post “The Future of Law is International” today’s law students cannot afford to turn a blind-eye to the rest of the world and it has as much to do with making money and surviving as it does with stepping through the looking glass, personal satisfaction, and introspective illumination. You have no idea who you are until you’re out of your comfort zone. As Hunter S. Thompson said, “You bought the ticket, take the ride.” Maybe the youth of America are looking beyond the borders simply because they can…?
UPDATE: When this post was originally published on ABL, Mark Agrasut was kind enough to leave the following comment:
Thanks for your comments Travis. I do agree, but if I may clarify: my comments were directed very specifically at lawyers intending to practice at the cutting-edge of big-ticket transactional law, and yes, this will mainly take place at large international law firms. The essence of my personal view is merely this: if the country as a destination, regrdless of other factors, is one's aim, then obviously you should be there as soon as possible in your career. But don't expect that, with increasing globalisation, being a "China specialist" will always be as necessary a skill as it has been, and possibly is currently... market and commercial convergence may eventually mean that distinctions in business and commercial practices will become less important, and I think (just an opinion)that the company/bank/firm that operates in China will require and look to experts in, for example, derivatives, rather than someone who lacks such expertise but has studied Chinese politics and a little Sima Qian. Even the lawyers at my firm who are China specialists remain, above all, first-class lawyers who would be able to do what they do in almost any market in the world.