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David Athey - Law in China

Inside of skyscraper

In 2004 I travelled to China to teach English with Projects Abroad, I loved it so much that I decided to go back to China in 2008 and asked Projects Abroad to arrange a law internship for me.

I roughly knew what to expect from China but I quickly found that ‘Shangers’ would turn out to be a world all of its own! Despite being a massive city, Shanghai (which means above the sea) is a compact and constantly buzzing magnification of the paradox of modern China. It is definitely a modern city, with thousands of skyscrapers, and the world’s fastest train to name a few things, but there is also plenty of history and culture.

Shanghai skyline

I was met at the airport by Leo from Projects Abroad and taken to my new flat, on the top floor of an 8 storey apartment block in the South Central part of the city. It was a good size, and to a Western standard, including 2 bathrooms! I had between two and four flatmates for my three month stay.

I was met by Kay, the Projects Abroad director on the following Monday, who took me to my first placement at Grandall Legal Group, which was situated near People’s Square. My journey time to work was about an hour, which was sometimes slightly annoying so if you think it might be an issue I would make that clear to Projects Abroad before you leave home. However, in such a large city spending some time commuting is inevitable.

The Great Wall

The firm is the third largest in China, and covered the whole 31st floor of a skyscraper (the view from my desk was amazing!). I worked in the corporate department. It is an important part of the Chinese business culture to build a relationship and foundation of trust before making a deal, and that philosophy applied to me too. I was given a good level of responsibility and interesting work, but I had to be proactive and network with my colleagues before that happened. Much of the work involved them taking advantage of my written communication, and for that I worked on articles for business magazines, interview plans, marketing material, legal letters and documents. They expected me to explain legal terms to them, and give legal advice on English, European and American law. Many of my colleagues had a good grasp of English but what they needed from me was to use professional legal English. I also had several research tasks on matters such as labour laws, cross jurisdictional differences in mergers and acquisitions and overseas listings of Chinese companies. I received an impressive letter from the vice-chairman of the China M&A Association to hopefully give me an edge with future employers.

The Village housing

My second placement was in a small specialist intellectual property firm called HFG. My work involved reviewing documents, letters and business proposals, researching updates on Chinese IP law for a weekly client newsletter and a presentation on UK intellectual property law. Most of their clients were multi-national corporations seeking to protect their IP rights in China, and as such the prevailing language was always English. It was very important to make sure the language was watertight. They thanked me with a big tea set and Sichuan banquet, as well as a recommendation letter. I found at both placements that they were flexible if I wanted to take some time off for travelling but they also expected me to be flexible now and again if they had something urgent which meant working a couple of hours late. I made good friends with many of my colleagues, which was good because they knew loads of good restaurants!

If you are a foodie you will love Shanghai. It’s probably most famous for the dumplings but restaurants in the city offer cuisine from all over China, to suit every budget. Projects Abroad will point out local restaurants that will offer decent food at reasonable prices, and you can get any type of Chinese food possible across the city. The adventurous will have the best experience with delicacies including bullfrog, pigeon and every part of a duck’s anatomy (including the blood!); the basic rule in China is that if it moves it’s edible! However, there were days when the last thing I wanted was to have to mess around with a load of bones in a meat dish or endure another bowl of rice, or to have to contend with the language barrier, smoke and Chinese only menus! It was at times like that that I loved being in Shanghai the most, because China was there if I wanted it, but I always had a choice; there was the usual international fast food eateries and I found it easy to satisfy my coffee addiction! The Western restaurants and diners are also excellent quality and Shanghai boasts its fair share of cheap Italian, bistros and a good choice of authentic Indian, Thai and Middle-Eastern restaurants to name but a few. It doesn’t just go for food either; there are some excellent (and huge) shopping malls and department stores, parks, museums and even go-karting!

Volunteer group

I think I was most surprised about the social scene in the city; it exceeded all my expectations. In a typical week we would start by getting together after work on Monday to take advantage of the 2 for 1 burgers and drinks at Blue Frog and we would finish the night at Zapata’s, guzzling the free beer (for blokes 10-11), free margaritas (for girls) and free tequila (for everyone!). During the rest of the week we would often go out for dinner and there’s at least one person leaving or arriving every week, with a farewell Chinese banquet often on the cards! Friday is usually the big night out, often starting with an all you can eat and drink teppanyaki dinner for around £12! Depending on my state of mind after the night before, I might go to the old town or a market or even a museum on Saturday, then later in the night pay a visit to club such as the infamous Bon Bon. Some of my best days involved a Sunday get together and picnic in one of the parks, a good way to relax and there’s always time for a football game!

I found it benefited me a lot to be flexible with my budget. Most things in Shanghai are cheaper than at home but in several bars and restaurants you will be paying Western prices, so it’s always good to have a little extra cash available to make sure you don’t miss out! I would definitely factor in some travelling time. I went to the Yellow Mountains for the weekend and took a couple trips to Wu Jiang to visit my ex-host family. There are so many places to visit in China and that’s why I took a month to travel after my placement, which I did not regret one bit! If you only have a small amount of time to spare, make sure Beijing is on your itinerary!

Spending three months in Shanghai with Projects Abroad is one of the best things I’ve ever done. The local staff, Kay and Elaine were always willing to listen to any problems and would try their best to resolve them. I also think accommodation being sorted before you arrive is a big advantage. But the definite highlight for me was the great friendships that I made, including those outside Projects Abroad. You are guaranteed not to get bored or lonely because you’ve got an instant social network of other volunteers in one of the most exciting cities in the world, none of whom I knew went home disappointed.

David Athey

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