Getting the most out of your China-based lawyer
I’ve communicated with lawyers in English as well as in Chinese. While my Chinese is pretty good after 20 years in Asia, I still feel much more comfortable when the lawyer is fluent in English. For the sake of this article, I assume the reader doesn’t read and write Chinese at a level suitable for complex legal issues.
The concepts discussed in this blog post may be of interest to anyone that wishes to do business in China, regardless if you are on the buy or sell side of the transaction with China. Readers who are thinking about setting up their own offices or factories in China will find the whitepaper (available for download at the bottom of this post) particularly useful.
The concepts explained in this blog post also apply to personal law, so it’s not just business people that may find the blog post of interest.
The problem is that China-based lawyers who are truly fluent in English (or other foreign language) will command a very high salary. Same is true if you are hiring a Chinese speaker in your home country to handle communications with the China based legal team.
The team at AsiaBridge Law solved this problem by having American & Europeans based in the China office perform the account management/ paralegal role to help the overseas clients and local lawyers communicate effectively.
In this article, we’ll give you a behind-the-scenes look at the tools & techniques used to ensure smooth project management and communication between the Chinese lawyers, paralegals and western based clients.
How to ensure smooth communications and project management for China legal cases?
George Bernard Shaw said it best: “the single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place. ” It’s very dangerous to send an email to your lawyer in China and assume they understand your exact meaning. Unless your law firm truly has bi-lingual and bi-cultural staff based in China, you will end up having to play the role of project manager/communications specialist if you wish to ensure your project stays on track and your agenda for your legal issue is advanced the way you want it to be advanced. Here are some tips if you find yourself in that situation:
1) Get it down on paper
Because of the education system in China, many Chinese have strong written/reading skills but lack verbal skills. So writing down what everyone said and agreed to and then sharing it with the other person, will help avoid miscommunication.
By taking the lead and providing the summary, you can control the presentation of information, how it is presented, what it says, and of course share with your counterpart how YOU see the world – what you understood. Additionally, this will help avoid any intentional ambiguities the other party may have planted.
2) Establish communication protocols with your Chinese legal staff
If you communicate globally via email with co-workers, lawyers or service providers in China, you probably have at some point become frustrated by the amount of time it takes to get an answer to what you consider a simple question. Part of the reason is language and culture, but dealing in multiple time zones plays a big role too.
For example, if you are in N. America and sending e-mails to a China lawyer, it is essential to have clear and effective communications because there is very little overlap of working hours in the two places. Should you get an unclear response to your question, you have to wait another 24 hours to ask and hear back. This cycle can go on for days and somehow a simple question like “did the notarized document get delivered to the court” takes 2 weeks to answer.
Monday: Did the notarized document get delivered to the court?
Tuesday: China Answers: Many FedEx documents arrived, we have a bunch of documents, which one are you talking about?
Wednesday: Did the document in FedEx tracking # 123ABC arrive and get delivered to the court?
Thursday: China Answers: I’m out of the office today on business; my assistant at the office is sending the confirmation of all the documents we sent to the various courts involved in your case.
Friday: The confirmation slips were in Chinese, can’t understand.
Monday: China Answer: No answer
Tuesday: China Answer: Sorry, my assistant confused “notarized” with “authorized” and we still have the notarized document sitting in our office. Please advise.
Wednesday: F*%$ it, we don’t have time left to get the document to the court.
Thursday: China Answer: Which documents are you talking about?
Time: 2 weeks/ 10 days/ 0 Progress
Read more on how to find an affordable lawyer in China that speaks English here!
Even simple communications get mucked up over email, so to help improve things around my office; about 10 years ago I created the following protocol for all my China side staff. It proved so effective, now all staff regardless of nationality have a laminated copy of it attached to every monitor in my organization.
Before sending an e-mail, I will check the following:
- Are the right attachments attached?
- Are the attachments formatted with correct page breaks and look nice?
- Has the attachment been spell checked?
- Has the e-mail been spell checked?
- Is my point clear?
- Does my email avoid sarcasm and phrases that could be misinterpreted by the reader?
- Do I need any other people in the organization to give a 2nd option before I send the email?
- If I am assigning a task, can this task be assigned using our project management software rather than via email?
IF the task must be sent be email:
a) Is the person I want to do something listed in the “to” line? Don’t expect somebody in CC to know they have been assigned a task.
b) Is the task clearly stated in the email? Who, what, when, why!
- Review who is in the “to”, “cc” and “bcc” to confirm your email is not sending sensitive information to the wrong people.
- If the people who will view your email don’t speak your language, make sure a translation or at least a summary is provided for them.
Couple of notes:
- Send me an email and I’ll be happy to forward you the bi-lingual version of this document so you can cut and paste and share among your team.
- It is not an understatement to say that moving from a spreadsheet based system to proper project management software has changed my life as a manager. We made this change when we had about 50 staff. Today we have 200 and I know I would have hung myself had I not had this software in place.
- Make sure your Chinese partners install English spell check on their computers. Some China computers don’t have this out of the box, but installing it is easy.
In short, is sad but true- in China, even simple communication is not easy. I hope the above tips help you communicate better with your Chinese business associates.