Working Abroad: Q&A with Harrison Roubin

Survive Law spoke with Harrison Roubin, a Law and International Studies student from Deakin University who worked at Dentons' Shanghai Office, which you can read more about here. If you have an interest in international commercial law, we strongly recommend undertaking a voluntary placement abroad.

Tell us a little bit about yourself!

To begin with, I study a double degree of Bachelor of Law (LLB) and a Bachelor of International Studies (BIS) at Deakin University. In order to complete my BIS I was required to undertake either study abroad or a work integrated learning placement (internship) overseas. In searching for a placement overseas, I was recommended Projects Abroad by a lecturer for International Studies at Deakin, primarily because Projects Abroad offers a number of exciting placements which run all year round and aren’t confined to specific dates as compared to a faculty lead study tour. This is to say PA offers flexible and personalised experiences.

What motivated you to work with Project Abroad's Law Project in China?

Projects Abroad has a working relationship with a number of firms in Shanghai. I was looking for a challenge, and wanted to make the most of my opportunity to travel and work abroad. I wanted to be pushed beyond my comfort zone, explore and visit an area of the world many of my friends hadn’t already explored. Not only did the Law Project in China satisfy my challenging criteria, the Law Project in China offered the perfect synthesis between my degrees. Additionally, having studied Mandarin for five years at high school and visited Beijing as a tourist when I was 12, I felt I had an adequate understanding of the linguistic, cultural and social challenges that awaited me.

What was your role and what responsibilities did it involve?

I was fortunate to be placed as a summer intern with Dentons, working in their offices on the 15th and 16th floor of Shanghai Tower, right in the middle of Liu Jia Zui (the Shanghai CBD). I was one of a handful of foreign interns from all around the world: two from Ireland, two from the U.S.A and two from the U.K. We were spread out across a number of different practice groups ranging from corporate law, family law and everything in between.

I was working in a corporate law practice group, which specialised in mergers and acquisitions with a particular focus on foreign investment. The group consisted of a number of senior partners, about 10 associates and a number of local summer interns.

I spent a lot of my time conducting legal research on a variety of specific queries and undertaking small tasks here and there, such as proofreading and comparing contracts. Every Monday morning at 10am I would take part in weekly meetings, where associates and interns outlined the tasks they had completed the previous work and the tasks they expected to complete the coming week. Partners often gave feedback and typically the meetings would run for 90 minutes. Additionally, whilst the meetings were almost entirely run in Mandarin my colleagues were very accommodating and would often translate anything important or of interest for me.

Throughout my month at Dentons I spent most of my time participating in the due diligence on a potential target - a foreign corporate group in the financial sector - for a large corporate client who was looking to acquire it. It was arduous, but I found it interesting and extremely rewarding to be given such meaningful work. A typical day started with a number of questions, posed by my direct supervisor, that needed to be answered about the target. Some questions were legal, such as important aspects of the U.K. takeover code. Other tasks were more tailored towards understanding corporate structure. More specific tasks ranged from reporting on the extent of the target’s regulatory authorisations to conduct financial services within the E.U and the U.K, to summarising any potential future legal liabilities depending on the outcome of BREXIT.

What kind of clients did your firm advise, and what challenges were they facing in an evolving Chinese economy?

The Dentons' Shanghai office is a full service commercial firm and would service a wide variety of clients. My practice group typically advised financial institutions particularly on matters regarding offshore investment, expansion and acquisitions. I found my work fascinating and exciting and I could see that I was contributing to a greater plan. I owe this to a senior partner, Mr Pei Qiu, who took me under his wing and helped explain the bigger picture regarding his clients’ interests. I was not expecting this level of exposure and mentoring from such a senior member of the firm.

The firm’s clients faced a number of challenges in the evolving Chinese economy. The primary challenges for these clients related to the economic policies associated with the slowdown of the Chinese economy. A primary issue is capital control. In order to prevent too much RMB moving offshore, the Chinese government has implemented strict capital control regulations to promote internal economic stimulation, thus stifling offshore development. As a result, many of the firm’s clients are seeking legal help to work around these regulations, which have necessitated a significant degree of problem solving and corporate restructuring. By contrast, other clients needed advice on how to take advantage of the Chinese government's economic policy concessions designed to stimulate economic growth.

How have your experiences abroad shaped your career aspirations?

What has become most clear from my experience abroad is that at some stage I want to live and work overseas on a more permanent basis. Whether that be London, Berlin, Hong Kong, Singapore or even Shanghai again, I am excited to flesh out my career and experience living and working in a different city.

