What Chinese Associates Make
Lin might have earned more at Han Kun or at one of the local offices for international firms, which usually pay their Chinese local lawyers around RMB 20,000 a month or more. But most of those are put to work advising on inbound foreign investment deals.
“Because longer-term, I want to focus my practice on Chinese outbound M&A work, and the partner team at King & Wood is one of the best,” says Lin. “I know Han Kun offers a higher salary, but because they are less focused on M&A, I didn’t apply.”
Five firms—King & Wood, Jun He, Fangda, Haiwen and Zhong Lun—are widely regarded as having a reputational edge that allows them to recruit top students without necessarily paying the highest salaries.
“This is mainly due to the much more hierarchical social structure of the Chinese legal profession than its American counterpart,” says Sida Liu, an assistant professor at University of Wisconsin–Madison. Indeed, in today’s U.S. profession, the ability to pay the highest salaries and bonuses is often regarded as a key element of top-tier firm status.
Chen Jihong, a partner at Zhong Lun, says the top Chinese firms offer a clearer career path: “I think it’s important that young lawyers can see the potential to develop and get promoted.”
But promotion doesn’t follow a clear path. Unlike at Western firms, where associate seniority and salary generally increase annually in lockstep increments, the leading Chinese firms use an evaluation-promotion system.
“When you join, you are a first-year lawyer,” explains Chen. “If you pass the evaluation, you become a second-year lawyer the next year, but if you don’t, you remain as first- year.”
Usually, but not necessarily, associates are eligible for promotion to income partner after a minimum of eight years.
While Han Kun uses higher salaries to try to compete with the top five for talent, other firms tout their friendlier work environments and lower billable hour requirements.
“It’s a trade-off,” says Broad & Bright’s Liu. “You might be paid less, but your life quality could be improved. Over the years, we have had people leave to join firms like King & Wood or Jun He. It’s a different experience for them, but people still say we are a more pleasant firm to work for.”