Opinion | 05-05-17

Is a bar qualification essential for an in-house counsel in China?

There is some debate around the market as to the essential nature of the PRC bar qualification and in this article our consultant Li Ji outlines why employers continue to look for this. 
 
In order to practise law in China, it is very important to be qualified in the PRC, especially for lawyers in law firms. Of course, there are some lawyers who have international qualifications from other jurisdictions, such as the NY State Bar, but do not hold the PRC bar qualification. This is acceptable in the current Chinese legal market. Arguably, most in-house counsel in multinational corporations (MNCs) are not required to go to court or sign off any real legal process as part of their daily work, so many ask why employers are so committed to hiring lawyers with the PRC bar qualification.   
 
We work with many MNCs and we find that the PRC bar is still very important during any legal recruitment process, especially for senior level positions. The current market is very competitive and even more so at the senior end.  Therefore candidates need to have all of the basics in order to compete, and this includes the bar qualification. 
 
However many in-house counsels, who are not qualified, challenge this requirement when they are looking for new opportunities. They argue that the qualification does not give a candidate more experienced or more business acumen compared to those without it. In other words, the legal/business capability of the candidates is not directly connected to the bar qualification, which has become the pre-requisite of any legal recruitment. Some senior counsels argue that they failed the bar exam as a junior lawyer due to a very busy workload and given that their employer did not require them to pass the exam afterwards, they do not always see the importance of the qualification. 
 
Within the current market, we find that for mid-level roles businesses are willing to consider candidates without the bar qualification. The reasons for this are very straight forward. First of all, junior to mid-level counsels are paid less, and the expectations around these positions by companies are not as high. Secondly, from the employers’ point of view, counsel at this level are more open to opportunities and the chance of them taking the exam are higher. 
 
 
Why does the attitude of employers change when they are hiring senior counsels? 
 

  1. First of all, if the role is a head of legal role, the line manager would be the business head (CEO or CFO) or the legal-in-charge who is very likely based outside China. These hiring managers are not always familiar with PRC law, and the safest way to hire people is first focusing on education, background and qualifications. This means that they focus on candidates with the strongest profile very early on in the recruitment process before they get to the second round of the process when their legal practice capabilities can be tested.
     
  2. If the role is a senior legal counsel role, from the head of legal’s point of view, they want team members to be as qualified as possible. If the senior legal counsel is requested to make a judgment call independently, and they make the wrong decision which leads to business loss and they happen to have no qualifications, the head of legal’s due diligence may be challenged on whether this counsel was qualified for this position in the first place.
     
  3. Although the bar qualification can’t represent the personal capability, its absence may reflect a certain failing to some extent. Considering that there are many candidates in the market who do have the bar qualification, it is fair to say that employers are not willing to waste their time interviewing candidates who are not qualified in PRC, even with the possibility that they are capable of doing the job. 

 
Overall it is safe to say that the PRC bar qualification is very important in the current legal recruitment market. As mentioned earlier, many senior counsels who failed or didn’t take the bar exam before, are in the dilemma that they want to improve their legal career but they do not have the time or energy to prepare for the exam due to a busy workload and lifestyle. One option we see these lawyers considering is whether to take a break from working and focus on studying full time for the exam in order to increase their options in the future. We will tackle this idea in our next article. 
 
If you would like more information on the current legal market or for an update on opportunities available at MNCs and other corporates and financial institutions, please contact Shawn Chen on +86 21 6103 7331 or via email [email protected].