Help! I'm a Spanish lawyer, get me out of here! [And into Hong Kong!]

by Chris Tang in Articles

DatePosted on August 30, 2018 at 11:21 AM
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6 minute read

Over the last few years, I’ve been receiving an increasing number of legal job enquiries from places I wouldn’t have expected - Spain, Latvia, Poland, Mexico, Russia. I am in no way criticising their applications to seek qualified legal or paralegal work in Hong Kong and Asia. Quite the opposite, in fact, I applaud their efforts to broaden their own outlook and further their personal development.

Indeed, I once held these ideals as a junior lawyer and was contemplating a move to either Hong Kong or Australia, before finally deciding to continue pursuing my legal career in England.

Regrettably, looking at this through the eyes of a legal recruiter in Hong Kong, there simply isn’t a sufficient amount of legal work in Hong Kong that specifically requires a qualified lawyer from a civil law jurisdiction.

Rather, employers in Hong Kong tend to keep their hiring requirements to Hong Kong qualified lawyers, common law qualified lawyers (Commonwealth derived), US qualified lawyers and PRC qualified lawyers, the majority of whom are in the commercial fields of law. That's not to say that lawyers from these jurisdictions have an easy ride.

Far from it, all lawyers qualified outside of Hong Kong will have their own distinct challenges they face, some of which are summarised in one of the earliest pieces I've written as a legal recruiter

The reason why lawyers from these jurisdictions are more in demand in Hong Kong than other legal systems requires a brief understanding of the way in which the Hong Kong legal system is set up.  

A brief recent history of Hong Kong’s legal system

On 1 July 1997, Hong Kong’s status as a British colony ended with its rule being returned to China. Yet, Hong Kong is, and will continue to be (until 2046, at least), a common law jurisdiction.

As a condition to the UK’s handover of Hong Kong’s rule to China, it was agreed that the newly appointed Special Administrative Region would maintain an autonomous government for 50 years, and thus its existing common law system would remain untouched for that duration, the so-called “2 systems, 1 country” (a far more catchy way of saying that the PRC legal system and the common law system in Hong Kong can legitimately run side by side in China).

Legal jobs in Hong Kong are in abundance, but know the challenges. If you’re a lawyer from a common law jurisdiction observing the legal system in Hong Kong, the legal processes, the interpretation and application of the laws, the language of the law, the resources, transactional and court documents, tools, and references used, and the etiquettes adopted when communicating between opposing lawyers and to clients will all be familiar to you.  

The legal system and the independence of the judiciary has been one of the oldest, greatest and most admired exports from the UK, one that has been replicated to varying degrees of success across the British Commonwealth states, including Hong Kong before its return of rule to China in 1997.

Many international and cross border contracts are drawn up specifically with the governing laws of a common law jurisdiction in mind. Even after two decades following the handover of Hong Kong to China, the city’s governing laws remains one of the most attractive to adopt when it comes to commercial contracts being entered into between parties in the region. The legal system is mature, less prone to sudden and drastic change, and instills an element of stability and trust, enhancing the business relationship by producing clarity in their respective expectations. And as a product of its British colonial past and with US law firms willing to venture out further west, the majority of international law firms operating in Hong Kong are UK and US law firms. 

US and PRC Attorneys  

Earlier in this piece, I alluded to US qualified and PRC qualified lawyers also being in demand in Hong Kong. Whilst US laws is a mixture of codified laws and common law principles, the use in recruitment terms of ‘common law qualified lawyers’ does not ordinarily include US qualified law because the US-form of ‘common law’ in today’s world is so diverged from the UK common laws as to be recognised as a separate legal system in its own right, even though many common law principles are shared, and like other common law systems, it’s recognised that judges can and do create some of the law through their interpretations that form a legal precedent (the doctrine of ‘stare decisis’).

