While China offers stimulating opportunities for UK lawyers, its language and culture present formidable challenges, reports Marialuisa Taddia.

China’s economy is still growing quickly by western standards – and an increasing number of British lawyers are establishing themselves there. Most work for international law firms, advising Chinese and foreign clients on corporate and commercial law, and international arbitrations.

But lawyers considering the move should prepare themselves for considerable challenges, from language to pollution, and a very different approach to business and life.


In mainland China, most foreign law firms are based in Beijing, Shanghai and, to a lesser extent, Guangzhou. Outside the special administrative region of Hong Kong, English is far less widely spoken. Mandarin is predominant in mainland China, but is also making inroads into the former British colony, where Cantonese is the official language.

John Bishop moved from London to Hong Kong in 2002 and from there to Beijing in 2007 to head Pinsent Masons’ office in the Chinese capital. ‘In mainland China, and in particular in Beijing, language is a big challenge. If you hire a taxi it is most unlikely the driver will speak a word of English, not even yes or no,’ he says. Peter Robinson, who runs Berwin Leighton Paisner’s Beijing office, hands taxi drivers a card with the address written in Chinese.

Bishop and Robinson moved to China after successful legal careers in London. After serving as BLP’s chairman for 18 years, Robinson took up an in-house secondment with Tesco in Shanghai in April 2012 before relocating to Beijing to launch a new office for the firm. Bishop had served as managing partner, chairman of the board and senior partner before moving to Hong Kong. For his part, Bishop says he is ‘too old to learn Chinese well enough to work in it’. He uses legally qualified interpreters when dealing with Chinese clients.

But Mandarin can still be a challenge for lawyers who have been in China since the start of their career. Matthew Townsend is an associate at Norton Rose Fulbright, and co-founder and director of the China Britain Law Institute. ‘For me, it has always been an interest in the language and culture,’ he says of his decision to move to China. Townsend started learning Mandarin while at law school and first went to China in 2005 to teach English as a foreign language. He has been in China since, except for two years spent working in London.

‘I have been learning Chinese for 12 years and still take lessons. I have colleagues who have fantastic Chinese, almost native level, and they are still taking Chinese lessons once or twice a week. It imposes a huge burden in terms of time and expense,’ he says. Townsend is a fluent Mandarin speaker, but in meetings with Chinese clients who do not speak English he always makes sure he is part of a bigger team that involves native Chinese speakers.

Anna Elshafei first went to China in the third year of her Chinese degree in 1988-89. She returned on a post-graduate scholarship in 1991-92, when she met her husband and they decided to stay. Before making that a reality, she went back to the UK to train and qualify as a lawyer. Once qualified, she worked in Hong Kong for three years, and in 2007 moved to Shanghai as an associate at Hogan Lovells. In March, Elshafei joined US firm Miller Canfield as a principal.

Top tips

  • Go for a three-month secondment first before committing, and think about how you can make your family happy here, especially the trailing spouse.  
  • Really make a massive effort to learn Mandarin. Through the language, you start to understand better the Chinese people. Try to learn about the Chinese culture generally, not just the business culture.
  • Only do it if you speak and read Chinese to a truly usable level: a few basics will be next to useless. And do not think for a second that you can learn Chinese while you are working. That is, in practical terms, impossible. Lots of people try and give it up. If you do have Chinese and a western education and legal qualification, you could do well over there.
  • Obtain a clear understanding of what your role in China is and what the expectations of the firm are. The whole endeavour needs to be properly sold to and accepted and understood happily by partners elsewhere in the firm. Make sure your terms of engagement are clear, particularly matters relating to your eventual exit/return.

‘I think it makes a huge difference that I (and my husband and daughter) speak Chinese: non-Chinese speaking expatriate friends tell me they find language a major challenge, even though it seems to me that most people here speak some English.’ Compared to Beijing, Shanghai, a major trading city and a rising financial centre, is more cosmopolitan and westernised.

But fitting in as a foreigner is still difficult. ‘As a non-ethnically Chinese foreigner, it does not matter how well you speak the lingo, you are never really part of Chinese society. You look different and will always be treated differently from locals,’ Elshafei notes. But she says people are ‘generally well-disposed to foreigners. They have no issues with the British and I think they generally rather like us’.

