"Endless opportunities for reinvention": one in-house lawyer's journey from China to the UK
A few years after I transitioned from a Chinese lawyer to requalifying as a solicitor in England and Wales, I moved from private practice to in-house.
Inow work as a senior lawyer in a fast-growing fintech company. Although I have been extremely lucky in my legal career in the UK, it has not always been smooth sailing.
The struggle was real
As a non-EU passport holder, my first barrier to starting a legal career in the UK was how to stay on in the UK legitimately.
In summer 2011, I completed the Bar Professional Training Course and had interviews at various barristers’ chambers.
The competition for a pupillage was cut-throat due to the limited number available.
When it became clear that I would not be able to secure a pupillage before my student visa ran out, I was forced to consider alternative routes.
Networking is king when starting out
I attribute my success in securing a job in law in the UK to networking. I have always been interested in legal/cultural exchanges between Britain and China, and I love meeting people.
During my bar school year, I volunteered for the British Chinese Law Institute.
The tasks involved collating mailing lists, drafting and sending out invitations for events. Not hugely exciting, you may say, but my enthusiasm and reliability impressed the institute, who looked out for job opportunities for me.
They directed me to a career fair for Chinese graduates, where Linklaters happened to be exhibiting.
Linklaters was recruiting for trainee solicitors available to start that summer, which was unusual as most trainee solicitors are recruited at least two years in advance.
I jumped at the opportunity and got the training contract fairly quickly.
Had I not put myself out there and worked with well-connected people, I would have returned to China and my life and career would have been very different.
The ability to be flexible and not fixate on a career as a barrister also helped. As an immigrant, I knew very well that flexibility and adaptability would be my best friends if I wanted to start a career in the UK.
Blending in or standing out?
Many people who I meet for the first time would comment that my English pronunciation is very British, and does not carry a strong Chinese accent.
Although I take it as a compliment, it does make me think what kind of reaction a Chinese person might receive if their English has a strong Chinese accent.
In order to do well professionally in the UK, a good grasp of English as a working language is important for any non-native speakers. It is even more essential to speak and write English well in the legal profession.
Having benefited from a good English education in Shanghai, where I finished my university degree, I had surely more confidence than the average Chinese person when I first arrived in the UK.
Nevertheless, I worked very hard on my British accent to blend in with my fellow students in law school and, later, colleagues at work. It involved binge-watching many episodes of Downton Abbey and listening to Radio 4 as much as possible!
In order to survive and thrive in the legal profession in the UK, I am acutely aware that I have to work much harder than my British peers.
Apart from working on a British accent, I have also been absorbing British culture like a sponge.
Overly apologetic manners (saying sorry all the time), small talk at the beginning of conversations, and the obsession with the weather, are some of the things I have acclimatised to.
Having lived in the UK for over 10 years, ‘blending in’ has become almost second nature.
Since I now have indefinite leave to remain, I have pretty much the same rights (apart from voting rights) as a British citizen.
However, my seniority, the value in what I do and what I believe in, tied with China’s increasing influence on the world stage, have enabled me to assert my Chinese identity much more comfortably.
I don’t feel the need to obsess about working on a perfect British accent or awkwardly join in with the after-work drinking culture.
I feel I stand out amongst my British colleagues in that I am as qualified in my job as they are, whilst being a native Mandarin speaker and understanding the cultures of both countries.
Giving back and making an impact
Networking remains a crucial element of my professional life.
My priorities, however, have shifted to giving back to the community and supporting law students and junior lawyers.
I am the vice-chair of the UK Society of Chinese Lawyers (UKSCL), through which I work with a group of talented English solicitors and barristers from Chinese backgrounds. We champion its flagship project, a legal aid clinic partnering with the Chinese Community Centre in London.
I am also passionate about empowering Chinese law students and junior lawyers by organsing professional development and networking events.
My work at UKSCL got me noticed by the Law Society’s Ethnic Minority Lawyers Division . In September 2018, I was appointed to its committee.
I enjoy sharing my story with ethnic minority students and aspiring lawyers through speaking at university outreach events and making podcasts.
Embracing the ups and downs of being an in-house lawyer
At Linklaters, I saw many colleagues leave private practice for in-house roles in financial institutions or corporates.
By the end of my third client secondment, a one-year maternity cover at HSBC, I was convinced that I would enjoy working in an in-house legal team.
I moved to my current company, Tradeweb, in June 2017 and joined its small legal team as a senior lawyer.
I love the variety of work as an in-house lawyer: managing transactions, advising on legal risks, negotiating contracts and monitoring regulatory development.
I also enjoy the interaction with people in different business functions and at different levels of seniority and learning from them.
Working in-house can be lonely sometimes, and the lack of structured training and a clear career path is a real challenge to my continuous professional development.
This makes keeping in touch with my previous firm and colleagues and widening my professional network even more crucial. Luckily, my office is close to a number of law firms, which offer a wide range of seminars and know-how materials.
I also benefit hugely from the training and networking opportunities offered by the In-House Division .
I have immense gratitude for the UK as a country and its people, who have welcomed me with open arms and allowed me, despite of my foreign background, to qualify into its legal profession.
I have met so many great friends, colleagues and mentors, who held my hand and guided me to where I am now.
Through my story, I hope to send a message to people who come from outside of the UK, that there are endless opportunities for reinvention and the creation of a new career and life, regardless of where you come from or how difficult your situation is.
Life is more fulfilling, however, when we give back our time and knowledge and connect with the very communities which support us.