When she graduated from California’s Hasting College of Law in 2011, Delida Wong knew she would be facing a tough job market at home. So she set her eyes on Beijing instead.

"I didn’t even bother applying to jobs in the States," she recalls.
 
Wong joined a small but increasing number of young American law graduates drawn to China by a sense of adventure but also a belief that the fast-growing economy offers career opportunities not available to them in the United States.
 
These lawyers, who come to China without jobs, are distinct from those lawyers who are relocated there by international firms. If anything, the latter, who enjoy U.S.–level salaries and sometimes generous expatriate packages, represent what the former are hoping to achieve in China. But the first step for many of them is to head back to school.
 
Several of China’s top universities, including Peking and Tsinghua in Beijing and Fudan in Shanghai, offer LL.M. degrees in Chinese law aimed at foreign students. Instruction is in English, and the coursework is often combined with internship experience. Tuition, though expensive for China, is far less than U.S. law schools; Peking University’s two-year course costs $26,000.
 
Peking and Tsinghua, the most popular schools among foreign law students, currently each have between 30 and 40 students per year in their LL.M. programs. Some eight other universities offer similar programs, with another at Hangzhou’s Zhejiang University set to launch in the fall.
 
Wong entered the program at Peking in the fall of 2011 and landed an internship in the Beijing office of Hogan Lovells soon after. She was promoted to associate at the firm last summer. Because the second year of the LL.M. program is mainly researching and writing a thesis, Wong can balance that with her full-time job. She will graduate in June.
 
In Wong’s view, the degree from Peking, popularly known as "Beida" and one of China’s most prestigious universities, has helped make up for the fact that she did not attend a top-tier U.S. law school. "Because I didn’t go to an Ivy League, having the LL.M. does help," she says. "You can say you went to Beida, and that gives you [more credibility] in Chinese people’s eyes."
 
But Wong’s swift path to an international firm job is more the ideal than the norm. Many graduates say they struggled to land jobs, even lower-paying positions with Chinese law firms.
 
"The program has little value from a getting-a-job perspective," says Simmons & Simmons Beijing associate Geoffrey Mullen, who earned a Peking LL.M. in 2009 and a J.D. from the University of South Carolina in 2006. He began cold-calling firms from the moment he landed in China and worked at Chinese firms Grandall Law Firm and TransAsia Lawyers before joining Simmons & Simmons in 2011. All of the firms seemed indifferent to his LL.M. degree, says Mullen: "It’s not going to give you an edge."
 
Kirby Carder, a King & Wood Mallesons associate who worked as a contract lawyer in Kansas City, Missouri, before deciding to go to Beijing in 2007, says Chinese language ability is far more important to firms than a Chinese LL.M., and he thinks new arrivals would be better off immersing themselves in Mandarin courses. "I think the language will do more for them in the long run," he says.
 
Dane Johansen, who perfected his Chinese while serving as a Mormon missionary in Toronto’s Chinese community, agrees. He says he landed a job at Morrison & Foerster while he was earning his Peking LL.M. mainly because of his language ability. He moved to Dorsey & Whitney’s Hong Kong office after graduating with his LL.M. in 2008, and now he’s a capital markets associate in the Hong Kong office of Paul Hastings.
 
"It worked out for me," says Johansen. "Some of the other guys who didn’t have the Chinese language ability, it might not have worked out as well for them."
 
Guo Li, director of the Peking University LL.M. program, estimates that about 30–40 percent of its graduates are still working in China or Hong Kong, with the rest having returned home or moved to other markets. But he still thinks there are opportunities for U.S. lawyers in China, even without fluent Mandarin.
 
"American companies entering China still prefer to work with American lawyers in Beijing, while Chinese [companies] looking overseas may prefer to continue their relationships with local firms," says Guo. "Personally, I think the market is large enough to accommodate the demand for both kinds of lawyers. As far as the near future is concerned, there should be opportunities for [Westerners]."
 
Going forward, those opportunities seem more likely to be at Chinese rather than international law firms. Back in 2005, when Tsinghua launched the first Chinese LL.M. program, international firms still dominated a Chinese legal landscape largely oriented toward foreign direct investment in the country. In the years since, though, Chinese firms have largely taken over the role of advising on "inbound" deals.
 
Wang Chuanguang, who heads Tsinghua’s LL.M. program, says many senior partners at Chinese firms still have a hard time communicating in English and working with foreign companies. "If they want to expand internationally, they really need to have some associates for the international market for foreign clients," he says.
 
David Cantor, a 2012 New York Law School grad and Tsinghua LL.M. student, works as an associate at the 35-lawyer Anjie Law Firm in Beijing. He says much of his job is revising the English in documents drafted by Chinese lawyers for foreign clients. "Polishing is definitely a big part of it here," he says.
 
Carder, who dropped out of the Peking LL.M. program after one year because he was offered a job with King & Wood in 2008, says he serves as something of a cultural intermediary between Chinese lawyers and Western clients.

"I’m really good at standing between foreign clients and translating their questions so the Chinese lawyers can understand," he says.
 
By and large, the Chinese firms pay lower salaries than their international counterparts. Mullen says his impression is that foreign associates at Chinese firms earn more than Chinese associates but less than their peers at British or American firms. Cantor says his relatively low salary, along with his English ability and legal knowledge, may have helped him get hired at Anjie.
 
"They can pay me at [Chinese] rates," he says. "They’re not outsourcing to a firm in the States."
 
But Robert Lewis, a longtime expat lawyer in Beijing who is now a senior of counsel at Zhong Lun Law Firm, thinks the intermediary role for foreign lawyers at Chinese firm may be on the wane. He notes that Chinese lawyers’ English skills are improving, making them more versatile players at their firms. Many of them are also pursuing their own LL.M.s in the United States.
 
"So many high-level Chinese law graduates of that category will be high-potential candidates" for top jobs at law firms, says Lewis. "That is squeezing out more of the opportunities for foreign people looking to enter China."
 
That prospect cuts against the idea that China offers a refuge from a tough legal job market in the U.S. Carder says anyone thinking of coming to China should come with their eyes open.
 
"I don’t want to tell kids that if they come to China, it will work out," he says. "It is not like that."
 
Email: tbrennan@alm.com .