Law students in the Asia-Pacific region are entering a job market where outstanding marks in school cannot guarantee that they will make the cut. Tara Shah talks to legal educators about what law firms and other employers are looking for when hiring fresh talent and how the academe is adjusting to the new normal

As emerging markets across Asia thrive and cross-border transactions are on the rise, there’s no shortage of corporate law roles for attorneys within law firms and multinational businesses. However, in a tight legal market, law school graduates are quickly learning that they need more than just stellar grades to vie for highly coveted jobs. In response, many law schools are working to offer practical training and support programmes to improve the competitiveness of their students.

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The days when high academic marks were all that were required to land a job as a corporate lawyer are quickly fading, as fresh graduates are finding that they need to come to the interview table prepared with additional skills.

“While strong academics from a good law school are a given, law firms and corporations are beginning to look for people with business corporate professional skills. It’s not necessary that these skills be truly developed at the start, but that they have the capacity and an awareness of the importance of developing them. In addition, initiative, effective communication, teamwork and leadership potential are all very important capabilities that employers look for during the recruitment process,” observes Christopher Gane, Dean of the Faculty of Law, The Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK).

This growing demand for what is often called “soft skills” can be seen not only in Hong Kong but also throughout the Asia-Pacific region. “In Australia and New Zealand, employers are now looking for a more well-rounded lawyer who can bring to the role other skill sets, including strong communications skills, especially with regard to client servicing, commercial acumen, and an ability to work in a team,” notes Neville Carter, CEO and principal at The College of Law, which has campuses across Australia and New Zealand.

Another concern for those seeking employment with international firms is their ability to work with a culturally diverse team of people and liaise with high-profile, foreign clients. These skills are not easily taught in the classroom and can prove daunting for many law students across Asia, where excelling in academics is the more prevalent focus than developing ancillary practical skills. As Gane explains, “The big firms in Hong Kong want someone who speaks fluent Cantonese, Mandarin and English and is culturally aware, particularly in terms of Hong Kong’s and China’s culture. They want people who can interact with lawyers who have been educated in New York, Sydney or London as well. Quite a demanding list for a relatively new graduate.”

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Recognising how sought after these attributes and competencies are, law schools at the undergraduate and post-graduate level are starting to craft their curriculum to include courses as well as fashion programmes and departments designed to help students sharpen their business acumen.

“There has to be a match between what a firm expects and what the student has to offer,” says Gane.

For example, apart from the usual academic courses, The College of Law offers practice-based legal training programmes. In particular, its Certificate of Legal Business Skills is aimed at addressing the gaps identified by employers when they take on new lawyers. For postgraduate programmes, these skill sets are presented within the context of a specific practice area, such as commercial litigation.

Other schools are developing more specific approaches to address these needs. CUHK’s Department of Career Development and Professionalism was created to better manage expectations and getting students ready to enter the legal workforce. The Department is led by Paul Mitchard QC, a former partner from a top-tier U.S.- based firm, who regularly meets with law firms to keep track of what employers are looking for in new graduates. Not to be confused with the typical career services office, the Department’s focus is not to secure employment, but rather to generate awareness and advance students’ professional skills, preparing them to be more than simply legal scholars.

CUHK has also introduced elective specialist streams such as Global Law and Laws of PRC at the undergraduate level. “What we are trying to do is offer the students an elective specialism which will equip them for particular kinds of law jobs in the market,” says Gane.

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Outside the classroom, law schools are seeing several big trends that are having a significant impact on the legal market.

“Technology is enabling a more flexible approach to work in terms of location and mobility,” says Carter from The College of Law. For new graduates, this translates into more choice in the type of roles available to students.

Additionally, many young lawyers are spotting opportunities in the “New Law” legal market versus the traditional “Big Law” establishments. “We are seeing major changes developing in the structure of the legal profession in Australia and New Zealand, such as the emergence of online law firms, legal process outsourcing and more contract lawyers,” adds Carter.

In Hong Kong, “there’s a clear gap opening up between the international as well as domestic practice in law firms and in in-house roles, as this is reflected in what employers are looking for when they are recruiting,” explains Gane. The demand for qualified corporate lawyers both within firms and businesses persists throughout the Asia-Pacific, but the requirements necessary to secure this type of role have evolved. Law students who want to boost their job prospects need to cultivate their practical skills and business savvy – counting solely on exemplary academic performance is just not enough.

Meanwhile, legal educators should continue and even explore more ways on how their course offerings and support services can incorporate professionalism, people skills and other real-world competencies that employers prize.

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