Career Paths for China-based Lawyers with Doreen Jaeger-Soong (Part 1)

Doreen Jaeger-Soong, Managing Director at Hughes-Castell, one of Asia’s leading executive search firms, has been an authority on the legal market in China for over 30 years. In this interview with Art Dicker from China Business Law Podcast, she discusses the different possible paths for lawyers and the choices they must make as they progress through their careers in China and shares those decades’ worth of wisdom using real-life hypotheticals on what she would recommend for different lawyers at different stages in their careers.


Doreen: Doreen Jaeger-Soong (Hughes-Castell, Managing Director)

Art: Art Dicker (R&P China Lawyers, Director)


Art: Doreen is Principal and Managing Director of Hughes-Castell, a premier legal recruiting firm in Asia-Pacific that I myself have used before when I was Asia Pacific General Counsel at Cadence Design Systems, so I can personally vouch for you guys. You really know what you are doing, very thorough and very professional. So, it is a pleasure to have you on.


Doreen: Thank you very much. I am looking forward to sharing all my collected wisdom.

Art: Let us dive into it. So, today’s discussion focuses on career paths for lawyers in China. And I want to start with a more open-ended question, thinking about young lawyers as they are developing skills coming out of law school. So, Doreen, what are some of the big trends you see that might affect their development and what skills they start to develop early on in their careers?


Doreen: I do think that young lawyers coming out of law school should look at joining a firm with cross-border or international exposure, whether that is a Chinese law firm or a Chinese law firm attached to an international firm.  If they are lucky to join an international firm as a legal consultant, they will be able to gain experience in cross-border transactions. Apart from general corporate transactional skills, data privacy, antitrust and sanctions are important. These are areas where, if you go into the U.S. or even into Europe, you have to have a very good understanding of the geopolitical environment. Chinese enterprises are investing very heavily right now in South America and Africa and being exposed to that type of international work is essential, I think, for young lawyers who aspire to have a career that will be more than just a domestic one.

Art: I guess, presumably, that helps them then interact better with the clients they are working for and gets more contacts to that memo that they have to write, or that piece of advice, or those negotiations in which they are involved. So, building on that, for young associates who are thinking a step or two ahead and taking steps to start to build their own books of business with the idea of becoming partners someday, how early do people need to start thinking about that, and what are the things they need to think about when they are getting ready to do that?

Doreen: I think that, as long as they have joined a good Chinese law firm or any good international firm, they should focus the first 3 or 4 years on developing good drafting and communication skills. Learn how to communicate their ideas clearly, logically, and concisely. That is really important and always the first step.

Once they get beyond that and become a mid-level associate, they should start developing more. Obviously, everyone uses social media platforms here, whether it is in Weibo, WeChat, or whatever. But beyond that, being able to be more proactive in terms of developing your knowledge base by attending conferences and networking events is also important because you want to stay informed. You want to be able to hear what other people have to say, not live in a bubble. So I think that is very important as well in a social context because a good client relationship, I know for sure, is not that you think of the person as your client, but as someone, you personally are engaged with and care about, so they sense that too. And then that brings a degree of mutual benefit to each other because they will be more loyal to you, and you will want to deliver your best work for them. It builds a nice long-term relationship. So when they start off, in their first 4 or 5 years there may be interaction with the bankers or the analysts at their level. And that is great! They should socialize with them as much as possible.

I always tell my consultants in China to go out and have coffee with their candidates. I enjoy talking to my candidates; through conservations over time, they become no longer just a name at the end of an email or a voice at the end of the phone, but the person you have face-to-face or eye-to-eye contact with, so the relationship you build when you are already in your late 20s or early 30s will benefit you later in your career. This is important.

Art: That makes total sense, and people sometimes forget that your peers at those investment banks or private equity funds or so forth, you may think that they are junior and not involved in the decision-making now, but they are rising simultaneously with you through the ranks as well. And so when you are ready to become partner, they will probably be in a similar position.

A related question for young lawyers. Do you see some common mistakes they make at different stages, maybe in junior to mid-level and then mid-level to senior-level? You must have seen so many examples now, and you have seen things where they have come back and said, “Doreen, I really wish if I could have done that over again, I could have made a different choice.” Do you have any anonymous stories that you can share about that kind of situation?

