In the last three installments of the Asia Chronicles, we’ve written about the perks and the (possible) disadvantages of working as a lawyer in Asia. We have been trying to give you a better idea of what it’s like to work over here and to help you decide if moving to Asia might be an option that you would like to explore.
But many of you have contacted us saying that you need to hear no more, you’re already convinced. You want to know what kind of skills American firms in Asia are looking for, and how to go about finding a job in this part of the world.
The most common question we get on this topic is about language ability: “How much of a difference will language skills, or lack thereof, make in the marketability of a job candidate?” As lawyers, none of you should be surprised that we can only answer this question with more questions:
1. How high is your language level, really?
We’ve seen a lot of job seekers come into our offices with resumes that describe their language skills as “proficient” or even “fluent,” but when we ask them even a basic question in that language, they often struggle to answer. In general, a few years of college language classes does not a fluent speaker make, and even people who have spent significant time immersed in a language environment rarely have learned the legal and business terminology that would be needed for common tasks such as reading due diligence documents, participating in a drafting session, or negotiating a comfort letter. Unless you are a native or legitimately fluent speaker, your language skills will honestly not be of much use to a law firm, and therefore will not balance out deficiencies in the core strengths of a candidate, such as graduating from a top-ranked law school with high grades or having valuable work experience.
That said, a glance at the attorney roster of many selective law firms in Asia reveals some lawyers with lower than average credentials but strong language and culture experience (time spent in the U.S. State Department is a common theme) that seems to have gotten them hired. However, having some lesser level of language ability could make a marginal difference with an otherwise qualified candidate because it may help convince a law firm that you are interested in and capable of living in a certain country and interacting well with people from that culture.
2. Do you really want to be hired based on your language ability?
One of the first hard truths that we learned after spending some time working in Asia is that having language skills might not always be something you want to advertise. We’ve seen many native and fluent speakers relegated to countless hours of foreign language documentary due diligence or translation because no one else in the office was capable of doing it. One of our colleagues has even been keeping her language ability a secret so that she can avoid being staffed on such mind-numbing projects. Lawyers who can speak and understand but cannot read or write (or at least pretend they can’t) have the advantage of being able to participate in the comparatively more interesting client meetings and negotiation while avoiding less enjoyable tasks.
Read more, after the jump.
3. Where do you want to work?
Language skills are more important in some markets than in others. In Hong Kong and Singapore, language skills are generally less critical, mainly because offices in these cities handle work all over Asia, including countries where English is widely spoken (such as India) or where it is not expected that American lawyers will be functional in the local language (such as Indonesia).
In the PRC and Japan, however, language skills are much more important. It seems to us that the ability to work in Japanese is getting to be practically mandatory in Japan, since there is a healthy supply of U.S.-qualified lawyers who can do so. In the PRC, supply has not yet kept up with demand, so the inability to speak Chinese is not yet too much of a hindrance, though we predict that this will not be true a decade from now.
The opinions we hold (as described above) are not completely in line with those of this column’s sponsor, we hasten to add. According to Evan Jowers of the Hong Kong office of Kinney Recruiting, “Spoken fluency in a regional language is important, but not critical, even in mainland China or Japan in our experience. Certain other factors are just as important to many of our clients. In the case of China, for example, some firms have partners in charge of the mainland offices who are such fluent speakers of Chinese that they need associates backing them with outstanding English drafting skills more than they need someone who can get the taxi headed the right direction.”
In speaking to Evan and Robert Kinney about this, we discovered that Kinney Recruiting’s very first placement in Hong Kong was of a rosy-cheeked Englishman who couldn’t pronounce “XieXie” intelligibly to save his life. He’s now the general counsel of a major private equity fund operating in the region, including in Korea, the Mainland, and as far away as Australia and, according to Robert Kinney, “gets along great and is highly regarded by the partners of his firm.” Both Robert and Evan (and we) agree that “U.S. associate candidates for Asia, even without regional language skills, can help their cause if they have previous international experience, as well as by showing a high level of maturity and entrepreneurial drive in their interviews.”
In the next installment of the Asia Chronicles, we will continue to discuss the process of job seeking, with advice on how to choose a firm.
For more questions, you know where to find us: asiacorporatelawyers at gmail dot com.
Kinney Recruiting has made more placements of U.S. associates and partners in Asia than any other firm in the past two years.
[Disclosure: Kinney is the sponsor of this post.]