One of the major landmarks of Hong Kong, Big Buddha [photo credit: Jason Cooper]Certain US-based international law firms will hold a licence to practice only US law in Hong Kong, and register with the Hong Kong Law Society as ‘Registered Foreign Law Firms’. This is as distinct as holding a licence to practice Hong Kong law and dispense Hong Kong law advice in Hong Kong. There are some exceptions, of course, with some US law firms holding both licences from the Hong Kong Law Society to practice US and Hong Kong laws (and necessitating the hire of both US attorneys and Hong Kong solicitors to cover both sides of the business).  

Why do US law firms set up operations in Asia?

A presence in Asia for these Registered Foreign Law Firms is driven by a need to help service locally those PRC clients which require legal advice and assistance on matters that pertain to US laws. Such clients could, for example, require assistance on a litigious matter where the governing laws in a contract under dispute are derived from a US State, or the client needs to defend an action brought against it pursuant to a US regulation (FCPA, tax, etc), or on transactional matters, such as to assist and advise PRC businesses on a US listing, or to advise US clients on Asia based investments or merger and acquisition activity.

In short, it's more practical having offices located in Asia as it means being closer to their Asia-based clients (indeed, clients insist on this), whilst having US qualified attorneys who speak Mandarin Chinese can substantially increase revenue opportunities for these law firms. Hong Kong is often an ideal base for many US law firms with its relative low tax base and being a very attractive city to live and work in for its employees. Further, mainland companies seeking a listing are likely to be located across the whole of China, thus lawyers based in Shanghai or Beijing do not necessarily have a geographic advantage over lawyers based in Hong Kong.  After all, Hong Kong is closer to Guangzhou, Shenzhen or Yunnan (all in southern China and all easily reachable by road or rail) than Beijing/Shanghai in the north, and Hong Kong International Airport takes a mere 20 minutes to get to from Central (the central business district of Hong Kong) and a flight from Hong Kong is no more than 2.5 hours away to any major city in China.

To a lesser extent, PRC qualified lawyers can be in demand in Hong Kong, but tend to be hired either as paralegals or, if they have the requisite experience and qualifications, as Foreign Legal Consultants, rather than ‘full blown’ associates (with some exceptions). The attraction for law firm employers is more the fact that such lawyers have native level Chinese language skills and are able to relate to and understand mainland client legal issues. Their marketability (and the types of roles available to them as well as the salaries they can command) in the legal jobs market is increased significantly if they are dual qualified in Hong Kong, another common law jurisdiction or the US (if they have an ambition to work as a US attorney in a US law firm in the fields of corporate securities, M&A/PE or US investment funds).  

There isn’t a need at this stage to hire entire teams of only PRC attorneys in Hong Kong to advise on PRC outbound/inbound M&A activities. Generally, PRC companies are more likely to use the laws of the country in which they are making an investment (by hiring local lawyers in that territory to advise them on those territory’s laws) or, in terms of international commercial contracts, they’re more likely to use a more internationally recognised legal system as the jurisdiction for the documents’ governing law.  

Not a common law, US or PRC qualified lawyer?

So far, if you’re not a common law qualified lawyer, a US attorney, or PRC lawyer wanting to work in the legal industry in Hong Kong, everything you have read in this piece when it comes to moving to Hong Kong would lead to the conclusion that ‘it’s not going to happen’. Now what?  

Well, far from it. It’s not all doom and gloom. But the approach that I see among overseas lawyers is quite often like taking a square peg and trying to fit it into a round hole. By that, I mean there is a tendency for overseas’ applicants to think their qualifications and experiences in their home territory alone are sufficient to make them a success in Hong Kong based on nothing but the fact that they feel they’ve succeeded in their home territory, or that all lawyers have the same thought processes and you have shown yourself versatile in adapting to different working cultures in other countries before. However, purely on that way of thinking alone, it’s unlikely that a prospective employer will even entertain such application for a legal job in Hong Kong.

The exception is, by and large, where you have a skill set and experience that is so niche or so in high demand in Hong Kong, that finding an equivalent talent to you in Hong Kong is highly difficult - for example, an ISDA lawyer who has worked for a major bank in Paris and is asked to transfer to Hong Kong to handle a marked increase in business, or to help train local staff, a specialist fintech lawyer with direct experience of advising on and setting up cryptocurrencies, crypto exchanges or other blockchain technology.

