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Recruitment boom a Chinese whisper?
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Recruitment boom a Chinese whisper?

If China is the sleeping giant preparing to awake the world from a deep global recession, will the doors swing open for Australian lawyers?China is hungry for investment, and such hunger is sure…

If China is the sleeping giant preparing to awake the world from a deep global recession, will the doors swing open for Australian lawyers?

China is hungry for investment, and such hunger is sure to push the flow of capital into otherwise slow markets across the globe. The economy of the great Chinese dragon is now expected to see a V-shaped recovery, in stark contrast to the stagnation expected to continue elsewhere. Deals in China may have been put on the backburner over the last 12 months, but activity is again starting to stir, auguring the future pace of legal teams returning to their usual long hours and late nights.

So is China setting the temperature on a hotbed of international recruitment, providing the location for Australian lawyers to finally satisfy their overseas ambition and seek work with China's foreign legal market?

The reality is that mainland China has never really served as much of a hotbed of opportunity for Australian lawyers - at least, that is, not compared with Hong Kong, or even Dubai, London and New York. Recruiters contacted by Lawyers Weekly cautioned that legal opportunities in China require some serious skills - including Chinese fluency, with a preference for Mandarin - and experience in a top-tier firm.

"The recruitment market is tough everywhere globally and things haven't picked up enough to the extent that firms are dropping their requirements," says Jonathan Walmsley, manager at Dolman, who adds that, despite appearances of growth, China is no exception. "Whatever is on their wish list - maybe a three-year lawyer with Mandarin skills - they won't deviate from the three years, or the Mandarin skills."

Nor will they need to. Walmsley says there are a limited number of positions on offer at the more senior end, and employers are looking for four to five years' experience, a top-tier firm background, and of course, that vital Mandarin expertise.

Megan Drysdale, a consultant with Mahlab, says that the competition for positions in China is further exacerbated by the fact that Australian lawyers are competing with their counterparts from all over the world looking for possibilities in the market. She also says that language skills are essential - despite the fact that many firms in the tight labour market may have previously traded off the need for Mandarin if they could procure a good lawyer.

Drysdale adds that an appreciation and an understanding of Chinese business culture will also help. "[The work available] is in areas that are more international - like corporate, M&A and finance," she says. "There are some vacancies around, but it's certainly not the volume that we've previously experienced. Not surprisingly, we've also seen an uplift in the volume of litigation and restructuring and insolvency roles."

While Sara Shao, a consultant with Hughes Castell in China, believes the legal market is improving compared with the first quarter of the year, she believes law firms are still cautious in their approach to hiring new talent. "I've heard from associates in international law firms that they are getting busier now," she says. "But I feel that they are not really actively looking for lawyers because they are not sure what the market is going to be."

Still, Shao does hold hopes for the future - though, again, it may not provide much incentive for the average Australian lawyer. "For another three months or half a year, if they keep busy like they are now, then hopefully there will be some positions."

Meanwhile, for those lawyers who just can't let their China ambitions disappear, Drysdale has some solid advice: "Ensure that you're practising in an area that is transferable overseas - a transactional area like corporate M&A and banking and finance," she says. "Ensure that the training is at a major Australian firm that is recognised and well respected in China. The next step ... is, so that you can demonstrate language skills and an interest in the culture, go and get some [language] training and do a course to at least get the basics and then take it further if that's where your personal interests are heading."

The prospects of studying Mandarin may seem like a difficult feat, but Australian lawyers should have plenty of time to wait out their ambitions in the current market and at least get a good head start.

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