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August 10, 2011 11:25 AM

From The Asian Lawyer: Is Mandarin Really Necessary?

Posted by John Hazard

For would-be new hires at several international law firms in China and Hong Kong, Mandarin Chinese has come to be a strict and unyielding prerequisite, sibling publication The Asian Lawyer reports.

"Certainly from our point of view, hiring someone in Hong Kong without the Chinese language speaking skills is a waste of time," says Antony Dapiran, a fluent Mandarin speaker and capital markets partner with Davis Polk & Wardwell in Hong Kong. "I honestly do not see how they can function, especially if they are dealing with capital markets work."

Firms like DLA Piper and Davis Polk have listed fluency in Mandarin Chinese, the predominant form of Chinese spoken in mainland China, as a requirement for potential candidates. According to headhunters, firms such as Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom; Latham & Watkins; Sidley Austin; and Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe also typically short-list candidates with the ability to speak Mandarin. Ben Cooper, a headhunter with CML Recruitment in Hong Kong, says the requirement also increasingly applies to in-house roles.

But how necessary is it really? Dapiran's own boss at Davis Polk, Asia managing partner William Barron, doesn't speak the language. Neither does Anthony Root, the longtime head of Milbank, Tweed, Hadley & McCloy's Asia corporate practice or Ashley Alder, the Herbert Smith Asia head who is about to take charge at Hong Kong's Securities and Futures Commission. Add to that list Christopher Clarke, Hong Kong managing partner for DLA Piper, and Poh Lee Tan, managing partner of Baker & McKenzie's China offices. She speaks Cantonese, the main form of Chinese spoken in Hong Kong and her native Malaysia, but not Mandarin.

The truth is, it's different at the top.

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