Cities need more lawyers

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 13 January, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 13 January, 2007, 12:00am

DEMAND FOR QUALIFIED legal staff is surging as the economy and real estate sector continue to boom. Top international law firms, multinationals, investment banks and local companies are all looking to fill positions ranging from paralegal to senior partner and in-house legal counsel.

Clifford Chance, the world's largest commercial law firm, which in 2005 advised on worldwide deals valued at US$490 billion, is leading the way.

It plans to double the number of lawyers in its mainland offices from 45 to 90, and hire about 100 support staff, including secretaries, IT professionals and accountants.

The London-based firm, which has offices in Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong, is planning for a significant increase in business. It will expand its core activities in banking, finance, capital markets and litigation, and will focus more on intellectual property rights and real estate cases.

The soaring number of property deals in Beijing and other mainland cities means that specialist real estate lawyers will be kept busy with contract and dispute-related work.

The Legal Mirror newspaper reported that top mainland-trained real estate lawyers were pulling in average salaries of 300,000 yuan a year. Overseas-trained lawyers were also getting increasingly involved in this area.

Guillaume Rougier-Brierre, a partner in the Beijing office of international law firm Gide Loyrette Nouel, said: 'Until recently, property deals were dealt with exclusively by Chinese lawyers but the market is now becoming more transparent. Property developments need to be bankable, so the name of a reputable international firm behind a deal helps a lot. Generally, the more sophisticated the deal, the more you need foreign lawyers.'

He added that because of this, the firm was experiencing growth in two main areas. 'Firstly, more Chinese companies are coming to us for help in expanding their businesses abroad, especially to Africa and Central Europe. Secondly, we deal a lot with foreign companies wishing to invest in China who need project signing, contract assistance and other services.'

As a result, Gide Loyrette Nouel plans to hire 10 more staff in China over the next 12 months.

'We have a real need for Chinese lawyers with experience of investments in other countries who can bridge the gap between Chinese businesses and local partners abroad,' Mr Rougier-Brierre said.

'We're also looking for international lawyers who are familiar with the western style of doing business to liaise with international clients who have dealings with China.'

He said that lawyers from Hong Kong were often able to fit the bill. They generally had the advantage of being culturally close to mainland lawyers while also being familiar with the needs of international clients, thus offering something close to an all-round package.

However, even Hong Kong-trained lawyers who speak fluent Putonghua and English cannot represent clients in Chinese courts. That right is reserved for mainland-qualified practitioners and is just one of the restrictions that overseas lawyers must get around.

'International law firms in China have to outsource litigation work to a local law firm. We can only handle international deals. For example, we can give our opinion on a loan contract. But when issuing a legal decision, this has to be done by a local firm,' Mr Rougier-Brierre said.

According to Luke Minford, head of China for British-owned intellectual property consultancy Rouse & Co, this means that most of the groundwork is done by local partners while international staff act more as consultants or co-ordinators. 'They are more familiar with the needs of our international clients,' he said.

Mr Minford is based in Beijing and has worked with several Hong Kong lawyers. 'On the mainland, they may enjoy the advantage of cultural integration, but they have to change their mindset, especially if they are not used to dealing with mainland clients and cases,' he said. 'Hong Kong lawyers have to adjust to managing Chinese cases based on local realities, which is different from managing them from a distance. It is more hands-on.'

Internationally qualified lawyers earn on average more than their Chinese counterparts. However, according to the Legal Mirror, Chinese lawyers who advise on commercial deals for major corporations and multinationals can make up to 10 million yuan a year in Beijing.

Specialists in this field, particularly if they have studied abroad or have international experience, are top of the domestic earnings table.


Growing demand for qualified international legal staff

Law firms, banks, multinationals and local companies are hiring

Positions range from paralegal to senior partner and in-house counsel

Opening up of the property market is creating new opportunities

Candidates must have Putonghua, English and international experience