An eye-opening experience in Shanghai and Hong Kong

By Thibaut Clamart

A three-week study intensive gives MLS students first-hand insights into economic and commercial law in Asia, a key experience for the lawyers of tomorrow.

In 1996 when MLS Associate Professor Andrew Godwin (BA(Hons) 1988, LLB (Hons) 1991, LLM 2001) first started to work in China, it was considered very exotic.

“But nowadays”, Godwin points out, “everyone has a connection or something to do with China”.

Indeed, the nation is Australia’s largest trading partner, with bilateral trade in goods and services valued at more than $155 billion in 2016-17. China is both Australia’s largest export market and largest source of imports.

It was with this in mind that in 2016 MLS launched its new international subject, Economic and Business Law in Asia (EBLA). Taught intensively in November, the subject involves Juris Doctor students travelling to Shanghai and Hong Kong to gain first-hand exposure to Chinese law for ten days as they attend classes at local universities, visit local courts and hear from guest lecturers.

“One of the key objectives of the subject is for the students to learn about the law of other jurisdictions on the ground, in the environment in which the law matters, and to do things that they would not have otherwise had the opportunity to do,” says Godwin, who coordinates the subject.

While in Hong Kong, the 2016 EBLA cohort analysed two cases with Justice Reyes, a former Hong Kong High Court judge who presided over the cases. Students also worked with co-lecturer Hop Dang, a partner at Allens in Hanoi, on a case study, before giving advice to mock clients in a boardroom setting.

As well as learning about the law, students also gain insights into working overseas and potential career options.

“EBLA goes further than teaching substantive law,” Godwin says. “It is an experiential type of learning, which is something that is easily overlooked by people who take international exposure for granted.

“Students just open their eyes about what the world might have in store for them. It makes a huge difference for students as they appreciate the world of opportunities that Asia offers to Australia and that’s one of the greatest strengths of the subject.”

This is especially important since, as Godwin puts it, everyone’s career is international nowadays due to the global nature of business and the economy.

“Whether it would be advising on the law, helping to execute transactions, managing a business or representing clients in litigation, there will very often be an Asian element and China is a very important part of that,” he says.

It is thus inescapable and unavoidable that we need to become more Asia-literate.

Building this understanding and connection with Asia has been an important part of MLS for many years. The Asian Law Centre was established more than 30 years ago and the Law School has facilitated numerous research partnerships with Chinese universities since. There is also a community of more than 500 MLS alumni living and working in mainland China and Hong Kong SAR.

One alumnus is Chris Betts (BA, LLB 1999), a partner at Skadden Arps in Hong Kong. Having worked in China and Hong Kong for 16 years, Betts is well-placed to appreciate the importance of Australia’s relationship with Asia.

“I think Australia has more to gain than lose by deepening its relationships with Asia,” he says.

The better Australia and Australians can understand Asian countries, their histories, cultures and legal systems, the better placed Australia will be to deal with any challenges that might arise in the relationship.

Betts hosted the 2016 EBLA students for a visit to the Skadden Arps office in Hong Kong and facilitated discussions between the students and lawyers, including other MLS alumni. They discussed the benefits and challenges of a career in Hong Kong and Asia.

“There was virtually no information available in Australia about working in Hong Kong when I first applied for a job almost 20 years ago,” Betts says.

“While that has changed a lot since, there is still a natural disparity of information between local Hong Kong students and Australian students. I was delighted to fill in some of the gaps for MLS students.”

Dominic Fajardo
Above image: JD student Dominic Fajardo taking part in the Economic and Business Law in Asia subject. Image credit: supplied.

For JD student Dominic Fajardo, taking EBLA has led to greater knowledge of the region’s legal frameworks.

“Having completed EBLA, I have a better understanding of the notion of ‘one country, two systems’ as it applies to modern China,” Fajardo says.

“We thoroughly studied core provisions of the Hong Kong Basic Law, such as Article 158, which ingeniously links the region’s common law tradition with the mainland’s civil law system without undermining the authority of the People’s Republic of China.”

The immersive experience offered also allowed Fajardo to discover the local cultures.

“My most memorable and humbling experience in Shanghai was when I stood at the base of the city’s ‘Big Three’,” he says, referring to the Jin Mao Tower, the Shanghai International Finance Centre and the Shanghai Tower.

“These landmarks serve as a constant reminder of China’s tremendous growth over the last two decades and its permanent place amongst the world’s biggest players on the global stage.”

Betts believes that subjects like EBLA are part of the pivotal role universities have to play as Australia negotiates the challenges that will arise in the Asia-Australia relationship.

“The future holds numerous challenges for Australia and Asia that will have a nexus with the law – from geopolitical events, to dealing with the impact of new technologies, cyber security and climate change, to increasingly complex cross-border transactions, cross-border regulation and disputes.

“I see MLS as playing an important role in helping identify and shape thoughtful debate around these issues.

“As an internationally-respected law school, it must play a corresponding role in helping prepare graduates as best it can to become active contributors to this debate, whether that be in private practice, the public service, NGOs, academia, business or elsewhere.”

Reflecting on the experience EBLA provides to students, Betts regrets only that the subject wasn’t established sooner.

“I was pretty jealous of the students actually,” he says.

“If the subject was offered back when I was studying law I would have signed up for it in a heartbeat!”

Banner image: combined skylines of Hong Kong and Shanghai.

Credit: mrsiraphol amd 4045/

This article originally appeared in MLS News, Issue 18, November 2017