Heading East: LL.M. Programs in Chinese Business Law

Some law schools are beginning to offer specialized LL.M. programs to help lawyers navigate China’s emerging role in the global economy

In 2012, Madeleine Martinek was sure she wanted to do a master’s in business law from the National University of Singapore.

“I was interested in the culture, the history, and the huge trade relations between the EU and China,” Martinek says.

A German native, Martinek just finished her law studies at Heidelberg University, and had long been interested in Asia—particularly China. NUS’ international business law degree, a joint program with the East China University of Political Science and Law, seemed to fit the bill perfectly, offering courses in Singapore as well as Shanghai.

But then she took a summer course on Chinese business law at Georg-August-Universität Göttingen, and had a rapid change of heart. She was drawn to the depth and range of Göttingen’s courses, which included specializations like the history and philosophy of Chinese law, public law, and intensive Chinese.

“What attracted me was the integrated Chinese classes, and the profound variety of subjects,” says Martinek, who is in her last year at Göttingen’s LL.M. program in Chinese and Comparative Law.

Göttingen’s program, launched in 2013 in partnership with Nanjing University, is one of the nascent Chinese business law LL.M. degrees that has emerged in response to China’s burgeoning role in the global economy. China is currently the United States’ second-largest trading partner, its third-largest export market, and its biggest source of imports. The European Union is also China's number one trading partner, according to the European Commission.

In 2010, Fudan University School of Law launched a one-year LL.M. in Chinese business law aimed at foreign lawyers and professionals engaging in international trade. The Chinese University of Hong Kong also opened one in 2006, while China’s Southwestern University of Finance and Economics recently created a three-year English LL.M. degree.

In 2011 the University of Edinburgh began offering a Law and Chinese LL.M., a two-year program that combines various specializations—commercial, international, or intellectual property law—with intensive Mandarin training that includes a residency at Fudan University in Shanghai.

“The program grew out of awareness of the importance China has politically, economically, and culturally within the global environment,” says Program Director Dr. Alistair Henry.

While such programs have cropped up in recent years, they still remain small; the Chinese University program has 59 students enrolled for the 2014-2015 academic year, and Edinburgh has six, although these students are also couched within a larger department at the university. Some prestigious Chinese universities like Tsinghua and Peking also offer broader Chinese Law LL.M.s, which often cover business law elements like foreign trade and investment, banking, and securities law.

The European programs have placed heavy emphasis on Chinese language skills—something Dr. Tobias Stoll, Göttingen’s program director, says is needed to keep up on the fast-paced legal developments affecting China-EU trade. These include movements in labor, copyright, and corporate law, as well as China’s growing foreign direct investments in the EU.

“Caring for Chinese investors in Germany became a really new market for law firms here,” says Stoll. “And these people of course appreciate someone who has a profound idea of China, its language, and law.”

Evolving laws; new opportunities

But the demand for legal expertise doesn’t come solely from trade. China’s legal system itself has had a relatively short history, and is still developing; the country began a process of reform and liberalization in 1978, but it wasn’t until the early 1990s, as China pedaled towards a market economy, that the focus of legislation shifted toward business practices. That decade saw a flurry of new legislation aimed at standardizing market operations, including company and securities law. As a result, its laws are still evolving, and require vigilance for those doing business with and in the country.

“Chinese business law is very young, and still on the path of development,” says Martinek, who notes that the legal system is still based on ancient traditions tied to Confucian notions. During her abroad semester in Nanjing, she worked on comparative law analysis, analyzing contract law and civil codes, many of which she says resembled Germany’s own.

“It’s very interesting to see how China tries to choose the best things from different law systems, and mix them together to form their own,” she says. “But the vastness of Chinese law, the unpredictability—that’s why it’s necessary to know Chinese history, culture, and politics.”

Prof. Xi Chao, program director of the program at Chinese University of Hong Kong, says that the greater integration of mainland and Hong Kong economies has also brought about novel legal and regulatory issues. All this has created new opportunities for legal professionals to facilitate “transactions made possible, only recently, by the gradual internationalisation of the RMB,” he says.

But are there jobs?

Given their relatively new emergence, the jury is still out on the value and merit of such programs, at least in terms of jobs in China. Around 40% of Chinese University's 2014 graduates work as a solicitor or barrister in their country of origin, according to Choi. Martinek also considers entering the corporate legal field upon graduation, and is hopeful that the intensive language training will pay off.

“As a foreigner, you know your own law, but because of your comparative position you also know Chinese law, and speak Chinese—you belong to an exception,” she says. “It’s not everyone that’s able to do that.”

But large international law firms may need to see more in a candidate, depending on the job profile.

“My general sense is that the degrees may be helpful only somewhat in helping a foreign lawyer get a job in China with a Chinese law firm,” said one senior partner at a multinational, Beijing-based business law firm. The partner also noted that the Chinese bar remained a high threshold for lawyers seeking jobs in China; a Chinese LL.M. degree would not likely enable a foreigner to pass the Chinese bar, unlike the case with U.S. LL.M. degrees.

“I think Chinese language ability and actual experience working in a major international law firm outside China are much more valued.”

Image: Jakob Montrasio / Flickr (cropped) - Creative Commons

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