How to Become a Lawyer in Asia After an LL.M.

The career opportunities in the dynamic legal markets of Asia are bountiful

Asia, and especially Singapore and Hong Kong, are among the most dynamic economies in the world, and the gateway for many multinational corporations to enter Asia.

These regions are considered to be legal hubs, especially in areas such as international arbitration and dispute resolution, corporate and financial services law, intellectual property, technology law and maritime law.

One of the biggest shifts in the movement of partner-level lawyers is from western firms to Chinese firms, or to the Chinese offices of international firms; the career opportunities in the dynamic legal markets of Asia are bountiful.

And while an LL.M. degree from one of the region’s top law schools is not a requirement to practice law in an Asian jurisdiction, it certainly will help overseas students in their admission to the bar.

Practicing law in Singapore after an LL.M.

Law graduates may be admitted to the Singapore bar in three ways. First, they may obtain a bachelor’s degree in law from one of the three law schools in Singapore, the National University of Singapore, the Singapore Management University and the Singapore University of Social Sciences. Second, they could obtain a graduate law degree, such as the LL.M. from one of the Singaporean law schools.

Third, they could get a recognized law degree from one of several approved universities in Australia, New Zealand, the UK or US.

“It is common for graduates from universities around Asia and the rest of the world to pursue their LL.M. in Singapore, due to Singapore’s position as a legal hub in Asia,” says Arif Jamal, vice dean of graduate studies at the Faculty of Law, National University of Singapore (NUS).

He adds that some international LL.M. students stay on in Singapore and take up positions in law firms as well as in-house legal departments.

But, in addition to their academic education, candidates for the Singapore Bar must pass examinations and undertake practical training.

That said, lawyers qualified in jurisdictions outside Singapore may register themselves as foreign lawyers in Singapore to be able to practice foreign law in the city-state.

Jamal adds that the presence of top international law firms coupled with proactive corporate and financial regulators enable Singapore to play a pioneering role in innovative developments such as fintech, cryptocurrency and real estate investment trusts (REITs).  

“Singapore is also a focal point for cutting-edge areas such as artificial intelligence and other emerging areas of technology law. Its geographical location makes it a strategic hub for the practice of maritime law,” he says.

Practicing law in Mainland China after an LL.M.

The main route for a Chinese citizen to become a lawyer is going to law school and passing the bar exam. But Chinese law students do not need to have graduated from law school before taking the bar. In fact, many students actually pass the bar exam midway through their LL.M. program.

For international lawyers, the paths to working in China are less uniform. Unlike in some other countries, in China, foreign lawyers are not eligible to take the Chinese bar exam. However, this does not mean a foreign lawyer cannot work in China.

“It essentially means that a foreign lawyer cannot practice Chinese Law or represent clients in Chinese national courts,” explains Cole Agar, director of graduate and international programs at Peking University’s School of Transnational Law in Shenzhen.

“However, foreign lawyers can still be associates and partners at law firms, practicing in areas like international arbitration, transactional law, and intellectual property. They can be in-house legal counsel at companies and legal advisors to institutions, and they can be law professors and lecturers.”

An LL.M. degree is not necessary for an international lawyer to work in China, but it is very helpful, says Agar. “China can be a hard legal market to break into. Completing an LL.M. can be one of the best ways to gain connections or experience in China.”

Additionally, Chinese language proficiency is extremely valuable, he says. “So if the LL.M. program also gives students the opportunity to study Chinese and improve their language skills, this will make the program particularly helpful.”

An increasing number of junior lawyers from every part of the world are interested in building work experience in China, with many partner-level lawyers moving from western firms to Chinese firms, underscoring the opportunities for career progression and global mobility.

“China is one of the most rapidly developing countries in history,” says Agar. “For most parts of the world, China is now their number one or number two trade and investment partner. These forces and trends will shape much of the international landscape for the next century,” he predicts.

Practicing law in Hong Kong after an LL.M.

Hong Kong is part of China, but under the “One Country, Two Systems” constitutional principle, the city retains its own way of life and systems including the common law legal system inherited from the UK. “That probably makes practicing law unique here,” says Rachel Li, faculty development officer at the University of Hong Kong’s Faculty of Law.

In order to qualify to practice law in Hong Kong, a candidate must first obtain a bachelor’s degree from the University of Hong Kong, the City University of Hong Kong, the Chinese University of Hong Kong or another recognized institution under common law jurisdiction elsewhere in the world.

Then, candidates have to complete a Postgraduate Certificate in Law, a leading professional program devoted to the training of lawyers in Hong Kong that’s offered by the leading law schools in the city.

Students are then required to complete at least two years of employment as a trainee solicitor in order to be eligible for admission to the Hong Kong bar.

However, foreign lawyers can now be admitted to the Hong Kong bar by obtaining an exemption form (if they have qualified to practice law in another common law jurisdiction). Or by passing a specific exam administered by the Law Society of Hong Kong, called the Overseas Lawyers Qualification Examination.

“An LL.M. degree is not necessary to join the legal profession, but it would definitely help one’s career advancement,” says Li, since it is highly regarded by employers in Hong Kong.

The city is considered to be a leading global legal hub that drives foreign investment and creates jobs and spurs economic growth. According to the Law Society, Hong Kong is home to nearly 940 local law firms and almost 90 foreign firms, along with over 9,000 international and mainland Chinese companies seeking legal services and, in particular, Hong Kong’s world-renowned arbitration services.  

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