Seyfarth Shaw, LLP is the Latest to Hang its Shingle in Shanghai: Is it Time to Change Legal Education in America?

Fifteen to twenty years ago China was a nation riddled with poverty and economic malaise.  Since that time, things have changed.  China’s GDP has grown by more than 200% in the past twenty years, its poverty rate has plummeted, and U.S. law firms have been moving in ever since the growth began.  Today, there are approximately seventy-five U.S. firms doing business either in Beijing, Shanghai, Guangdong, Liaoning, Tianjin, or Fujian, China.  Now, the Chicago-based employment and labor law firm Seyfarth Shaw is joining the group that includes such powerhouses as: Baker & Mckenzie,  Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom,  White & Case,  Shearman & Sterling,  and Davis Polk & Wardwell.

Seyfarth Shaw’s latest move and the prevalence of U.S. and other foreign firms in China tell a story about legal practice that needs to be told more often at American law schools. Since nineteen-eighty, the number of lawyers in China has grown from 3,000 to 150,000, with two thirds of those lawyers being located  in the Chinese cities listed above. See Peng Wu, Note, The Good, the Bad and the Legal: Lawyering in China’s Wild West, 21 Colum. J. Asian L. 183 (2008).  This means that the Chinese legal jobs market has been growing at an average of ten percent per year since nineteen eighty. Juxtapose that figure with the American statistics, which reveal a steady decline in law related job openings, and the conclusion is clear: it behooves young lawyers interested in making a high-dollar salary to get in with a U.S. firm practicing in China. There is one caveat, though. In order for young lawyers and rising law school graduates to be marketable to U.S. firms operating abroad they must have the requisite training. Herein lies the problem.

As of last year, despite the augmented presence of U.S. firms in China, less than thirty law schools in the United States had programs designed to train law students to practice in China.  Moreover, of the approximately thirty schools offering courses in Chinese law, only Columbia, Duke, Fordham, University of Hawaii, NYU, and Stanford Law have more than two Chinese law course offerings. As a practical matter, the scarcity of Chinese law course offerings in U.S. law schools will have a serious effect on young lawyers and rising law school graduates.

Although study abroad programs in China do exist for law students, those programs often focus on comparative law and U.S. law only. Only in rare circumstances do study abroad programs offer to students comprehensive course offerings, because, after all, the U.S. law schools must ensure that the courses taken abroad are analogous to courses that they offer at their institutions. Moreover, there is always the ABA to look out for. Often times, that means that the student only gets the benefit of being in a foreign place rather than learning about the relevant foreign law. Consequently, when it becomes time for the law school graduate or young lawyer to market themselves to U.S. firms operating in China, those lawyers cannot exhibit the requisite skills or knowledge being looked for by the firm.

It is clear that there is a steadily increasing presence of both legal jobs and U.S. law firms in China, resulting in an excellent opportunity for young lawyers to make a substantial salary right out  of law school.  For many young lawyers a high-figure salary is the most important part of their desire to be a lawyer; therefore, the young American lawyer practicing in China seems to fit like a glove. With all of this in mind, I ask: Do you think that American law schools need to offer more programs in Chinese law?  Do you believe that American law students and recent graduates have an interest in practicing abroad?  What, if anything, would convince American law schools and law students that the rapidly growing Chinese legal jobs market is a great place to make a living? Or, do you disagree with me and believe that American law schools are adequately preparing law students in Chinese practice areas?


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