So you want to work in Asia?

BY ELLEN ZENG

For some students going through OCI, the lure of splitting or even spending their whole summer in Asia is hard to resist. Whether it is the money or the opportunities, more and more lawyers want to practice in Asia. Law students similarly want to get exposure to the Asian legal market. Working in the legal market in Asia, however, is in some ways a strange desire, explained a panel of 3Ls during a HALS and APALSA joint event on Summer Associate Experiences in Asia.

According to panel members, all of whom spent part of their summers in American firms located in various parts of Asia, there are many roadblocks for lawyers. In China, only local lawyers can practice local law. Korea takes it one step further by banning all foreign firms from practicing law in Korea. Therefore, it is interesting that so many firms want to go to Asia when their practice options are so limited. Even in Japan, a popular location for satellite offices of foreign law firms and a country where foreign firms are not prohibited from practicing local law, very few foreign firms are licensed to litigate in the country. Foreign firms, since they cannot give a legal opinion and cannot represent their clients in court, serve their clients’ interests by providing advice and recommendations.

Notwithstanding these roadblocks, working in Asia has many advantages, such as working in a dynamic international environment. Many cities also offer a cost of living adjustment. This cost of living adjustment, in addition to a New York-level salary creates the potential to make a lot of money. Keep in mind though that there is often a reason for the cost of living adjustment, such as pollution, the difficulty of living in a developing country, or a more expensive environment.

Another advantage is that usually Asian offices are smaller than their counterparts in the U.S., so a young lawyer can get more exposure and responsibility early on. Even fresh-out-of-law-school associates have the opportunity to help with business development. For those who like to travel, the opportunity is also greater to travel to exotic places like Thailand and Indonesia.

Small offices have their drawbacks. Due to their size, they might not have the same kind of resources for training. Additionally, since most Asian offices have only a few partners, the work an associate will do will most likely be determined by the area of specialty of the partner. This limitation can be difficult for a young lawyer who remains unsure about which area of specialty to enter and wants to try different practice areas. Since the volume of work will most likely be lower than an office in the U.S., associates will not have as much choice in the work they get to do.

A common question is whether it is a prudent professional decision to start one’s career in Asia. Attorneys generally recommended that new graduates spend the first few years getting some experience in an office in the U.S.. After receiving the necessary training, transitioning to Asia will make an associate more valuable since she will have more to offer.

Just spending part of a summer in Asia can potentially be a really good experience to meet lawyers in foreign offices, with the goal of working permanently in Asia in the future. For those who have never lived in Asia, spending part of a summer there would be a good way to find out if it is an enjoyable place to live. However, keep in mind that many Asian offices have never had an American summer associate. As a result, the summer associate experience characteristic of many firm programs in the U.S. might be missing. Even finding people who are willing to go to lunch with you might be difficult. Depending on the office, there also might not be a group of associates to hang out with after work, so it can take more effort to get to know people.

The consensus among the panelists was that while spending part of the summer in Asia is not easy, it is definitely doable. Language skills, though preferred, are not a necessity. Ultimately, the amount of foreign language required depends on the practice area. That said, it would be difficult to live in a place where even buying groceries would be an adventure.

While working in Asia is not for everybody, at the very least, spending part of a summer there will be an incredible experience.

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