Postcard from… Beijing

I was offered the opportunity to move to China and manage Norton Rose’s Beijing and Shanghai offices in 2007.

I had indicated to our CEO Peter Martyr that I would be interested in a posting to one of our international offices as my daughter was grown up and I had no other ties. In the mid 1990s I had worked in our Moscow office and so I had a good idea of life and work in a smaller office.   

I came out on my first trip in September 2007 and had to keep reminding myself that I was in Beijing and not Hong Kong or Singapore. The city had wide roads, was full of modern cars and had lots of trees, flowers and green open spaces – not at all what I had envisaged.

Norton Rose has been in the People’s Republic of China since 2001, when two French lawyers joined our firm as lateral partners. They were amongst the pioneers: both came to China in 1988 when there was a tiny number of foreign lawyers here.

Our office is in the Lufthansa Center, which is convenient for the airport but a little way from the central business district where most of the other international firms have their offices.  However, meetings tend to be held in clients’ offices or in the offices of the counterparty, so proximity to other law firms is not as important as it is in London. 

We have a good mix of expatriate staff and locally recruited lawyers. Like all foreign firms we are restricted in the activities we can undertake and our locally qualified lawyers have to disbar themselves when they join an international law firm and cannot practice as lawyers.  Our expat lawyers are qualified in the UK (only two of us), France, Spain, Canada and Australia, so we have an interesting mix of backgrounds and cultures.

I live in a very modern apartment about ten minutes’ walk from the office. It’s in the diplomatic quarter but the building, which was only completed last year, is pretty empty at present, which is a mixed blessing. Downstairs I have a western style supermarket, an Italian restaurant and Starbucks, so I shouldn’t starve.

A short taxi ride away there is a new development called Solana, which is full of bars, restaurants and shops as well as a multiplex cinema and I usually find myself there at some point during the weekends. I also like going to The Place in the evening – difficult to envisage but the entire street has a cinema screen forming a roof and there are some amazing shows projected onto this. Eating out in Beijing is generally inexpensive and there is a huge choice of international cuisine.

Getting around Beijing is easy – taxis are cheap and plentiful and the subway system, extended for the Olympics last year, is an efficient way to travel round parts of the city.  Travel anywhere on the subway costs only 2 Yuan (20p).  I don’t have a car here – when I first came here I thought the driving was pretty scary though I am now used to it and am beginning to come round to the idea of taking my Chinese driving test.

Chinese people are generally friendly and helpful.  Many speak English and are eager to practice – this is my excuse for failing to learn anything more than a few phrases of Mandarin.

Peter Burrows is a partner at Norton Rose.