Overseas Lawyers: 9 steps to get that legal job in Hong Kong
Despite the political-social unrest and subsequent pandemic upheaval that Hong Kong has endured since the middle of 2019, the city has continued to receive a steady stream of enquiries from lawyers and professionals overseas looking to further their career and sample the hustle and bustle that it is so famous for. And that's the case even after the introduction of the National Security Law on 30 June 2020.
Hong Kong as a career destination or stop-over is a road well travelled, yet there remain many hurdles that overseas-qualified lawyers need to overcome in order to turn an idea into reality, and I listed out the key considerations in one of my early articles, The 8 top challenges facing overseas lawyers wanting to move to Hong Kong, with a follow up article for civil law qualified lawyers, Help! I'm a Spanish lawyer! Get me out of here!
So you with these obstacles in mind, now what?
Below are practical steps to implement in both your planning and implementation to improve your success rate in making a move happen.
1. Internal transfer
The most straightforward method to gaining employment is for your existing employer to sponsor you to work in Hong Kong. This isn't only the reserve of the biggest multi-national companies, there may be occasions where a growing organisation is only just starting to expand into the Asia markets, and having an experienced legal or compliance professional who knows their business inside-out will enable the Asia team to develop the business with confidence. The key is to spotting that there is an opportunity for you to relocate with your existing employer, and for you to proactively build a business case to allow for this in your current organisation. With remote working practices becoming more acceptable, consider proposing to continue your current role servicing your company's domestic business from Hong Kong, or to continue looking after your existing 'patch' whilst also giving support to emerging markets by working from Hong Kong as your new base. The added benefit of course is that you don't have the stresses of job hunting externally, and your CV/resume remains consistent with the same employer.
2. Speak to a local expert legal recruiter
There is just a handful of legal recruiters in the Hong Kong market outside my own team that I respect and admire, but the rest I really have no time for, either because they don't have the relationships built with employers that they claim to have, their treatment of job seekers, their questionable methods to recruitment, giving the rest of the industry a bad name, or a combination of all three.
Of course, I'm going to say, "talk to us". But I also recommend you go talk to several other recruiters before deciding which one(s) to formally register with as a candidate. Just by talking to them you'll get a feel for how much they really know about their market, their connections, and their level of professionalism. There are many agencies who claim to have the legal or compliance industry expertise and connections, even with those recruitment organisations whose name are well known overseas, but many big names elsewhere have virtually no name in the legal space in Hong Kong, despite what they say on their glossy advertising.
As with any profession, the market knowledge, recruitment expertise, relationship building, and how well a recruiter follows up and takes ownership for their actions, are key indicators of how good a recruiter really is. At the same time, if they can't help at that given moment in time, they should be up front about it. And there is no shame in that. No recruiter could possibly be working on every legal or compliance role at every level. The availability of roles for any specialisation and any particular level is dictated by market forces. How many of these roles that the recruiter has access is down to their relationships with employers.
No recruiter can claim to guarantee you offers or results, but at the very least, they can give you the courtesy of talking to you and explaining the market, keeping in touch and giving you updates on the legal jobs market. Remember, you are not obliged to register with a recruiter you speak to. If you don't feel they can help you or you feel your are being neglected by them, ask that you be de-registered (and deleted) from their database and have them formally confirm that has happened. Work with the legal recruiters you feel most comfortable to hold your personal data and help you feel that you're in control of the job seeking process.
"No recruiter can claim to guarantee you offers or results, but at the very least, they can give you the courtesy of talking to you and explaining the market, keeping in touch and giving you updates on the legal jobs market."
One final tip, if you're seeking work in a law firm, stick with one, at most two, reputable local legal recruitment agencies. By doing so, you'll cover practically the whole law firm market, you really don't need more (if you do, you're also in danger of getting mixed up with which recruiter has sent your CV to which firm). If you're a mid-level lawyer in a Magic Circle, top or mid-tier international law firm in London or New York, you should start with working with just one recruiter first. Believe me, that recruiter should work their socks off to get you results.
If you're seeking in-house legal or compliance roles, register with no more than 2 recruiters initially, and see how the first few weeks go. If you don't have much luck, add another, but keep to a maximum of 3 agencies to work with. Again, working with a select few agencies will give you good exposure to the in-house market whilst motivating the agencies that you do register with to work hard for you.
3. Use your personal network and connections
If you're already a master networker in your home jurisdiction, then you'll find networking in Hong Kong a 'doddle'. Outside of the pandemic and civil unrest bubble, Hong Kong is practically one of the easiest places on earth to network, but of course, it takes time to build your network. It's not just because the business community is concentrated in a small area, the whole business culture in the city is geared towards chasing the "Hong Kong dream", a common goal that most professionals aspire towards. Start with your connections at home, and ask them to introduce you to their colleagues and contacts who work in Hong Kong, meet them and who knows what leads to other contacts or opportunities that may generate.
4. Consider flexible law platforms
Hong Kong has seen a proliferation of flexible law platforms, from standalone providers to some international law firms having their own flexible law division. In 2021, after 11 years of operation as a dedicated legal and compliance recruitment firm, we expanded our service line to this offering with our new brand, Yuzu. Unlike recruiters, where legal and compliance job seekers would do best to work with as few as possible (as discussed in paragraph 2, above) I encourage job seekers to register with more flexible resource providers. The main difference is that flexible law providers aren't working on volume mandates, but rather focus more on the account management of a select number of clients.