Firstly, in order to achieve your dreams of making a move to Hong Kong, you need to change your perspective. And by changing your perspective, I mean you need to thoroughly reappraise your goals.

This really needs you to reevaluate your purpose and your motivation - not a half hearted response, but a full-on appraisal of where you want to be over the next few years, what you want to achieve, and why you feel this is the path you wish to follow.

Try not to be entranced by this image. You can't. Hong Kong is breath-taking. [photo credit: Elvis Ma]A move to Hong Kong is neither easy nor for the faint hearted, particularly if you’ve never lived in this city. Many people are mesmerised by the bright lights and sheer energy of the city which, at times, can be electrifying and intoxicating, that it’s easy to overlook how challenging it can be to enter the Hong Kong legal market.

In some cases, I sense a desire among applicants to move to Hong Kong based on a whim, having had a few highly enjoyable days’ holiday here and thinking, “Wow, this is the life! Let’s give it a try!”. But that alone is neither sufficient purpose or motivation to make a success of a move to Hong Kong.

Of course, there are many expatriate professionals who move to Hong Kong for 2-3 years before moving on somewhere else or back to their home jurisdiction:

  1. They may have been transferred or seconded by their employers to Hong Kong to assist on a specific project for a fixed duration;

  2. Their working in Hong Kong is part of their company’s internal career track that enables such mobility (middle and senior level management in IT, banking and finance, supply chain and logistics, or sourcing, being common areas);

  3. They may have been hired from overseas because of the dearth of quality at certain levels of experienced professionals in a specific area;

  4. Their knowledge, know-how, skills and experience of working in a certain practice area in another territory is of great value to certain employers (offshore litigation or corporate lawyers who have worked offshore in BVI or the Cayman Islands, competition or data privacy laws, for example); or

  5. As a trailing spouse/partner.  

If any of the above circumstances arise and you have a desire to make the move, then this would be far the easiest and move straightforward method of securing a move overseas. And the transition would be a lot smoother as you would already be accustomed to the corporate culture of that organisation.

So when I raise the matter of motivation and purpose when such opportunities do not arise, it boils down to the following:

  1. What’s driving your determination/excitement to move from your home jurisdiction to Hong Kong (or Singapore, Beijing, Tokyo or anywhere else in Asia) [the motivation]?

  2. Why put the effort into the move? What do you aim to achieve by doing so? [the purpose, or meaning]

The motivation can be negative (a desire to leave your home country) or positive (to experience living in a location with a different language and culture, or to be closer to family and friends who already live in that location). But motivation can be all too transitory or temporary. One day you may be highly motivated, the next day, not so.

Hong Kong's mix of old and the ultra new creates a unique energy [photo credit: Kristo Vedenoja]The purpose is something that has a deeper or underlying meaning to you, whether it be setting and achieving goals or a determination to develop new skills or long lasting habits. A purpose could be to work in an environment which enables you to improve your language skills in parallel with developing your career in your chosen area of specialisation, or to become a leading authority in a new area of law, such as cryptocurrency, data privacy, big data or competition laws.

The fundamental question for lawyers to ask themselves is, how much sweat and investment (both in time and money) are you willing to sacrifice in order for you to adapt your skills-set to the local market.

If you wish to reach as many job opportunities as possible in Hong Kong (for both private practice and in-house legal roles), local qualification must invariably be on your list of goals. For junior lawyers, you might wish consider studying a degree in law, followed by the PCLL before commencing a 2 year training contract with a local licenced law firm. For more experienced lawyers, you could consider the Overseas Lawyers Qualification Examination (the OLQE, details at the foot of this article).

Moreover, a large amount of business in Hong Kong is conducted with mainland China, so having a business level understanding of Chinese Mandarin/Putonghua should also be a major goal. This is not a ‘nice thing to have on your CV’, and even a strong level of competency in Chinese doesn’t guarantee interviews and ultimately secure you a legal job, it merely brings you more in line with the rest of the legal market.

Granted, one of the advantages that Hong Kong has for a foreign qualified lawyer is that the language for Hong Kong-governed contractual documents is English, and if English is your native language or you’re already at a business level of competency, then that’s one requirement you’ll gladly be able to satisfy.

