Ex-City lawyer learns Mandarin and now practises in Taipei
Jenny Atkinson was a 6yr pqe lawyer at Lovells when she decided to go back to university to study Mandarin from scratch. Two years later she had a Masters and was awarded a scholarship by the Taiwanese government to continue studying in Taipei. She now works in a bilingual international-style law firm in Taipei and is one of only two English lawyers practising in Taiwan. We spoke to her about her move abroad and she told us that she is loving every minute of it.
mtl: Hi Jenny, tell us about your legal background in the City.
Jenny: I trained at Clifford Chance in the mid 90’s and this included a seat in Hong Kong. I qualified in England & Wales and in Hong Kong in 1997. After three years of litigation at Clifford Chance, I moved to Lovells, where I did product liability litigation for a further three years.
mtl: So at 6yrs pqe you left the City. Why?
Jenny: I had traveled to Asia a number of times over the years and China had always fascinated me. I wanted to learn Mandarin but had found that evening classes didn’t get me very far. Short of learning it on maternity leave or in my retirement (neither of which were imminent) I realised that I had to look more actively for a way to do it. I found the Masters course that I ended up taking and stored a link to it as a “favourite” for two or three years before actually applying.
For a long time it seemed like a pipe-dream to quit my career and go back to being a student. Then finally I decided that I could afford to do it and I applied for a place on the course. I knew when I applied that if I was accepted I would take up the offer and I promised myself that I would go for it.
When I resigned, my boss was shocked that I was doing something so unusual. I had expected everyone to view me as “dropping out because I couldn’t hack it in the City”. However I received a lot more support from people than I expected, for which I was very grateful. People were excited for me and some where even envious. I re-mortgaged my flat in London to pay for my tuition fees and living expenses for two years.
When I started the Masters, I saw it as taking two years out to learn Mandarin and that I would then go back to law. My application form stated that I was doing it to help re-establish my career in the Far East. I had a Hong Kong qualification that I had never used it, so my aim was to combine this with the language and to move back to Asia. As the course progressed I realised that I didn’t really even have to go back to law if I didn’t want to and this opened my eyes.
mtl: What was it like learning such a difficult language from scratch?
Jenny: Although I took French and German at school, I wouldn’t describe myself as a linguist - but I knew that I wasn’t hopeless at languages either. I think it would have been easier if I had been already bilingual in English and another language, as I saw my class-mates, who were, having an advantage. I really enjoyed the course as it brought out a lot of thought processes that I didn’t expect.
Geography, University of Oxford
CPE and LPC, College of Law, London
Trainee and litigation assistant, Clifford Chance
Assistant, litigation, Lovells
Masters, Chinese, Universities of Oxford and Beijing
International Chinese Language Programme, National Taiwan University
Assistant, Pamir Law, Taipei
I would say that if you are thinking of going back to university as a mature student, then try to do it differently the second time i.e. enroll in new activities that you didn’t try the first time around. I think it is fair to say, however, that there is lot more work in a post-graduate course than as an undergraduate.
mtl: What took you to Taipei?
Jenny: Although the Masters course was based in Oxford, the middle summer of the two years was spent at Beijing University. I had assumed that, when I had completed the Masters, I’d look for a new job, but instead, in what became my third year out of the workplace, I was awarded a modest scholarship from the Taiwanese government to continue studying Mandarin in Taipei. This gave me an introduction to Taipei, so when I was looking for jobs, I applied there as well as in Hong Kong.
Although my long term intention had been to go back to Hong Kong, I found the firms there rather too similar to those in London. Life in Hong Kong didn’t seem as different, interesting or exotic as in Taipei or Beijing. I didn’t want to lose the sense of adventure and go back to a working climate like the City. Less English is spoken in Taipei, so I really have to use my Mandarin every day rather than just as a business skill. Incidentally it isn’t spoken as a local language in Hong Kong, so while it would have been useful for business, I wouldn’t have been able to communicate with the locals there.
I also found Hong Kong firms’ attitudes towards my time off quite disappointing. They were generally not willing to pay me as a six year qualified lawyer and wanted to decrease my pqe experience to take account of my time out. In contrast, my firm in Taipei saw me as having stepped outside the box and as having acquired valuable new skills, which they thought were positive things.
The firm I joined has offices in Shanghai and Beijing, so even though most of my work already involves Chinese entities, there could be scope to move to the mainland too. Western investment will continue to increase with the Olympics and the 2010 World Expo, but at the moment I am happy living in Taipei. It is difficult to compare working here with working in a top City firm in London. My firm only has eight fee-earners and there are many differences due to size and being in Asia. I can see palm trees out of my window which strikes me as an obvious difference!
mtl: Tell us about life as an ex-pat in Taiwan?
