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Australian lawyers with multilingual talents are out there, and in greater number than you might think. So who are these people who have mastered more than Latin and legalese in this ever-increasing globalised world?

Emerging economies in the Middle East and Asia are encouraging big firms to think about how they should adapt their model for international business. And with multinational companies looking to build their global talent pools, the business case for speaking at least two languages is becoming increasingly strong.

According to the 2016 Census, 21 per cent of Australians speak a language other than English at home. The most common languages spoken after English (72.7 per cent) are Mandarin (2.5 per cent), Arabic (1.4 per cent), Cantonese (1.2 per cent), Vietnamese (1.2 per cent), Italian (1.2 per cent), Greek (1.1 per cent) and Hindi (0.7 per cent).

While linguistic diversity is testament to multicultural Australia, it doesn’t necessarily mean professionals are poised to engage with other regions in a business context as effectively as they could. But things are changing.

An active pursuit

Dr Alexandra Grey took up French and Mandarin classes as part of a lunch time language program offered by her firm, Clayton Utz. The French lessons were a continuation of her undergraduate studies in law/arts at the University of NSW, but Mandarin was something entirely new. It was studying Mandarin that inspired her doctorate thesis, which jointly won the 2017 Australian PhD Prize for Innovations in Linguistics.

After working as a tipstaff to a NSW Supreme Court judge and then spending more than two years in private practice, Grey was ready for something new. She completed a Masters of Applied Linguistics online, and secured a job with a non-government organisation in China through what was then known as the Australian Youth Ambassador’s Development Program, sponsored by AusAID. Grey quit her job at the national Australian firm and, in eight months, was working in Beijing.

“I managed to line up a position with a Chinese legal aid centre specialising in labour law, and thought it would be great to increase my Mandarin skills but also use my legal knowledge in a different way,” Grey says. “That turned out to be exactly the case and it was really fascinating. The more that I was there, the more I felt like my Mandarin was improving.”

In the months leading up to her move to China, Grey met a Mandarin tutor once a week. But once she found herself in China, Grey spent the first month in near silence as she strained to follow conversations and hook into key words. She lacked confidence about her own pronunciation.

“Because Mandarin is a tonal language, you have to be really quite exacting in the way you speak,” Grey says. “I just pushed through that and, after a few months, it got much better.”

In a bid to develop her language skills, Grey took night classes while working at the Beijing Yilian Legal Aid and Study Centre for Labor. Once her placement with the centre ended, she stayed in Beijing and studied Mandarin full time for two years, while teaching debating and public communications part time at a local university. It was a decision that rounded out Grey’s proficiency with reading and writing skills. She remained in China for three years and still returns from time to time.

Grey, who is now undertaking a project at the University of Sydney’s law school in association with its China Studies Centre, believes there are a range of personal and professional benefits for lawyers to learn a language. The first, she says, is that it encourages an active mind. Beyond that, new languages invite different perspectives.

“Learning a foreign language also enables you to work with different types of people,” she says. “I certainly know bilingual lawyers in Australia who use their second language all the time to talk to clients and attract different kinds of clients.

“Maybe it will be that the contract is still written in English, but there is a lot of work in building those client relationships and trust and understanding that can be better achieved if you speak their language.”

For Australians who grow up in a monolingual household, Grey believes there is a false impression that it can be hard to learn a second language. Her message is that anyone can learn and more people should.

Responding to the new world order

The McKinsey Global Institute predicts that while the global labour force will hit 3.5 billion by 2030, there will still be a shortage of skilled workers. “Global work orientation” – a term coined by Harvard business professor Tsedal Neeley –is all about professional survivability in this new world order. The concept calls on individuals to refresh their skills, attitudes and behaviours to be better equipped to work across cultures.

Writing for the Harvard Business Review, Neeley identifies five characteristics that can enhance global work orientation. Although these actions relate to working for a multinational company, they are relevant for anyone wanting to thrive in a globalised business landscape.

