A Brief Note: The Great Move to China

Posted on February 15, 2016 at 10:02 PM

Modern China offers great opportunities for foreign lawyers, in a climate of geographical and cultural diversity, speed of change, deregulation and unprecedented economic development.  For more information on the expat lifestyle in China, please click here.

In his book, One World, Ready or not, William Graider gives the following useful definition “diverse and contradictory, China is like a black box where both optimists and pessimists can find proof to support their expectations.”

For the pessimists, there are certainly many challenges to confront though with a reliable, trusted legal recruiter with local expertise, these obstacles are easily surmounted and navigated!


Most foreign law firms are based in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou and it seems that Beijing represents the biggest challenges in terms of language, higher pollution and cultural differences. This will be less of a problem in Shanghai, where English is more widely used. However, even if you speak fluent Mandarin, you may need a native Chinese mediator for complex transactions. Chinese society builds heavily on what they call Guanxi, a network of relationships, which is difficult for a foreigner to acquire. Finding jobs for trading spouses is an important consideration, especially if they don’t speak Mandarin. Moreover, according to the Law Society, the annual registration which is required for foreign lawyers can be a long bureaucratic process; however, most international law firms take care of this and other administrative processes including housing on your behalf.  Please see our other blog posts in the lifestyle section for a more detailed explanation.  

In spite of these difficulties, there are plenty of exciting aspects for the optimists and even for the pessimists.

The growing Chinese market provides opportunities for greater responsibility and variety rather even within a single practice area and exposure to more complicated cases and transaction given the often international scope.  This enhances career development and skill sets that can be more marketable in a global economy.

Although you may be treated differently by locals, the Chinese are a welcoming group and generally fascinated by and friendly to foreigners. Expats can look forward to an exciting lifestyle, especially in Shanghai where there is very little violence and the streets are safe at night. Being a major trading city and rising financial center, Shanghai is more cosmopolitan and westernized and will give you the best of both worlds. In the main cities, there is no shortage of good international schools for children (Link) but make sure you contact them well before you make that move. The demand for foreign lawyers in China is increasing and you will be highly in demand and could have more leverage within the firm as a result.

Finally, here are some tips to make your experience really worthwhile:

  • Learn as much Mandarin and information about Chinese culture as you can before you go, with particular attention on the city in which you’re going to reside.  The cultures vary wildly depending on the location.

  • Be ready to be flexible, adaptable and cope with uncertainty (Expats usually do this well and embrace the adventure).

  • Be willing to build relationships with locals, taking time to get to know them over a meal.

  • Use that network (Guanxi) to help you be accepted by locals, colleagues and clients.

  • Don’t give up,  as a Western legal qualification is an incredible asset.  

  • Bear in mind that after initial culture shock comes adaptation and you will have taken the challenge and adventure of a lifetime.

  • Last but not least-rely on a trusted and knowledgeable recruiter to make your terms of engagement and your role in China crystal clear.

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