Beijing Legal: Getting Global Insight into Business

“I know that international work experience is something that is increasingly sought after and not always easy to arrange,” says Amelia Coffey.

Coffey, a junior from Silver Spring, Maryland, majoring in history, counts herself fortunate to be among the many UW–Madison students who are combining learning and work experiences this summer through a variety of internships around the world.

This is the first in a series of reports in which current international interns from UW–Madison talk about their experiences from the field.

Coffey and Kirsten Moran, a junior from Lisle, Illinois, majoring in political science and history, are working June 17- July 8 as interns with the V&T Law Firm in Beijing.

Moran: “I was attracted to this internship because I am interested in international and environmental law,” says Moran. “Last summer, I worked at an environmental law firm in the Chicago and I was looking to learn about these issues at an international level. … This internship provides a phenomenal opportunity to learn about the business world in one of the premier international centers of the world.”

Coffey: “I thought that the fact that V&T in particular represents clients that are businesses in the United States was intriguing because it would give me an inside look at the interconnectedness of the world’s two largest economies. I think that that will be a great perspective to have in the coming years, as China inches closer to us in terms of power and influence.”

To prepare for their internships, both took a four-week course on Chinese culture and history through International Academic Programs.

Coffey: “I wanted to learn about China’s history and its culture. As a non-Chinese speaker, I knew that the amount of direct contact with Chinese people that I could expect to have on the trip would be limited. I was told that the employees at V&T whom we would be working with spoke English, so I thought that this would be a good way to have more direct interactions with native people.”

What were your initial impressions?

Moran: “When I arrived at V&T Law Firm, I was met by the welcoming and outgoing people that we would be working with for the next several weeks. They went out of their way to arrange a work station for us, ask us out to lunch, and help us with directions to sites in Beijing. I immediately noticed the professionalism of the staff, and was impressed by the wide array of clients that the law firm served, including Western companies like Microsoft and Abercrombie & Fitch.”

Coffey: “When I arrived at the firm, I was pleasantly surprised by how friendly and helpful everyone was. We are working primarily with a group of young, female secretaries and paralegals. My experience up to that point with young Chinese women was that they tended to be fairly quiet and not particularly confident talking to me, even if they spoke English very well. However, this group has been warm, relatively assertive, and encouraging. I was surprised that when they took us out to lunch they kept insisting that I was very good at using chopsticks (since I have previously only been told the opposite).”

Was there anything particularly surprising or different from your expectations?

Coffey: “I went into this experience with an open mind and few concrete expectations, knowing that this is the first time that UW students have done this internship and that details are rarely set in stone when international communication is involved.”

Moran: “I tried to go in without expectations, because I knew very little up front about what the internship position would entail. I was surprised when, on our first day, we were invited into a contract meeting regarding the flagship Abercrombie & Fitch store in China. We were told that we would be editing the English version of this contract and working with the team members to perfect it. I was excited for this opportunity because I would be able to work with the lawyers on the project and gain their perspective on different legal ideals between the United States and China.”

What has been your most challenging adjustment?

Moran: “The most challenging part of working at the law firm is the language barrier. While there are some members of the law firm who speak excellent English, I still find myself having trouble communicating what I mean to others. This is a challenge that I have not faced before, as all of my previous work experiences have been with people who are fluent in English.”

Coffey: “The most challenging adjustment has definitely been the language barrier. A good portion of our work thus far has involved correcting English translations of literature that the firm is distributing. This is difficult not only because there are many mistakes to correct, but, on top of that, the literature contains a good deal of corporate jargon that I am not familiar with. When I attempt to ask for assistance, communicating is often a challenge. I am not surprised by this; I did not expect everyone to speak perfect English, and I do think that this is a good exercise that will improve my communication skills. “

— by Kerry G. Hill