Monday, September 05, 2011

The man with one watch...

... knows what time it is. The man with two is never sure.

I think I may have quoted that on here before sometime. [Yes, here.] It used to be quite a popular saying amongst London lawyers of my acquaintance (15 years ago, when I was trying to become one of them), as an oblique way of counselling against seeking second opinions. If someone asks two different lawyers for advice on the same problem - well, two professional advice-givers in any field, really; but lawyers, especially - he will almost certainly receive two very different answers; and thus will be beset by desperate uncertainties about his position, and feel obliged to seek yet a third opinion (which wouldn't be so bad for lawyers; except that lawyers never like to share their bounty with others).

Such, at least, is the outcome to be feared where your problem is unusual and convoluted, and a judicial decision on the matter might be particularly uncertain.

However, if you ask a dozen bright young lawyers a bread-and-butter sort of question, you might hope that they'd all give you at least a recognisably similar answer.

Um.... not in China, it would seem.

Last week, I was marking the assessment exercise I had set at the end of a series of workshops on legal writing I'd delivered for a large Chinese law firm a month or so back. I'd asked the participants to describe the process of setting up a small business in China as a foreigner (i.e., founding a company with the special status of a "wholly foreign-owned enterprise").  Admittedly, I threw one or two little curve-balls at them, one or two details of my hypothetical case that were not completely straightforward. But even so, it was nothing really very difficult (the kind of stuff that I have mostly come to know as an intelligent layman - I have not practised in well over a decade, and have never been involved in the law in China). And this is the kind of thing that they must be doing in their work nearly every day.

From the answers that they gave me, you would not even know they were addressing the same topic half the time. 12 students, 12 completely different - muddled, contradictory, mostly WRONG - answers.

It's not just that they can't write about the law in English; they don't know the law. Even worse, they don't seem to realise that they don't know the law. 

An awareness of one's ignorance is the beginning of wisdom, Socrates said.

I have a feeling Confucius is supposed to have said something similar. Unfortunately, the notion never seems to have caught on here.


JES said...

I was about to suggest that you take comfort in knowing that some of them had at least expressed their befuddled thinking in reasonably good English. Then I noticed you didn't mention their English skills at all, other than glancingly. Hmm. Perhaps not a good suggestion.

On the general issue of 12 people being wrong in 12 different ways, I grew up with elders who advised me that there were always two sides to every question. I knew I'd crossed out of childhood when I began to ask, "Only two?" (And since that was cast as a question, of course, it didn't have a simple yes or no answer!)

Were any of your students actually practicing law already? or just lawyers-in-training?

Because I'm the company's webmaster, I'm on the automatic routing list for email sent to a local poetry press's general "info" account. The sp*m we get from Chinese importers/exporters, publishing suppliers, copy editors (!) and translation services, and so on -- all of it suggests at least one bit of good news: they're receiving uniformly bad advice from someone about how to attract US business. Especially in the non-profit sector.

Froog said...

These people are all fully qualified, with at least a few years' experience under their belts: junior associates, or junior partners in one or two cases, I think.

The English wasn't so bad. One of their most ubiquitous quirks is that they've learnt from the text of laws that shall is used to express obligation/necessity. They haven't picked up on the nuance that it is really used this way only in the text of laws (well, OK, and court injunctions, and contracts). They want to use it all the time, when they are merely describing the operation of a law rather than quoting it directly, and advising a client on the proper actions to take. It tends to sound strident, hectoring, to be constantly saying, "Next, you shall submit the application to..."

However, it's the frequent crashing lapses in logic that most appal me. For instance, one guy claimed that the Chinese business licence was one of the required documents that has to be submitted for a phase of the approvals process that is prior to the issue of the business licence - Catch-22! Well, it would be if it were true, but fortunately it is not.