5 Questions for an LL.M. Student in China—Alejandra Tapia

Tapia, who did an LL.M. at Peking University’s School of Transnational Law (STL), discusses her motivations for studying in China and her post-degree career goals.

Can you tell me a little about your career background?

I’m from Panama—it’s very unusual, to have a Latin American lawyer doing her LL.M. in China. I did my undergraduate degree there, and once I finished, I thought, “well, it’s the path everyone follows back home—in Panama it’s very common to go either to the US or UK.” And I said, “well I want something different.”

My interest in China wasn’t out of the blue; in Panama we’re not strangers to Chinese culture—we have a big Chinese community, I think it’s about four percent of our population. It’s very common to have Chinese friends, Chinese food, a sense of Chinese culture. Panama just established diplomatic relations with mainland China, and due to our geographic position and canal, we always had a commercial relationship with the mainland.

Studying in China was something my dad always tried to talk to me about—he always told me, “Alejandra you can always just explore and let’s see what you’d want to do—maybe study there.” I said “no, I want be a lawyer and study in Panama.” But then I thought, well it’s good to be different, good to stand out—plus we are a lot of lawyers in Panama. China is the second biggest economy, so it was a good move.

Can you tell me a little about how you came around to doing LL.M. at STL?

What were your career goals, what did you want to do with the program? During my undergrad I worked at one of Panama’s top law firms as a paralegal, then a lawyer. But I really wanted to explore, to have new challenges.

One of my favorite classes was about drafting bilingual contracts, with a professor who was a partner at Baker McKensie and fluent in Chinese; it was so interesting just to know about ambiguities: indemnity clauses, for example. In my case, coming from a country of civil law, it was also really interesting to look at common law. It gave me the right tools in my current job at the moment.

During my LL.M. I always had good contact with the law firm, so when I came back they told me, ‘well Alejandra we’d like fo you to come back to be a liaison with the Hong Kong office.’ It was very exciting news, and now I’m working at the Hong Kong office, bridging operations with their Asia clients.

See all LL.M. Programs in China

How did you find the experience of living in China?

I really enjoyed my time in China; I maybe didn’t feel the cultural shock as much as others. Shenzhen is a small city for China—but still, they have maybe 14 million people, and Panama is a country of four million. So at first, coming from this little country to this city—I just tried to take the best of the city and the best of China. Of course there are different foods, smells, traditions, but that’s their country, this is how things are here, and you need to get used to it and enjoy the amazing things they have to offer—try hot pot! I had it in Panama, but didn’t really have it until I got to China. There are really fresh fruits and vegetables, from farm to table—that was really impressive. You can take things in a good way or in a bad way, so I just thought, it’s an LL.M., I can be here a year, or stay a little longer, but I will definitely make the most out of my time.

What were some of the biggest challenges of doing an LL.M. in China?

What were some of the most important experiences you gained? The hardest thing was being away from your home, your family, your friends—although you make new friends, and from other cultures. But there’s the distance: you have a 13-hour difference, so sometimes I couldn’t talk to my family.

It was challenging, the coursework as well; I was a full-time student, and we needed to really take time and study—our classes were filled with reading cases and doing summaries. We had another class that was a mixture of law and economics; most lawyers choose law because we want to avoid math, so when you’re confronted by economic terms and numbers, you’re like, “ok this is challenging, we need to take more time and study.” In that sense it wasn’t an easy LL.M. But at STL we had office hours, and we could go meet professors with any questions. They’re very open and fond of helping.

What advice would you give to someone thinking about doing an LL.M. in China?

My advice if you really want to come to China to do an LL.M., I would recommend finding a program that is international, or a general LL.M. Because if you don't speak the language and you’re going to apply for an LL.M. in Chinese law, I don’t see much benefit for you in your future career. I know some universities in China offering LL.M.s in English, but they’re all about Chinese law.

Make sure you have a very general curriculum; also try to get to know as much as you can of the Chinese language—either take it with your university, or take it on the side. It’s really important to have knowledge of the culture and language in order to carry out your daily activities. At the end of the day, it’s about knowing that you give business cards with two hands, not one—manners and little gestures that all who are interested in doing business in China should know.

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