Natalie Shahin - Law in China
Choosing to enrol on a law internship in Shanghai meant leaving behind an interesting job, good friends, a busy social life and a vibrant, cosmopolitan city - and that was when I came back to the United Kingdom!
Back in June 2009, when I was sitting my LPC exams, I watched with dismay as job cuts and redundancies overwhelmed London and I became acutely aware of the impact that the global recession was having on the legal profession. Having taken out a loan to fund my legal studies - and with no concrete offer of work in the pipeline - I searched for a way to enhance my CV, increase my employability and make my applications stand out from the competition.
I knew that the obvious answer was to gain legal experience, but in June of last year the agencies had no work and there were not many legal jobs to be found. The few paralegal positions advertised were in personal injury and required relevant experience: for LPC graduates who, like me, were interested in more commercial work, there was nothing.
Running through my options, I considered offering to work unpaid, but with travel costs, rent and other expenses to cover, I was not sure that this would be viable in London. I contemplated moving back in with my parents, but as they live in a small town in the north of England and my life had been based in large cities for many years, this was not an appealing solution either. It was as I watched a close friend prepare for a year of travelling that I wondered whether there were opportunities to gain legal experience overseas. This would enhance my CV and, of course, I'd be living in another country, which would be exciting.
Unsure whether such opportunities even existed, I opened my laptop and started looking. My internet searches led me to the Projects Abroad website - an organisation that offers various work placements worldwide, including legal internships. I suddenly felt optimistic and decided to look into this further. Extensive online research unearthed a positive article about the organisation in The Guardian, which was reassuring as my main concern was that I would waste my money enrolling with a fraudulent and/or incompetent organisation.
I also made several telephone calls to the Projects Abroad office in the United Kingdom to find out more about the scheme. The company had opportunities for legal internships all over the world, with each placement specialising in a different area of law: in Mongolia and South Africa, law interns got involved in human rights projects; in Morocco, the focus was on children's and women's rights; while Shanghai was the place to go for a more commercial/corporate experience.
By this time I had managed to acquire temporary work in a law firm in London and, by coincidence, a colleague's sister had been on a Projects Abroad law internship in Ghana. She told me more about the organisation and put me in touch with a friend of hers who'd been to Shanghai as an intern, which gave me some first-hand knowledge of working and living in the city. Everything I heard only increased my desire to go. Finally, I telephoned several legal HR departments in London to enquire whether such an experience would add value to my CV and they all responded positively. I made my decision, extended my loan with the bank and was on my way!
So in September 2009 I flew to Shanghai to start my internship. I was placed in an intellectual property law firm, where I worked as a paralegal for the next three months. The work was diverse and included commenting on recent case law, proofreading legal documents and articles translated from Chinese into English, writing articles for the website and researching commercial contracts. I gained valuable paralegal experience and learnt about the business and cultural practices which are the norm in China. In some respects the legal system is similar to ours; however, there are significant differences - for example, insurance is not compulsory and my firm was not insured.
Overall, the whole working environment was more informal. The office cleaner would be there during the day, so I would often find myself undertaking legal research or proofreading legal arguments with my legs raised in the air while she mopped under the desk. My Chinese colleagues were very welcoming and fortunately most of them spoke English, so I was able to join them for lunch and for Friday afternoon cakes in the boardroom. When I left they presented me with a lovely gift and card, and we still exchange occasional emails. A particularly memorable experience towards the end of my placement was a meeting with a visiting legal team from Finland, which was seeking a Chinese law firm to work with. I had already returned to the United Kingdom when my former manager sent me a delighted email informing me that we had won their business.
I also took part in the many social events organised by Projects Abroad while I was living in Shanghai; the other interns (many of whom I am still in frequent contact with); the bars, clubs and restaurants; the trips to Beijing, Xian and Nanjing, and so on. Suffice it to say that when the three months drew to a close, I wanted to stay longer. Unfortunately, I had not progressed very far with my Mandarin lessons and, as it was unlikely that I would find paid paralegal work without speaking the language, I returned home before Christmas.
Back in London, I tentatively applied to agencies, unsure of how or even whether the market had changed since I had been away. To my pleasure, I was contacted immediately by a legal recruitment agency and secured a week's work at a magic circle firm. After Christmas, I was put forward for an interview and subsequently acquired my current position as a paralegal at Howard Kennedy - ranked among the top 100 UK law firms. My contract has just been extended and the future is looking bright.
In conclusion, choosing to work as a legal intern in Shanghai not only offered me the opportunity to live and work in another country, but also allowed me to acquire valuable legal experience which was not readily available in the United Kingdom. This has helped me to progress to my current position and will hopefully enable me to attain the holy grail of the law student - a training contract. What is more, I once again have an interesting job in a vibrant, cosmopolitan city - this time, London.