Competition for the best legal jobs continues to intensify in China as corporate expand their boundaries globally and business becomes more sophisticated. For young lawyer, the prospect of working in the fast-moving Chinese market – whether in-house or in one of the many growing firms across the country – remains a tantalizing one. The world’s second largest economy is certainly rife with opportunities.
Despite China’s slower GDP growth last year, the number of legal professionals has grown steadily. Statistics from the Chinese Ministry of Justice shows that there are more than 300,000 registered lawyers in China, marking a 9.5 percent growth from last year. With more local lawyers and hires from abroad entering the legal sector in China, what do the prospects look like for future legal eagles?
The overall job market in China looks promising in 2017. A survey by global recruiters Michael Page of nearly 1,000 employers across different industries found that 55 percent of domestic firms are set to recruit this year, with 41 percent of multinational corporations also looking to expand their talent pool. Key sectors set to hire aggressively include financial technology, renewable energy, financial payment processing, digital media and consumer electronics.
And there are a lot of firms with capital to bring in new people on board. Chinese tech companies alone have raised a record $56.1 billion in disclosed investments in 2016, according to the Tech in Asia database. This marks an impressive increase of $11 billion from the previous year. The Asset Management Association of China also reports that venture capital funds in China have more than doubled to 1,216 in October 2016 from just 552 at the start of 2015.
All this business activity naturally drives a need for lawyers, both in house at firms and external counsel at firms. Nathan Peart, a consultant at legal recruiters Major, Lindsey & Africa, believes that all markets in Mainland China are looking good for legal professionals, particularly in the finance and corporate sectors.
“Those fields (finance and corporate) have always been quite busy and steady. We’ve seen a rapid increase in the financial sector for legal work and believe that the corporate side will remain steady for the coming year,” he said.
Doreen Jaeger-Soong, chairman and managing director of recruiters Hughes-Castell, agrees that the corporate sector has great potential for growth, noting that U.S. Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA), investigations, M&A as well as anti-trust, private equity and high stakes litigation as key areas of growing employment opportunities. In terms of competition for roles in those areas, she notes that it is very much dependant on the level of entry.
“Competition at the top end of the market is not great, as there are fewer top candidates who meet the stringent requirements. But at the junior to mid-level, competition can be fierce,” she said.
Ricky Mui, a director at Robert Walters recruitment, opines that intellectual property and anti-corruption are the current hotbeds for employment. He states that the need for companies to protect their intellectual property rights in the mainland and the government’s current stance on anti-corruption contribute to the rise in need of legal labour in those areas.
Both domestic and international law firms operating in the country continue to expand. To facilitate this expansion they need to hire more legal professionals with various qualifications but as the market becomes more sophisticated, so do the hiring practices of in-house legal departments and legal firms. Competition may be the hallmark of legal hiring.
With the increasing number of qualified lawyers on the job market, requirements for positions have also
become more stringent. For most employers, Peart remarks that “quality experience is probably the biggest issue. They want people that come with good training, background and a strong brand. Also, a lot of people have Master of Laws (LL.M) in China and that is becoming an increasingly competitive space. So, candidates with Juris Doctor degrees (J.D.) are definitely valued and highly looked upon.”
Jaeger-Soong has also seen a rise in employers’ expectations over her two decades of experience in dealing with mainland China placements.
“For in-house placements, expectations have become greater. Companies would prefer having someone on the inside who is adept at handling in-house matters that require substantial legal skills in drafting and negotiating, rather than using outside counsel. For law firms, partners look for candidates who have strong technical skills at the junior end. On the senior end, they look more at the ability to build client relationships.”
“Employers now would like to see more willingness to take a decisive position and advocate for it, so stronger advocacy and communication skills are a plus. To stand out, having a truly bilingual and bicultural education would prove valuable in mainland China,” she said.
Despite increasing use of English in China, most areas of legal practice are still mostly conducted in Mandarin. There is a demand for Mandarin-speaking lawyers across the board, with firms competing for legal talent that are equally at ease with both Mandarin and English. Even in periphery job markets like Hong Kong, Mandarin skills are becoming highly regarded and increasingly valued.
This reality can create challenges particularly for foreign lawyers tapping the mainland China market. Exams to enter the profession in mainland China are done in Mandarin, for example, which means that simple conversational knowledge of the language is nowhere near enough.
Benjamin Qiu, a partner at Loeb & Loeb in Beijing, has noticed the shift in the linguistic requirements over the years. He sees Mandarin language fluency as a must-have skill for all levels of hire now, from junior to senior positions. “It used to be the domestic firms that would serve the Chinese-speaking clientele. But now that more and more Chinese-speaking companies and clients are using international firms, it is imperative that all legal professionals have a good grasp of Mandarin to deal with the client base. There are very few areas of the legal practice here in China that one can get by without using Mandarin.”
Qiu adds, “It is essential to be able to draft in the local language as relying on translations could lead to loopholes and complications. Aside from linguistic fluency, legal professionals would also need a strong understanding of the culture in China to succeed and stay in the industry.”
One feature of the market that remains visible is almost constant mobility. Peart currently sees a lot of replacement hires and lateral career moves on the legal job market. He observes a trend in firms taking a more “holistic approach” towards hiring and retaining talent.
“I notice employers are looking for people with initiative, have the right motivations, and are looking to stay long term. So, staying at a firm for awhile without too many jumps would be a good look for potential hires. It also helps build up your experience and portfolio,” he said.
“On the employee side, gen Y candidates in particular are looking for more than just a pay cheque. They are looking for a fulfilling work experience that gives them an edge. Working in China essentially gives you the exposure and client access that allows you to do global work with a unique angle. That’s one of the best things about working in a China-based firm – you are at the forefront of it all to develop a strong practice and personal brand in an exciting environment.”