Not everyone can pinpoint the defining moment in their early life which determined the course of their career. But Andreas Lauffs, based in Hong Kong as an international partner at top-ranking law firm Baker & McKenzie, can recall borrowing from his teacher a book on Chinese history which opened his eyes to a different culture and a world then unknown. He was hooked and knew that, somehow, his destiny was to work in China.
Dr Lauffs needed to find a practical way of combining his new-found fascination with a commercially-based career that did not lead purely to scholarship and an academic post. His initial solution was "to keep options open by studying overlapping courses in law and Chinese in Germany, along with a period of intensive language training in Taiwan. This led ultimately to winning a scholarship to study for a PhD in Chinese labour law in Beijing."
There in the late 1980s, he witnessed China's economic miracle. He realised that a practising lawyer would be ideally placed to participate in the fast-paced boom that saw overseas buyers and investors scrambling to set up new projects and production facilities on the mainland. He therefore completed a three-year trainee solicitorship in Europe and transferred to Hong Kong to join the headquarters of Baker & McKenzie's China practice group.
This tallied with his philosophy: "Whatever you do in life, it takes the best hours of your day, so make sure those hours are well spent - make your hobby your job. There will always be pressures and tough times, which you can survive best if you love the job."
"Whatever you do in life, it takes the best hours of your day, so make sure those hours are well spent - make your hobby your job"
From the start, the work provided consistent interest and new challenges, including meeting deadlines, the make-or-break decisions coming with each deal and the excitement of getting the best out of oneself and one's training. In helping put together deals in industries across the spectrum, Dr Lauffs mastered the legal intricacies of mergers and acquisitions, financing, employment regulations and negotiating leases and licences. This was grafted onto skills in research, drafting contracts and transactional law, picked up in his early days as an associate.
More complex deals, such as setting up joint ventures, with key contracts governed by Chinese law, took weeks of intensive work. Typically, he represented foreign companies looking to set up production bases with Chinese partners. He "acted as a bridge, the communicator between two cultures, facilitator for the deal and, sometimes, interpreter".
Although laws may remain unchanged and overall scenarios can be similar, no two deals are the same. "Psychology will always play a part. You need a different strategy [to find] a way through. You get satisfaction, a sense of empowerment, [from] being able to find answers and apply what you've learned."
International partners have extra responsibilities. The firm's Shanghai and Beijing offices are overseen from Hong Kong and require regular visits. And, with China's accession to the World Trade Organisation and the need to keep abreast of its evolving labour law and practice, there is little chance to sit still. Business and client contacts must constantly be promoted through speaking engagements and legal articles.
However, the rewards are obvious. "You have exposure to people from different parts of the world and access to senior executives, which means you see more of life. And, in China, things are always changing fast, so these are interesting times."
The legal profession provides a way to combine academic training with language and interpersonal skills. Learning the mechanics of business and high finance through day-to-day involvement in major transactions only adds to the attraction. While the demanding, competitive pressures of an international law firm may not be everyone's cup of tea, Dr Lauffs has found "the ideal job in the ideal setting - it's fun".
As China's economy expands, so will the demand for trained lawyers and expert legal advice. Job opportunities should increase, although competition for business may keep remuneration levels stable. The recently-signed Closer Economic Partnership Arrangement is intended to give Hong Kong lawyers better access to work within the mainland legal system.
Those with a legal qualification from any jurisdiction have the option of a two-year traineeship with a local Chinese firm or an international partnership. The latter are generally thought to offer better overall career tracks, training and remuneration for candidates with the best skill-sets.
Proficiency in both English and Mandarin is essential. In the international sphere, English is the working language for memos and contracts. Fluent, unaccented Mandarin is important for negotiations in China. Aspiring lawyers should also have the right motivation: wanting to enhance their knowledge of China and Chinese affairs and seeing their careers as long-term commitments.