Living and working in China - one graduate's experience

LLB graduate Fraser Gowan reflects his experience of working in China for international law firm Fieldfisher: I decided pretty quickly during my LLB that being a solicitor, in Scotland at least, wasn’t something I was particularly interested in. It felt to me that most of the people on the LLB were really sure and set on what they wanted to do. All I knew was what I didn’t want to do. I didn’t apply for any traineeships. I didn’t do any internships with law firms. Being honest, if I’d applied for either - I wouldn’t have stood a chance. I’m a great believer in the idea that if you want anything enough you can have it. My course mates wanted what Scots and UK law firms had to offer far more than I ever did. Then, in August of 2016 an email was sent round about a placement at a boutique Chinese law firm, JS Partners. It was exactly what I had been looking for.

The firm’s managing partner, a University of Glasgow graduate himself, came to the university and gave a short talk to maybe ten or fifteen students about the placment and the firm. I applied shortly thereafter and knew by around December of my final year that I was going out to China to work for at least three months. As an additional bonus, JS Partners merged with the international law firm Fieldfisher around this time as well.

I arrived in July and worked my first three months as an intern in Fieldfisher’s Beijing and Shanghai offices. At first moving to China is tough, there is no point in denying that. I’d been lucky enough to have visited China before as part of a language exchange back when I was at high school. This went some way to helping me settle in, but I would still say that there were three main issues I faced when I arrived in China: the heat, the language, and the food.

In terms of the heat, there really isn’t anything you can do to lessen the suffering. The temperature frequently reaches 40℃ in the summer months in Beijing and Shanghai. My inability to handle the heat and humidity didn’t go unnoticed- I was rather amused to hear that this year the firm doesn’t plan to take any interns in the summer months for this very reason.

Getting up to speed with the language can be tricky. You don’t need to know much to get by in China (particularly in Shanghai), however I would recommend that anyone serious about coming over to China to work with Fieldfisher takes a block of lessons with the Confucius Institute at the university. This will be enough to get you the basics you’ll need day to day.

Finally, the food. I have a real love-hate relationship with Chinese food if I’m honest. I am quite well known amongst my flatmates and friends for my hilariously “plain”, “ordinary”, “conventional”, “centre-right” diet… so China has certainly come to blows with my distinctly “minimalist” palate. It’s important to remember that each of China’s provinces have their own traditional dishes and with China being the size of a small continent its cuisine is extremely diverse. In China you will come across food that you’ll love, and you will come across things that you’ll only try once. The important thing is that you always try because that’s where all the fun is.

When I first arrived work was quite slow: most of the work done in English is for European and American clients who all tend to be on holiday for a few weeks in the July-August period. I mainly did legal research as and when it was needed and filled the rest of my time working on a research project that looked at the competition regimes of countries involved in President Xi’s One Belt One Road project (which I highly recommend people look into further). In my first month or so I had to be quite strict with myself. The work I did initially wasn’t very exciting, but I knew I had to prove myself to the firm before I would be allowed to work on more interesting and fast-moving projects.

It seems to me that in China being busy and being given a lot of work are good indicators that you’re considered to be capable and reliable. You maybe won’t be given explicit praise as much as in the West when you do something well, so I figured that the general rule is that the busier you are, the better. I kept my head down and made sure that every piece of work, no matter how small or large, was as perfect as it could possibly be. I was determined to put myself in a position where I could learn as much as possible. Then, in August, I got my first real chance to do some important work on a live case. It was a joint venture agreement between several airlines and help was needed with redrafting the English language version of the contract. I remember sitting in my hotel room at 11pm completely engrossed (yes, “engrossed” does make me sound rather sad but it’s true) in this contract - I wanted to show what I could do, and I knew this was how I could do it.

After a short break I returned to Fieldfisher in October. After working on that initial JV agreement the work I was given from then on was really engaging and very fast paced. I was getting the chance to work on things that I knew I wouldn’t get near during a traineeship (and even, perhaps, a few years after that as a qualified solicitor) with a Scottish/UK firm. A few weeks after my returning, the firm decided to keep me on as a legal consultant in their Shanghai office on a permanent basis. In the time since, I’ve had the chance to work on an international M&A filing, I’ve helped draft large international supply agreements, and I’ve been trusted to handle projects from some of the firm’s largest clients. The work is challenging, and I sometimes have to work long hours, but I love learning on the job and I feel privileged that the firm has trusted me with such important high value work.

Coming to China was a risk and I can understand why people would prefer to stay in the UK to continue studying or begin working. However, working for Fieldfisher gave me the chance to prove myself and ultimately learn and develop both personally and professionally at a far faster rate than if I had simply stayed in the UK. With Brexit our chances to work in continental Europe may well become limited in the near future. With this in mind, I would encourage people to think beyond working in Brussels, Strasbourg, The Hague, or Frankfurt and instead consider the opportunities available in China. Further, for those who see themselves working in London one day, Shanghai, as one of the world’s leading financial and commercial hubs, is an excellent place to gain valuable working experience. I think anyone who comes to Fieldfisher wanting to push themselves and work hard will do well and really enjoy the experience. I am extremely grateful to the law school for facilitating such an excellent programme that has ultimately led to my taking on a permanent role with the firm.

From Left to Right: William Lu (Associate at Fieldfisher China), Tristan Johnston (Intern from July- September; University of Glasgow LLB Graduate 2016; University of Glasgow Diploma 2017), Bogomil Kukovski (Intern from July- September; University of Glasgow LLB Graduate 2017; current University of Glasgow Diploma student), Fraser Gowan (Legal Consultant at Fieldfisher China; University of Glasgow LLB Graduate 2017), and Dr Zhaofeng Zhou (Managing Partner of Fieldfisher China; University of Glasgow PhD in Competition Law 2008)

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