Getting your first role through a flexible law provider would get you on to the first step to gaining local and regional experience, as well give you the opportunity to sample work in a different industry to what you've been familiar with in the past. By gaining experience incrementally with several contract roles, you then increase your marketability to secure a permanent role in the medium to long term.
5. Study in Hong Kong
If you can afford to do so, take a year to study a post-graduate degree in law, better still, go on a crash course to study Mandarin instead of, or in addition to, a Masters. This buys you time to acclimatise to the local market, to network within the legal and business communities, and help you consider alternative careers beyond a purely legal services one (legal tech, for example).
6. Go niche legal
Research into the jobs market(s) you wish to relocate to, identify the practice areas where demand is high and where supply is low. Having such a skill set could overcome even the most stringent requirements in hiring in that territory. In the past, we have seen employers in Hong Kong forgo the need for Chinese language skills in competition laws, technology (including crypto-currency, AI, legal-tech) or telecommunications, employment and divorce law, because of a dearth of quality lawyers with those specialist knowledge sets. If you have the opportunity to develop such expertise in your current job, consider delaying your move by 6-12 months until you have developed sufficient knowledge and experience, so that you can adapt your CV accordingly when you feel comfortable with marketing yourself as an expert in that practice area.
If you cannot develop those skills in your current role, consider moving jobs in your current jurisdiction in order to gain such experience for say, two years, and who knows you might be able to seek an internal transfer to Asia with that new employer. That requires a longer term outlook but if you wish to maintain your status as a qualified lawyer and attain the market range of salaries for someone of your level of PQE as those who are already in that market, this reset in your specialisation could well help you achieve that goal.
7. Go local (or common law) legal
Whilst legal roles do exist within both law firms and corporates that would consider common law qualified lawyers (with the requisite specialist knowledge, with strong Chinese, and with local or regional experience), the majority of roles (and most of the top paid ones) still require local Hong Kong legal qualification. The route within Hong Kong is through the Overseas Lawyers Qualification Examination, or OLQE. This is the examination process to enable qualified lawyers overseas to obtain Hong Kong law qualification. For common law solicitors, there is a pre-requisite to sitting the exam of having gained a minimum 2 years' post-qualified experience in your home jurisdiction, for non common law lawyers, that period is extended to 5 years. The following are useful resources for further reading:
Prep courses for the OLQE with IP Learning and Lex Omnibus (note, these are for reference only, there are other course providers) and a largely dated blog by an American qualified lawyer who sat the OLQE in 2010.
Warning: the course is intense, the materials voluminous, and you have little time to revise. Worst of all, you have to study the one course thats' the bane of every law student's life - conveyancing! It's no wonder that the pass rate is low, particularly as most exam takers work full time whilst attempting to study, revise for, and sit the exam.
8. Become a Legal Nomad
Even before the disruption to work practices caused by the coronavirus arose some major companies (and even smaller employers) had already started to experiment with the idea of enabling some staff to work remotely, anywhere, full time. In the past, our team has met both single lawyers and trailing spouses/partners who had travelled to another country and in a completely different time zone, and were able to continue working for their existing employers on a part-time or full-time consulting basis, on a long term or short term basis.
Talk to your existing employer and explore such an option. Whilst the chances may seem remote at first you may be able to discuss a win-win situation, depending on how you present your case and the sentiment of your boss. Even if it were for a short, transitory period, it enables you to settle into the city without having to worry about your next job immediately.
9. Consider pursuing a non-law career
When planning a move overseas, people often fall into the mindset of, "How can I find a job that fits in with my [legal] qualification," instead of taking the approach of, "How can I utilise my wider skills set to market myself to this new market?" The jobs market is, and will always be, about supply and demand. Your legal (or other qualification) should not define or 'pigeon-hole' you nor should it limit your ability to follow a different direction in your career, if that means it helps you achieve a major life goal — to travel and work abroad.
Granted, one of the reasons why a lawyer would want to remain in the law is so that if they return to their home jurisdiction, they can return to another legal role. But by taking this approach and simply shielding yourself from exploring other career options when this is the best time to do so (as you move to another part of the world), you could be depriving yourself the chance, even serendipity, to take your career and life into new and amazing directions. One cannot manifest their dreams into reality if they close themselves off from the wide array of options that could be open to them.
Remember, we are adaptable creatures. With the right mindsight, we are all capable of building an entirely new and different career and lifestyle, and doing so multiple times. Your legal education, training and post qualified experience sets you up better than most other professions to take a detour in your career path. And arguably, moving to a different jurisdiction to further your legal career is just as disruptive as pursuing a different career altogether and having to start again. Your chances of success and failure are still the same, whichever roll of the die you take. So why not explore other career options whilst you're at it?
If you don't wish to stray from your core discipline, in addition to legal jobs in the location you wish to move to, consider entering into academia (teaching), compliance, risk management, business development, strategy, recruitment or in-house talent acquisition, HR (employee relations) or operations.