The 8 top challenges facing overseas lawyers wanting to move to Hong Kong
Update: 19 March 2021
Hong Kong's mature legal market and fast paced economy has long resulted in a steady stream of enquiries from overseas qualified lawyers seeking to move to Asia's World city to further their legal career. And despite the well documented social unrest in 2019 and subsequent coronavirus outbreak, the desire among many lawyers to sample life in Hong Kong remains undiminished.
To the uninitiated, however, there are a number of obstacles that a non-Hong Kong qualified lawyer would need to overcome to prevent making the move to this dazzling, international city a costly exercise.
Hong Kong law firms and in-house legal teams of multi-national corporations have long welcomed overseas lawyers and hired them as ‘Registered Foreign Lawyers’ or paralegals/legal managers. Many such registered foreign lawyers stay in Hong Kong long enough to gain qualification in Hong Kong as well. Traditionally, these lawyers have come from the UK, China, Australia/New Zealand, Singapore, Malaysia and the US, but increasingly more enquiries are coming through from civil law jurisdictions such as mainland Europe and Latin America.
The hiring of overseas qualified lawyers can benefit an employer in two ways:
- the organisation hiring may originate from the country in which the lawyer was admitted and would prefer a ‘home grown lawyer’ who can understand their business culture and is able to assist with the integration between their China/HK offices and HQ;
- the company/employer may conduct significant business with the country in which that lawyer was admitted and would need someone qualified in that country qualified to advise on those country's laws and accustomed to that jurisdiction's working cultures and practices, making for an all smoother relationship between two foreign companies; and
- the overseas qualified lawyer has gained expertise in a niche area of law that is mature in their home jurisdiction but is considered a 'greenfield' in Hong Kong, or indeed the region (fintech regulatory, competition, ESG, as examples).
In many situations, however (and regardless of which jurisdiction you were admitted) there are several barriers to entry to the Hong Kong legal market:
1. Chinese language skills
Lawyers working on deals relating to China-facing business will need to be fluent in written and spoken Mandarin/Putonghua as the majority of business in China is conducted in Chinese. Whether you are participating in due diligence on a PRC company, interpreting or translating documents for clients, taking instructions from Chinese board members or liaising with PRC lawyers and other professional intermediaries on an arbitration matter, you’re going to need those language skills at some stage. The requirement becomes less acute if you are at partner level and have portable trade, though firms are increasingly requiring personnel at this level to also have some language skills, particularly for business development.
2. Where you were admitted counts
International contracts on business conducted in Hong Kong and greater China tend to be governed by English law (in addition to Hong Kong's own laws). Other than Hong Kong admitted lawyers, employers will, by and large, be favourable to hiring lawyers from a major common law jurisdiction, but more so from England & Wales, Singapore, Australia or New Zealand. There are many talented lawyers from European states or Latin America who are interested in furthering their legal career in Hong Kong and other parts of Asia, but unless a law firm or company from their country of admission needs a lawyer specifically from their own jurisdiction, there is practically no business need to hire someone from there. Obviously if you are admitted in both Hong Kong and an additional state (e.g. France, Italy or Germany) it does your career prospects no harm, though this needs to be considered in light of the other factors listed here.
For lawyers qualified in a non-common law jurisdiction, the chances are that your jurisdiction uses some form of civil code as the basis of its laws. Where the legal systems are different in its entirety from Hong Kong's laws, the need to re-qualify in Hong Kong or another common law jurisdiction will come sooner or later. Quite often there is a need to study the LLM or Juris Doctorate (JD), which provides the grounding to either study Hong Kong's PCLL (the practical one year course required to enter into a 2 year training contract with a local Hong Kong law firm) or, if you have been practising for at least two years in your own jurisdiction, you can enter the Overseas Lawyers' Qualification Exam (the "OLQE") which fast tracks you to qualifying in Hong Kong without the need to undertake a 2 year training programme.
For further information on the OLQE: http://www.hklawsoc.org.hk/pub_e/admission/oversea.asp
3. Asia Pacific experience might just be enough
Whilst the majority of legal roles will involve China-related interaction, there will be times when the role has a more Asia-Pacific focus. If so, there may be less of a need for Chinese language skills (don't rule it out, however, there are roles that need to cover greater China and the rest of Asia), whilst the emphasis is more on having a language skill from a leading Asian economy or at least experience of doing deals and handling legal matters in Asia. This is particularly the case for regional in-house legal roles, where experience of handling legal matters across the Asia Pacific region can be a very strong selling point for the lawyer to a company with wider Apac regional operations.
