Should you learn Mandarin?

December 1, 2013

The Survivalist questions the ‘opportunities’ posed by China

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To listen to some forecasters, particularly the economic ones, China will soon take over the world. By 2050, so the predictions go, the Chinese economy will be as large as the US and they’ll own even more than the $6trn in US government bonds they reportedly own at the moment.

On the other hand, we’re in 2013, and that prediction is 37 years away. Look back 37 years to 1976 and people were preparing for imminent nuclear war with the Soviet Union and thinking disco would last forever. Nuff said.

However, it’s fair to say that China can’t be ignored. We now have the first major merger between a UK law firm – SJ Berwin – and a firm with a large Chinese component, King & Wood Mallesons.

So, should you be learning Mandarin and preparing for your firm to find a Chinese merger partner?

Well, learning Mandarin is never going to be a bad thing to do, not in this day and age, but it is fiendishly difficult for us Indo-Europeans, so good luck with that one.

Chinese wall

The second minor pause for thought is that China does not have anything like a properly-functioning legal and judicial system. The Survivalist has had two conversations recently with US firms thinking of pulling out of China altogether because it’s just too much hassle for too little return.

The ultimate brick-wall-across-the-motorway that if the government decides at whatever point in the game that it doesn’t like what you’re up to, it can simply change the rules to ensure you don’t get whatever it is you’re after.

Basing your future career decisions on dealing with the legal system or economy of a country with this level of hardwired unpredictability seems to me to be akin to trying to walk a tray of dirty martinis across a bouncy castle in a hailstorm.

Were I a young lawyer, I’d turn my attention across the Atlantic. The US remains by far the largest legal market in the world, and will remain so for the foreseeable future. There’s a prediction for you which doesn’t involve the death of disco.

I think it’s much more likely that 20 years hence, any UK law firm worth the name will be a subsidiary of a US law firm, and will look and act like one internally.

This means learning how US firms work and how a US lawyer is supposed to operate – win the client, keep the client, hoard the client and you won’t go far wrong. That’s going to be far more useful than trying to greet an important business contact in your evolving Mandarin, getting the pronunciation wrong and asking whether the carrots are farting loudly in Shenzhen this winter.

Stay frosty. TS

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