Real Advise to American Law Students (and Contracts are King!)

I recently saw a post on that great bastion of idealism and legal insight, the China Lawyer Blog, and found it pretty amusing as usual. At first, the start pulled me in by saying: “Many US law students are contacting me these days for advice about how to get a job and succeed while working at a Chinese Law Firm, like my law firm Zhong Lun. A few of them already work as interns in Chinese law firms.” I don’t advertise my involvement, but every now and then I bring up legal issues. Students and alumni at my law school and random blog readers write me from time to time with similar inquiries about what its like to work at a Chinese law firm.

To simplify what was already very simple, I’ll just offer the 3 lessons that he offered:
Lesson #1: If you do business with Chinese lawyers, get them to pay cash when they eat.
Lesson #2: An internship at a Chinese law firm means nothing and will not help you.
Lesson #3: An entry level job with a law firm is hard to get and will make your life miserable. And, you have no prospect of ever improving your status.

Let’s start with the first "lesson", if his accusation against Zhong Lun is true, its pretty hilarious. The very best Chinese law firms are structured and run not much differently from US law firms and usually partners would, without any thought and usually with a battle over who pays the check, be more than willing to throw down their credit card and cover the entire bill. In most cases, this meal would be reimbursed by the firm anyways. Zhong Lun is among the top Chinese firms, but if what Mr. Brauer says is true, its corporate culture is highly flawed and still very Chinese, not like the other top tier firms here.

The third one is an interesting issue to deal with. He’s stating a fact. Life in a law firm, be it in the US or China or England or wherever is going to be hard, especially for an entry level associate and it will be a miserable life for awhile. This is true if you are working at a top firm in Beijing or New York or London. Young Chinese lawyers working at the very best firms located in the CBD here are chained to their desk, just like young lawyers at Wall Street firms in New York. Much like lawyers at those Wall Street firms, everything will be based on performance, annual or semi-annual performance reviews will decide what your bonus and raise will be and are handled highly professionally. It’s cut-throat, even more so in the US because of the size of the population, but if a young Chinese lawyer doesn’t like it, they can choose to stay away from the most prestigious firms and instead go to a small firm in Beijing or a smaller city (lawyers in the US face a similar choice when job hunting).

The second one is a little harder, and is also somewhat factual. If you are a young US law school student and you get an internship with a Chinese firm (usually through a summer study program), it is unlikely the internship will help you very much. The only time I’d advise coming over for a summer program is after your first year of law school, during the second year, its time to line up a summer associate position with long term prospects. A US law student, even if they speak perfect Chinese, doesn’t have a very good understanding of Chinese law and won’t be able to do many of the things a Chinese law school student could do. The internship is basically just a line on the resume and in almost all cases, it won’t mean a lot of real world experience. Though, if one uses the time wisely and builds up contacts and friends within the firm and with foreign lawyers here, the time won’t be completely wasted and the internship may lead to future employment.

Most importantly, the post’s title is “Don’t Ask Me To Pay You, Idiot! Contracts Are For Fools” and in the article Mr. Brauer states that, “The difference is that it is impossible to enforce a contract against Zhong Lun, especially if you are foreign employee or client.” This is completely and utterly not true, it couldn’t be any further from reality. You NEED to have a contract, both for the obvious reason of setting up the terms of your labor and because it is required when a foreigner applies for a work visa as well as under the current Labor Contract Law (if you don’t have a contract, you benefit bigtime, any law firm worth its salt will sign a contract before you even start).

Chinese courts, much like US courts, aren’t going to spend a lot of time listening to hearsay. If you can prevent evidence to support your case, they will listen, no matter if you are a foreigner or a Chinese. A contract is the ultimate form of evidence in an employment dispute and it’s anything but impossible to enforce it in court. However, it is absolutely important to have every term that is negotiated between the two parties included in the contract, verbal promises made in conversations that aren’t memorialized in the contract can’t be protected. Put it in writing! Let me repeat that, and let that be the only lesson here, PUT. IT. IN. WRITING. If you do so, and if the end result is a day in court, your day will be much smoother.

It is not easy getting a job in the China legal market and if you’re an American law student who isn’t a Chinese citizen, you are facing an uphill climb. Getting an internship with a Chinese law firm during your 1L summer is a good way to start climbing that hill. It is tempting to take an offer from a Chinese firm as there are very few that are willing to even consider foreigners for summer (or any) positions, but make sure it is the right firm. It will make all the difference in the world, a great firm may not give you a long-term offer, but the partners are likely to have contacts at foreign firms and will be willing to give you a hand. This is important, contacts matter, they matter a lot and go a long way in whether you can find a job. Being highly competent in reading and writing Chinese, especially legal Chinese, will be beneficial. Even in that case, its still a crap shoot in the end.

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