4. Is your practice area hot (or not)?
Capital markets (both equity capital markets and debt capital markets) remain the ‘hot potato’ in Hong Kong and China (particularly with Hong Kong IPOs). The trend in 2020 and 2021 has been for more PRC companies listed in New York seeking a secondary listing in Hong Kong, following pressures from the Trump administration and to some extent, from the Biden administration subsequently. Moreover, the demand for M&A and Private Equity lawyers has leaped in recent years, with more China outbound investments and private equity firms ramping up activity. In 2018, there were increasing reports of more PE-backed cross-border deals, particularly in the Greater Bay Area ("GBA") of southern China, being forecast. The pandemic has acted like an ever tightening coil that once released (and infections arising from the pandemic start to ease) will create an outburst of M&A activity across the region.
If you have at least 4 years of post-qualified experience in both IPOs and M&A deals, in conjunction with strong Chinese/English language skills and local Hong Kong qualification, you’re spoiled for choice. In addition to these practice areas, funds, international arbitration, banking & finance, litigation, regulatory (financial services and competition), employment, as well as probate/trusts and divorce law are all in demand in Hong Kong.
5. Brand association
Both international law firms and large, prestigious organisations which hire in-house counsels place great emphasis on talent having great academics (top law school and university backgrounds and outstanding grades), together with top tier law firm training and work experience. Having that pedigree of training and post-qualified experience helps open doors and at the very least creates intrigue among similar well known brands in the legal industry. Your chances of securing an interview at least, suddenly increase as a result.
6. Make it rain
Not in the literal sense of course, but if you had a clients from your own jurisdiction who are 'beating the door' to do business in China or Hong Kong and you have the ability to generate that into legal advisory business for your law firm (the so-called "rain-making" principle), you might be able to make a strong enough case to show that hiring you would make clear business sense to the overall strategy of the law firm in question.
To junior lawyers, this may be an overwhelming and unattainable challenge. But let's just say you had, or you took the initiative to sound out your business contacts at home — if you don't ask, you don't get. And how incredible would that sound to a law firm employer in Hong Kong that someone so inexperienced has the commercial acumen of someone far wiser than their years?
From an employer's point of view, there may be a fear that a job applicant is simply in Hong Kong/Asia as part of a 1 year around-the-world 'jolly' or using a stint in Hong Kong to make up for the economic shortfalls in their own country. There will always be a concern that a candidate will return to the country in which they were admitted at the first sign that the economy is back on track or a 'better opportunity' becomes available at home and using their platform as a stepping stone to a job when they 'return home'.
Candidates need to alleviate those concerns - are you originally from Hong Kong and wanting to return, do you have ties (business or social) here, what are your reasons for moving to this part of Asia? What can you bring to the table that other lawyers or professionals cannot? Whatever your reason, a compelling story is imperative.
As at October 2020, there were officially almost 10,555 Hong Kong qualified solicitors with practicing certificates (12,069 if you count those without), 936 Hong Kong-registered law firms, 90 registered foreign law firms (up from 85 in 2017), and 1,571 registered foreign lawyers. That's not including the countless numbers of PRC, other foreign qualified lawyers and LL.B/PCLL graduates who are working in the legal services sector in some other quasi-legal function, such as consultants, legal managers and paralegals.
Once you begin to process that information, you will then start to appreciate the sheer scale of the legal industry in Hong Kong and how strong the need is to be on top of your game to break into this industry.
Summary: it's tough but don't lose heart — rules are there to broken
If you are a qualified lawyer in an overseas common law jurisdiction and your skills-sets and experiences do not 'tick all the boxes', all is not lost. Whilst there will be major challenges to overcome, they may be no less than or different from the challenges faced at home. One thing that stands out here is that the legal industry in Hong Kong is a very fluid and adaptable one. There will be some rare occasions when roles will appear in which no Asian language skills or Asia-Pacific experience is required. The key is the timing of your arrival and the specialist knowledge you have. If you're a French qualified banking and finance lawyer from a major international law firm in Paris with a common law LLM or JD at a time when there is an explosion of banking activity for French companies in Hong Kong, China or Asia generally, you might well have more than one firm or banking institution come knocking on your door.
Sometimes, employers may overlook the above 8 factors where the actual legal experience (particularly niche industry sector specialisms or practice area experience) and PQE takes priority given the shortage of talented specialists in that area – investment funds lawyers for one, competition, regulatory, FCPA/UK Bribery specialisms are also up-and-coming areas to look out for. Or you may be one of the early adopters in the legal profession to learn and practice on blockchain, smart contracts, cryptocurrency, AI and the Internet of Things (IOT) and can utilise the experience of drafting and negotiating legal documents in those areas to good use in the Hong Kong legal market. The common theme is that you have experience that is so unique that it would add significant value to an employer’s business – each profile of a candidate must be decided on their individual merits.
Read my latest thoughts on the tactics you need to adopt to turn your dream of living in this vibrant, dynamic and amazing city here: https://www.staranise.com.hk/knowledge-hub/articles/overseas-lawyers-how-to-get-that-legal-job-in-hong-kong.html
This article was first written in 2011 and has been updated periodically to reflect the changing needs of the market. Last updated 19 March 2021.