It is a mere 40 years since Australia opened diplomatic relations with China. In that short time China has become Australia’s largest trading partner and an important contributor of foreign direct investment to our economy.

The growing business connections between our nations offer clear opportunities for Australian law firms, but are they ready and willing to engage with Asia?

The Law Institute of Victoria recently visited China on Australia’s largest ever trade mission. Led by Victorian Premier, the Hon. Ted Baillieu, the Super Trade Mission attracted more than 600 individuals from over 400 Australian companies and visited 13 cities in China over 5 days.

The record numbers of participants reflects a growing appreciation among Australian businesses of the significance of China – and Asia more generally – to Australia’s future.

China’s legal sector is, in per capita terms, tiny when compared to Australia.  While the State of Victoria has around 17,000 practitioners for a population of 5.6 million, the city of Beijing has about the same number of lawyers for a population that is almost 4 times as big.  There is very little danger of China being ‘over-lawyered’ in the near future, and clearly a role for Australia’s legal profession to facilitate this cross border economic and commercial activity.

For the Law Institute, the trade mission was invaluable in re-connecting and invigorating the relationship with local Chinese law societies. 

Through our revived networks, the Law Institute can now assist members to engage with China through local contacts, foreign delegations, legal presentations and lawyer exchanges. 

The last of these is particularly important for Australia’s young lawyers.  There needs to be a mind shift away from the “traditional” London stint to gaining experience in the most dynamic economic region in the world.   Through cross-cultural exchanges we can foster real understanding and a deeper appreciation of our Asia Pacific peers.   Comments from local law societies in China make it clear we are behind our European and American competitors in doing this.

Of course, there is only so much that the Law Institute can do.  Individual lawyers and firms must develop and commit to their own strategies if they wish to grasp the opportunities that Asia presents. 

Take the example of Mina Guli, formerly a lawyer in Corrs’ energy practice, who moved to Beijing to tackle the issues of climate change.  Mina is now an Executive Director and Chief Investment Officer of Peony Capital, a firm devoted to investing in sustainable development projects and managing the associated carbon credits.  

Another example is Michael Chin, a law student from Monash University, who won the Prime Minister’s Australian Asian Outgoing Postgraduate Award in 2012 and is now an exchange student studying Chinese law – including human rights law – at Shanghai Jiao Tong University.   Following his studies, Michael will work with a number of international law firms in Shanghai to get first hand experience of working in a Chinese legal environment.

With the imminent release of the White Paper on Australia in the Asian Century, there is no better time for us to reflect on the rise of Asia – and China in particular.  While opportunity abounds for Australia’s law firms to capitalise on growing trade and investment flows, success will be elusive in the absence of proper engagement.   

Engagement is not merely the signing of a memorandum of understanding or the like.  It requires a wider and deeper commitment to the relationship from both parties.   That is what the Law Institute is looking to foster with China’s law societies and what Corrs is pursuing through its China Business Group in partnership with like minded premium independent law firms in China.