Spread your legal wings

Finbarr Bermingham speaks to an associate at Simmons & Simmons who spent a seat of his training contract in Hong Kong

A career in law can serve as your passport to see the world. These days, most corporate law firms have offices dotted around the globe, reflecting their portfolios of multinational clients. So even from the beginning of your time at a firm, you could get the opportunity to work abroad. Trainees at Simmons & Simmons can apply to do one of their four seats in locations as varied as Tokyo, Abu Dhabi and Paris. Matthew Rogers though, who joined Simmons & Simmons in 2009, chose to spend six months in a place that's a meeting point of British customs and Asian lifestyles: Hong Kong. Matthew had hoped to do his third seat in dispute resolution, and not only did he get his wish, he also got to do it in one of China's most significant cities, which had always fascinated him.

"I'd heard that Hong Kong was a fun, vibrant place," Matthew told The Gateway. "Small enough to get to know properly, and perfectly located to see the rest of Asia. Hong Kong is geared towards westerners, given its English heritage, and I liked the idea of going somewhere exciting for six months, but where I could retain some connection with home."

It's Britain and Hong Kong's shared history that helps explain the presence of firms like Simmons & Simmons in this Special Administrative Region of China. Hong Kong was only handed over to the Chinese by the UK government in 1997, so has long provided Simmons & Simmons' UK, European and American clients with a compatible business environment to which they can easily adapt and, as one of Asia's major financial and commercial centres, is an ideal hub for tapping into the massive economies of East Asia. The Hong Kong office also does a significant amount of work for Hong Kong-headquartered and other Chinese clients.

Britain and Hong Kong's common heritage extends to law. Says Matthew: "As an English-trained lawyer in Hong Kong, you engage with Hong-Kong qualified lawyers and local law firms and realise that Hong Kong's legal system is not fundamentally different to ours. All of their case law is based on our own. The difference is not as pronounced as it would be if you were working somewhere like Dubai."

World of difference

From the moment Matthew touched down in Hong Kong, though, he realised that, despite the similarities, there is much to separate it from its former colonial master. "The heat was a big shock," he says. "The first month was absolutely sweltering - and it was supposed to be winter! That was a big difference from home. But once I acclimatised, the weather was great. Most law firms in Hong Kong have boats and it was fantastic to be able to jump on board with some friends and go for an evening on the water."

The cultural differences too, came as somewhat of a surprise. "In the workplace, the hierarchy is well-established and not very fluid, which is common in Asia. You defer to your superiors more and interact with them differently than you might do in Britain. But it doesn't mean you can't have a good relationship with senior people - because Hong Kong is so small, I'd bump into my bosses on the street and they'd always greet me warmly."

The social side of life in Hong Kong is something that arises time and time again in our conversation with Matthew. He was pleased to find an established network of expats awaiting him when he arrived - many of whom were trainees too. "I think there were about 40 trainees from London in Hong Kong when I went out, all there for the same six month period. I made some good friends. We all lived in the same area and hung out together all the time. On Monday night, for instance, restaurants give out "expat cards", which means you can eat at selected ones for half price. And on Wednesdays, they have the races. Occasionally, we'd go out to Happy Valley [Hong Kong's racecourse], have a few drinks and a flutter on the horses. Hong Kong, with its small size and its vibrancy, is very geared up towards socialising."

Snake in the grass

Many people who travel to Asia return praising the food, and Matthew follows suit. While in Hong Kong, he enjoyed the opportunities he had to sample the local cuisine, and recalls one trip to mainland China which left a memorable imprint on his tastebuds. "I went for lunch with a Hong Kong born and bred colleague. Quite often, Chinese food is eaten for a medicinal purpose and he ordered us some bowls of snake blood soup as it's supposed to ward off the onset of a cold. I'd never encountered it before, and it was certainly interesting!"

Alas, being so far from home, only the hardiest of travellers wouldn't feel the odd pang of nostalgia for old Albion, and Matthew is no different. Thankfully, though, his cravings were relatively trivial. "It might sound a bit silly," he says "but I missed a couple of television programmes." Surely Law & Order, we enquire? "Not quite," comes the response. "Holby City - a bit of a guilty pleasure!"