Before going to Shanghai, I was unsure if I wanted to broaden my horizon for an extended period of time, particularly in Asia. Truthfully, I thought I'd be slogging it out for a month. My pessimism certainly wasn’t a reflection on Projects Abroad, who had well and truly gone beyond in reassuring me that I’d have a great time. However, eventually I came to love Shanghai: the fresh challenges, the new people, the differences in culture. Once I embraced the situation, my entire outlook on living abroad changed and it became a lot of fun! I made some lifelong friends from all over the world and I was deeply sad to be coming home. However, I guess I now have about 20 new reasons to visit different cities around the world!

Regarding working in the law, I’m still not 100% certain as to where I want to go with practice. I think I’ve still got so much to experience and I don’t really know anything about working in any areas of law. I’m open minded to future exposure and the future opportunities that are presented as I think it would be unwise to narrow my scope at this early stage of my career.

What aspects of your law studies were you able to apply to the placement?

I was able to apply research and critical thinking skills developed during my law studies to my placement on a daily basis. As a native English speaker, it was fairly common to be given work from a partner from any practice group, particularly if they needed help understanding or summarising laws from a common law jurisdiction.

Some of the research tasks included:

  • Summarising Australia’s data protection laws.

  • Investigating the London Court of International Arbitration's rules to respond to a scenario for an upcoming conference.

  • Providing a chronology of the London-Shanghai Stock Connect and the issuance of Chinese Depository Receipts.

  • Researching the UK's possible deals with the EU regarding prudential and financial regulations and how these changes may affect our clients’ business prospects.

In summary, most of the ‘law’ I have learnt throughout my degree was not overly applicable to my Australian legal studies, especially as China’s legal system is that of a civil code. I knew very little about many of the areas I was tasked with researching, but it certainly honed my critical thinking skills. The partners did not expect perfect work and were more than understanding if I were to say I felt out of my depth regarding providing assistance on a particular task.

Are there any skills or insights you developed during your placement that are applicable to your studies?

A significant insight I took from moving to a foreign environment and culture with a huge number of new stimuli was the importance of establishing routine. I’ve been able to take my routine back home which has helped balance my studies with all the other commitments that come with being a 23-year-old law student. Every semester (or trimester at Deakin) brings new challenges both in study and in my personal life, whether that be applying for clerkships and part-time jobs or maintaining extra-circular commitments. I certainly began to understand which deadlines were hard, which were soft, what tasks were urgent, and which were not.

Additionally, the FDI exposure I had during my time at Dentons was invaluable, because as I’m told these large multi-jurisdictional projects aren’t commonplace in most law firms and are only particular of certain economies. The volume of this type of work is derived from the unique position Chinese corporations are currently experiencing regarding their opportunities for global expansion. In applying this insight to the real world, my experiences in China became a significant topic of discussion during a clerkship interview. I think the challenges I faced and the insights I gained set me apart from other candidates.

Do you have any tips for students who are contemplating an offshore placement?

Firstly, go somewhere you’re at least slightly intrigued about - not just intrigued to travel, but intrigued to immerse yourself in. If you’re excited to explore a place, that’s all the more reason for an extended work stay! Do some research and make things happen on your weekends. For example, one weekend (Friday night – Sunday night) a few fellow interns and I ventured roughly 500km from Shanghai on a somewhat Chinese cultural pilgrimage to the mystic Yellow Mountains!

Secondly, accept there are going to be challenging moments, but that your overall experience is what you make of it. Back yourself that you will be able to survive and thrive, you will certainly surprise yourself.

Thirdly, you will make a huge number of friends and it is great for networking. The strange thing about undertaking an internship with Projects Abroad to a place like Shanghai is that there is more than just the Law Project happening in the city. Whilst I was there about 20 other foreign interns were living throughout the city. We were all in one massive WeChat (Chinese WhatsApp) group and we’d regularly (at least three to four times a week) meet up somewhere for drinks, dinner or even a dance! We had a great social time and the only thing we all had in common is that we were foreign interns.

Fourthly, when it comes to work, be proactive! Some days will be slow and there will be less to do, so you’ll have to be proactive about finding work. I typically found that once I had established a rapport with a few people by doing good work (e.g. solid research) I didn’t have to be as proactive to find work as they would come to me with work.

Finally, and most importantly, try and leave your values and cultural perceptions in your suitcase. To get the most out of an intercultural experience, immerse yourself in that culture and try and see things from the local perspective. You don’t necessarily have to agree with certain values and cultural aspects, but it’s good to appreciate and hopefully understanding why certain aspects of each culture are so important to its people.

Projects Abroad organises law & human rights volunteer placements in countries as diverse as China, South Africa, Ghana and Tanzania. To see more of their work, visit their website.

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