Jenny: It depends on how you want to play it. There are two main groups. One consists of the employees of the big corporates who come with their wives and kids and live relatively isolated lives complete with a maid and a swimming pool. The other group is the early 20-somethings who are teaching English abroad for a year. They don’t seem to be that interested in the culture or the language of the place as they are just having fun and it doesn’t matter where they are in the world.
The rest of us inhabit the gap between the two, making more of an effort to integrate into local life. I feel like I have to be an ambassador for the West as there are so few Caucasians here – so I feel a certain duty to be in a permanently good mood! Sometimes I feel a little like a minor celebrity because people do stare at me and all my neighbours and the staff of the local shops know me.
In practical terms, I share a large apartment with two flat-mates, which costs me £200 / month. I go to work on the bus, which costs 25p each way! I spend leisure time taking photographs, walking in the countryside and going to teahouses or hot-springs with local friends as well as ex-pats. I went to a Taiwanese wedding recently which was fun. I haven’t traveled so much since starting work, though in the past I have visited mainland China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Thailand and Indonesia.
mtl: What sort of work do you do now?
Jenny: I spend about half my time on traditional cross-border M&A corporate work where clients need advisers who understand both business cultures and both languages. The other half of my time I spend on practice development. In particular we are arranging conferences on the mainland and for Chinese businesses to visit their counterparts in other countries, in order to enable them to make contacts for joint ventures in China. Quite a bit of the focus at the moment is on environmental aspects in Taiwan and the mainland. We encourage clients who deal with sustainability and climate change to meet each other.
This type of work is obviously very different to fee-earning work, but I find it inspiring and it is nice to help fix the future direction of the firm and not to just be waiting for partners to give me work. The Chinese business environment operates around personal relationships more than in the West, so it is an important side to the job.
I could become a registered foreign lawyer in Taiwan but that doesn’t give me any particular advantages over being an England & Wales / Hong Kong qualified solicitor. I have locally qualified colleagues who can advise on Taiwanese law and have rights of advocacy in the local courts.
mtl: What are your future plans?
Jenny: At the moment I am really enjoying this job and will stay put. I have a work permit for three years, though this can be extended and likewise I could leave earlier if I wanted to. I will probably need to set myself some new goals in the future, but at the moment I am proud of having achieved what I set out to do 3 years ago and am just enjoying it.
It is becoming less and less likely that I will go back to London. Although I still have a flat there, the lifestyle of being a City lawyer doesn’t attract me any more. Having had no income for three years, and seeing how little you need to survive, my values have changed. I don’t think I would feel comfortable in such a materialistic culture any more, where it can sometimes seem to be all about which school you send your kids to and what car you drive.
I don’t really miss anything about working in London. Life is a challenge here every day and I am constantly stretching myself – it is not like getting on the district line every morning and knowing what is going to happen to you that day. I am still in touch with friends and family and at this stage of life (mid-30’s) everyone is settling down and leading more separate lives anyway. Being 6000 miles away doesn’t seem to affect the time I spend being in touch with people.
I am enjoying working in a smaller firm. However, I didn’t consider downsizing in London, rather than leaving the City altogether. I was caught up in the prestige of having good firms on my CV and couldn’t see what would be exciting about working for a smaller firm. Now, if I did ever come back to the UK, it would be to a firm in a provincial centre, rather than to London.
mtl: Do you have any tips on changing the way you practise law?
Jenny: If you have an interest in doing something different, then you should do it. Work takes up a lot of time and if you don’t enjoy it then there is a risk you will think “what if” in the future. If you have an idea then try it – you will learn something even if it “fails” because learning something is always progress. Opportunity doesn’t always just present itself: you have to work to create opportunities for yourself that weren’t there before, and when you do it is hard to turn them down. Don’t worry about the money side of things because you will be able to survive on surprisingly little.
Go for it because it is so much fun to try something new, to step outside your comfort-zone and to challenge yourself. You don’t need a fully-formed and meticulously-planned idea before you leave your job. My motivation for change was a strong interest in this area of the world. I could have done it and still gone back to the City, having satisfied my curiosity. So I had nothing to lose really by trying it and have in fact found a very rewarding alternative to the City…
mtl: Thanks for your time Jenny.
If you know any other lawyers who have gone and done something interesting or unusual with their lives or who have a great work/life balance then please get in touch.
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