Working in HK: Is Chinese Necessary? (Part 1 of Many)

(Again behind by 4 posts today on my own writing challenge, but again, will not make that an excuse to give up.)

As I had mentioned previously, a number of readers have been asking me about required language skills while working as a lawyer in Hong Kong.  My opinions are based on a fairly limited experience, mind you, but from what I’ve learned in my 2+ years here, working at both a very new foreign firm, ang now a well-established UK-born firm, and from my job searches in between is that the answer to such a query can really vary.

Generally speaking, some is better than none!  Whether you’ve got Cantonese or Mandarin skills, you should try to identify whatever Chinese proficiency you have when applying for jobs.  And if you have any opportunity to improve your Chinese, do so!

But is it really necessary, as the title to this post posits? My quick and easy answer is a simple “No.”  There are plenty of lawyers all over Asia who have no Chinese language skills whatsoever,  doing all kinds of practices too.  But my “No” is limited and conditional in many senses.  But I think I will reserve that for one of my other many parts.

Frankly speaking, I don’t really use any Chinese in my job now.  I’ve been called upon to translate something on the spot during a hearing once, where no one else on my team knew Chinese.  I’ve used it on my own volition to get a better understanding of some news pieces we used in support of an argument in that same hearing, though I was having the pieces translated by others.  It also came in handy when I’d listen in on testimony given in Mandarin and Cantonese, and could see where the interpretor was inaccurate.  But did I officially have to know Chinese in any one of these single instances? No.

My firm is large enough and well supported enough that we have many other bilingual attorneys, secretaries, trainees and paralegals that help out, including our own full time in-house translators.  My boss, who is also my practice group’s head, can speak pretty good Cantonese, but otherwise doesn’t know Chinese, and he neither tested mine nor required it of me. 

So no – I do not need Chinese in my job, but I do use it, and I do find it helpful, and I do think that it was a bonus point on my resume when I was interviewing for this position.  So as the title of this post suggests, stay tuned for more musings on Chinese in the law practice in Hong Kong.


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