On the increasingly rare occasions in Hong Kong, there may be a legal job that requires native English as the only language requirement. The likelihood is that such role may be in an area where the language of business for all stakeholders in that line of business is English, no matter where the parties are, such as in certain banking and finance fields, or where the business being conducted by your target clients is on a more regional or wider international scale. The further the geographical proximity, the more likely the parties and intermediaries involved will have a competent level of English, or accept English as the main language of communication for negotiations and legal documents.

Catch the neon signs before political correctness eliminates them from Hong Kong once and for all [photo credit: Annie Spratt]Notwithstanding, the use of the English language in court and legal documents in Hong Kong cannot be seen in isolation in the majority of cases. For one, the majority of Hong Kong qualified lawyers speak Cantonese, and whilst all Hong Kong qualified lawyers need to speak, read and write in English, the benefits of using Cantonese at any level in aiding with the functional efficiency of an office or simply the speed in getting things done is immeasurable, particularly when taking into account the business support staff who make up a good percentage of the workforce in any law firm or legal team, and who largely prefer to speak in Cantonese. That’s not to say that Cantonese is essential to develop your legal career in Hong Kong, it simply makes for smoother communication, minimises mistakes, and helps with faster communication in the office.

Secondly, a substantial amount of contentious and non contentious matters that lawyers in Hong Kong deal with will involve at least one or more parties who are PRC natives. In law firms, this could either be a lawyer’s own client, an intermediary (an accountant, a banker, corporate financier, broker, expert witness), a public authority, or the opposing party. At some point in the matter or transaction, whether it be a finance deal, an arbitration case, or a fraud investigation, you’ll either be dealing with a key figure in that process in Mandarin Chinese, or review documents that originates from the Mainland and are written in simplified Chinese (a contract, a set of accounts or a report, for example). To the surprise of many overseas lawyers and other professionals, the majority of companies that seek a listing on the main board of the Hong Kong Stock Exchange, or an admission on the second tier GEM, are PRC derived businesses and the directors and main shareholder are likely to be from the mainland (though the number of businesses from the wider Asia region seeking a float on Hong Kong’s public exchanges is on the increase).

Where these circumstances arise, written and spoken Chinese language skills may be required to hold client calls and meetings, review documents for due diligence or disclosure purposes, or conducting a verification exercise. It serves two purposes - to enable you to get on with the job without the need for a translator, and to help develop and enhance relations with clients, intermediaries and public bodies.

Bringing it all together, if your purpose of moving to Hong Kong is to build a long term career in the city, eventually seeking requalification in Hong Kong, even to reach a competent level of Chinese (Mandarin), and you’ve put in active steps to achieve those objectives, then the greater your chances are of securing a legal job in the city.

However, if your purpose of a move to Hong Kong is more for lifestyle reasons and you wish to experience living in Asia, the questions to ask yourself are:

  1. How important is it to continue pursuing a legal career if you moved to Asia?

  2. At what cost to move to Asia to the detriment of, or risk to, your long term legal career?

  3. Are you willing to requalify in Hong Kong and/or take time out to get to a business level of Chinese?

  4. Would you be willing to switch careers in order to make that move overseas?   

  5. If your aim is to devote a long term career in the law and you plan to return to your home country/jurisdiction of qualification after 1-2 years in an overseas territory, would you consider an alternative career that could help you build your overall legal career on your return?


Resources for further reading:

“One country two systems” enshrined in The Basic Law:  

For more information on getting qualified in Hong Kong via the Overseas Lawyer Qualification Examination (OLQE) route, click on this link:  

For non common law qualified lawyers, an additional requirement is added:

Side note: for those curious to know the meaning of the title, it was inspired by a UK TV reality show set in the Australian outback consisting of 12 celebrities living with the bare essentials and performing various tasks to win meals.

About the Author

Chris Tang

Chris is a co-Managing Director of Star Anise and a former practising corporate lawyer. He is a regular post contributor on LinkedIn and you can connect with him here:

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