But in a country where business culture values strong relationships, and trust declines in proportion to geographical distance, non-Chinese are always at a disadvantage. ‘Assimilation is nearly impossible,’ adds Townsend. ‘If you are meeting a client you might say my wife is Chinese, but that still doesn’t mean that you are considered in the same way as a Chinese person.’

Relationship matters

Before moving to mainland China, there are other practicalities to consider. ‘The trailing spouse is often a woman, but nowadays you see more and more trailing spouses who are men. It can be very difficult [for them] to get jobs here, especially if you are a bit older or you are a foreigner or you don’t speak Chinese,’ says Mark Schaub, international partner at King & Wood Mallesons in Shanghai. ‘For the person who is working, China can be a very exciting place because there is a lot happening, but very often a spouse who is not part of the package can have a difficult time adjusting,’ he relates.

There is no shortage of international schools, with the largest concentration in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou. But fees are high and waiting lists long for places in the most popular schools. Schaub recommends contacting schools well in advance of the move.

High pollution, particularly in Beijing, should be a consideration too. ‘Young families or individuals with young children are thinking twice about having those children living in China, and in Beijing particularly, because of the air quality,’ Townsend says. International schools have sought to assuage parents’ concerns by installing inflatable domes that enclose playgrounds and other sports facilities, filtering the air.

Even without young children, pollution can be a problem, for example, for people who do outdoor exercise such as cycling and running. ‘You have got to get right out of Beijing,’ says Bishop. ‘There are a number of days of the year when it is just very unhealthy to be taking physical exercise outside.’

China’s most populous city is better, but it is only a matter of degree. ‘The best thing to say about the air in Shanghai is that it is better than in Beijing,’ Schaub says.

‘Pollution is generally bad in Shanghai, but in Beijing it is through the roof. Simply because of the pollution levels, I would not move to either city if I had a baby or a small child,’ Elshafei adds.

But you can have fun too. ‘I am a big fan of the city,’ says Schaub, in Shanghai since 1993.

‘It offers a great lifestyle for expats,’ Elshafei adds. ‘Shanghai is a very safe place. Violence is rare and women can walk at night without fear. There are no “no-go areas”.’

Practising as a solicitor

If living in China can be difficult, working there is not much easier. Foreign lawyers and law firms cannot lawfully practise PRC law and are not permitted to qualify as PRC lawyers. ‘That means that there are certain things that we cannot do, which include issuing a formal legal opinion and appearing in court for clients,’ says Elshafei. She adds that China is a civil law jurisdiction with no case law. Rules and regulations and their application vary from location to location in China.

Foreign lawyers working in China must register annually and the approval of licences can be a ‘lengthy and bureaucratic process’, according to the Law Society.

Furthermore, Chinese clients are demanding. Asked how comfortable he was in dealing with them, a PRC-based foreign lawyer replied: ‘I try to avoid them. There is really not much joy in working for them. It is hard to get money out of them and it is hard to get paid.’

‘Chinese clients tend to be a little bit more hands on,’ says Townsend. ‘Particularly when you are dealing with state-owned enterprises (SOEs) you have to be very sensitive to their internal requirements.’

Chinese president Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption drive, which is aimed at cracking down on government officials who accept bribes, has added to the bureaucratic barriers law firms face in serving SOEs. They are now subject to ‘very strict reporting requirements’, Townsend notes: ‘A day-to-day decision for a foreign firm will often require the authorisation to go up the chain of command, which can be quite time consuming.’

A Chinese law student’s view of the UK

Daikun Xiong was the first mainland Chinese national to study law at Aberystwyth University.

Xiong passed the China Bar Examination in 1993, when she was just 20 years old, and qualified as a registered and practising tax attorney in 1998. She had been practising law in China for over six years when she arrived in the UK in 2000 to undertake an LLM in International Business Law.