Doreen: It surprises me how many young lawyers make career decisions and job choices without doing much due diligence on where they are going. And I think that is one of the fundamental mistakes a lot of people make because a lot of times when you are interviewing for a job, the person who interviews you is not going to show you the whole picture. So you should be, as I said, doing due diligence, doing research. What is the chatter? Is that person, that partner, tough to work with? Will they yell at you or not? Or are they a good mentor? So I think doing due diligence is the first thing I would advise you should do because I see far too many who change jobs within a year or less than two years after things don’t work out. And when you have a series of those kinds of short-term moves, anyone involved in hiring will say, why do they change jobs so often?

Art: I am sure a big part of it is they have not done their due diligence. There also seems to be an expectation for rapid promotion; maybe both in-house and law firms are more traditional in their lockstep kind of models. I always see this sort of impatience every two years: “I need a promotion, a significant raise every year.” I wonder if you ever think that it is sometimes a little short-sighted, where you are jumping from company to company instead of sticking it out at one company longer and building relationships with those people who are going to be your champions for your long-term development?

Doreen: Having talked to many corporations in the past 30 years, the view is that the average time it takes for you to settle into a company is 12 months. After 12 months, that is when you start actually to add value to the company. So if you leave shortly after that, then people will feel: “Well, I spent a year training that person for no reward,” and that doesn’t leave a good taste in anyone’s mouth. And I think that young people, young lawyers who are joining companies or firms should be thinking that they have been given this opportunity and they need to prove to the employer that it was worth it to give them this chance and deliver. It is also beneficial for them because when they do decide to make a move in 2 or 3 years’ time, there will be a good reference from the employer. I think that is important. When you are at a mid-level, when you are more like 5, 7 years PQE and you move as a senior legal counsel or something similar in a company, for example, you have to ask who you are reporting to, how long has that person been there? And if that person has been there for a long time, you should understand that is a good sign.

Art: Some people like a role that they are familiar with and comfortable with and run a bit on autopilot, and they have it very much down. They know the business inside and out. And some people are always looking for a new challenge. And some people, I think, don’t see, don’t think enough about their next step in their career. And just cruise on by and wake up and realize that there is some timeline or trend working against them that they didn’t think about. So I am wondering, and it is a very general and open-ended question, do you think people can stay too long in a role?

Doreen: I think that partly depends on the company. I have been with my company now for 33 years. It was 33 years last August, and my company has grown from being one with three consultants to eventually, at one point, over 20 in four locations. So when you join a corporation/company/law firm (I would say the corporation is maybe more relevant in this case), it has to be able to offer you development opportunities and let you grow as a person. That means you may spend 5 or 6 years as maybe a Head of Legal for China. And then perhaps, eventually, the company wants to make you a General Counsel for China, which includes the legal and compliance functions. Then, maybe they can offer you a chance to become the Asia Pacific General Counsel. You could even then, from there, be sent to the U.S or wherever the global headquarters are. I have seen that too, where my candidates have reached a position in China,  then they get sent to the U.S. or Europe, the head office, to spend a few years to further develop and get to know the head office better, and then be sent back into senior positions again. So when you find a company that can offer you those kinds of development opportunities, that is a company where you really can commit long-term.

I call all my placements my children, so I think about my children who are nowadays 20 plus years from their placement. One of them just celebrated 23 years at his company. I placed him there, and he is now the Global  General Counsel, and another one who just celebrated 27 years, she was the first lawyer they hired in Asia, and now the legal department in Asia is 25 people. So again, I think joining a company that can grow with you is essential. When I first started at Hughes-Castell, I was told that you have the responsibility of lawyers’ careers in your hands, you should never  encourage them to move without helping think through why they want that, because moving for lawyers is a big thing, and in those days, they could only afford maybe 2 or 3 moves in their career, otherwise, they look suspect. But, of course, that mentality is totally out the window now. People do change regularly, every 4 or 5 years, even senior lawyers. So I think that in a way, you are right; longevity can be viewed as a disadvantage.  If you have been sitting in the same role with more or less the same headcount of people under you for many years, you can be very comfortable, but it will be tough for you to find something else because other employers will say, your job hasn’t changed. Your team hasn’t grown. You are competent there, but maybe you won’t adjust to a new industry or a new environment. So that is a double-edged sword.

…….To Be Continued ……

Published by Hughes Castell

Asia's Premier Firm for Global Legal, Compliance, Risk and Regulatory Executive Search

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