How did she find the experience? ‘It was incredibly difficult in the beginning. It took me a long time to read any article since I was not a native speaker.’ Xiong says. ‘I quickly noticed that education in the UK really focused on training students to research and think independently, rather than waiting to be spoon fed by the teachers which tends to be the case in China. It is really practical.’

Of the challenges of living in England, eating tops the list. ‘I had to cook for myself which is not necessary in China since there are so many restaurants providing varied and nutritious food. It’s hard for foreigners to eat western food all the time and it is also quite expensive for a student,’ she says. But eventually she got used to it. Aberystwyth’s cold and wet weather didn’t enthuse her either, but made it easier to study – and she enjoyed the ‘magnificent’ Welsh landscape.

How did she benefit from the experience? ‘My English improved significantly,’ she says. Also, the knowledge she gained in international business rules and regulations, as well as English contract law and common law, has helped with advising on foreign direct investment and other international transactions.

Most importantly perhaps, the experience allowed Xiong to understand more about Western culture, assisting her when dealing with foreign clients or lawyers.

Daikun Xiong is senior partner of Guanghe Law Firm and vice-director, foreign affairs committee of Shenzhen Lawyers Association

Bishop, whose Chinese clients are mostly SOEs, adds: ‘They are part of the government so whoever you deal with, their ultimate master is a political appointee.’

There is also a different expectation of level of service. ‘One challenge for foreign lawyers is that the Chinese tend to want very short contracts and to simply get the deal done,’ says Elshafei. ‘It is often difficult to persuade a Chinese party (and sometimes even their lawyers) to accept a chunky document, while international clients generally require international-standard contracts with the best protections that they can get.’

Moreover, ‘the Chinese way of resolving differences and disputes has traditionally been over dinner, in an amicable way, because it is thought to be quite a loss of face and dignity to have a dispute,’ says Bishop. But arbitration both inside and outside China is increasingly popular among Chinese businesses. Unlike foreign court judgments, foreign arbitral awards are enforceable in China. The China International Economic and Trade Arbitration Commission is one of the busiest arbitral institutions in the world.

Will it pay off?

So what is there to be gained by a move to mainland China?

‘The work is very interesting,’ says Schaub. ‘You can get exposure to big matters relatively early on. It is a complicated place with interesting kinds of problems to solve.’ Schaub was the first foreign lawyer to join China’s largest law firm, King and Wood, in 2000. The firm merged with Australia’s Mallesons Stephen Jaques in 2012.

‘Even after all these years I find it a thrill to be able to negotiate a contract in Chinese,’ Elshafei says. ‘I have enjoyed the wide variety of the work that I have done over the last eight years. If I had stayed in the UK, I would almost certainly have stuck to a single practice area. I also very much enjoy acting as a bridge between cultures – especially explaining the idiosyncrasies of Chinese law to foreign clients.’

Opportunity for law firms to meet future Chinese business partners and clients

A delegation of 14 lawyers from China will be visiting the Law Society for a four-day programme from Tuesday 30 June to Friday 3 July 2015. This is an excellent opportunity for English and Welsh law firms with an interest in China to meet their counterparts and potential future clients and/or business partners.

Find out more about the programme and the speaking, hosting and meeting opportunities that are available for English and Welsh law firms.

An English solicitor who prefers to remain anonymous believes time spent in China ‘most definitely’ furthered his career. This is because of the opportunity to take on ‘greater responsibility’ and ‘generate client relationships with growing Chinese companies that would have an increasing amount of work in the future’.

Working typically in a small office, lawyers in mainland China often have to make ‘very difficult legal decisions’ with far less legal support than they would get in London. ‘It takes a pioneering group of people to go and do these jobs, but they are the very people who progress in law firms,’ Bishop says.

A move back to Blighty, where Chinese clients are increasingly doing business and disputes, does not mean the end of these relationships, and ‘forward-thinking law firms will give [lawyers] leeway – some guarantee time on the way back to re-establish themselves,’ Bishop adds.

And the pay-off is not only about your career.

‘Most people who come to Beijing or Shanghai have a very positive experience,’ says Schaub, who has clocked up 22 years in the country. ‘Not many stay as long as me, but most people do enjoy it here.’

Marialuisa Taddia is a freelance journalist