  1. Positive indifference: Neely suggests overlooking cultural differences, such as having to file frequent key performance indicator reports, for example, without becoming unduly troubled.
  2. Finding commonality between cultures: This draws together colleagues from diverse cultures, which can lead to more effective collaboration and teamwork.
  3. Identifying the global organisation rather than a local office: The principle of this action is simple – when we feel a sense of belonging with the larger organisation, we are more likely to feel aligned to its values and goals. This fosters job satisfaction, commitment and performance.
  4. Seeking interactions with geographically distant subsidiaries: To voluntarily seek out interactions with foreign partners shows a greater ability to develop trust and shared vision.
  5. Aspiring to a global career: Neely describes an interview with a Taiwanese employee whose aspirations for an international career were tied up with their efforts to learn English. Professionals from English-speaking nations such as Australia should adopt a similar mindset.
HIROKO ITO, Herbert Smith Freehills HIROKO ITO, Herbert Smith Freehills

My strategy was to be local. That’s how I adapted to each culture and country. When I moved to Russia, I tried to eat like the Russians, I tried to dress like them and speak like them.

Taking the international stage

If there is a shining example of an Australian lawyer who embodies the global work-orientation mindset, it is Hiroko Ito. The project finance solicitor from Herbert Smith Freehills (HSF) was born in Japan and, before ever harbouring ambitions in law, had dreams of wowing the international stage as a prima ballerina.

In 1998, at age 14, Ito moved from Thailand (where her family was living) to Russia where she began training with the Bolshoi Ballet School.

Once the Putin Administration came into power, Russia’s visa restrictions for foreigners living and working in the country began to change, and Ito moved to France in 2004. Aged 20, with Japanese and Russian her primary languages, the young dancer devoted herself to learning all things French.

“Everywhere I have moved, I have tried to be as local as possible,” Ito says.

“My strategy was to be local. That’s how I adapted to each culture and country. When I moved to Russia, I tried to eat like the Russians, I tried to dress like them and speak like them.

“The moment I moved to France I completely forgot about Russian culture, and just adapted to French. I spoke like the French and ate like the French.”

Two years on, injuries forced Ito to retire from ballet and she returned to Japan knowing that reinvention was on the cards. When asked why she chose law, she says legal studies posed enough of a challenge to help her forget her dashed dreams of being a professional dancer. Besides, law was a great education for someone with Ito’s language skills to crack into diplomatic work. She would not allow a sporting injury to derail her chance at an international career.

“After I studied law in Japan, I joined the Foreign Ministry and then I was seconded to Sydney. That’s how I came to Australia,” Ito explains. “We have two years of diplomatic training so I decided to study a JD course at the University of NSW and I was admitted as a lawyer. Then I was assigned to the Japanese Embassy in Canberra.”

Ito joined HSF in 2015, at about the time the global law firm opened an Australia-Japan practice. It made sense for her to contribute to bridging the two nations in the business world since she had spent so much time doing just that in her previous role for the Japanese Government. However, fitting in culturally did not come as easily in Australia as it did with her past overseas relocations.

Ito says she found it difficult to speak up during meetings when other people spoke loudly. She adds that she struggled to find an Australian equivalent to the strict “hidden rules”, which instruct etiquette and conduct in Japanese society.

“I was kind of lost in the beginning. I thought there was a cultural challenge to overcome, but my colleagues said I just have to be as I am,” she says.

“The best advice I received from the firm was that it was okay to take it slow and to express my thinking in a way that I felt comfortable.”

If Ito finds she has not had an opportunity to add her two cents during a meeting, she approaches her managing partner afterwards and shares her ideas one-on-one. That the law firm has been able to accommodate her preference means HSF benefits from the unique value and cultural fluency she brings.

A few weeks ago, Ito received an email from a well-known Japanese company. The correspondence, written in Japanese, sought legal advice about a potential investment in Australia. Ito says the prospective client was looking for a native Japanese-speaker to help with their venture and had found her details online.

“I have received this kind of email more and more recently,” Ito says.

“The opportunities are there and clients are no longer white, English-native speakers. Our clients have become more and more diverse, linguistically and culturally.”

Most Japanese students study English as a second language in early high school but, according to Ito, while most Japanese people can listen in and follow English conversations, few feel confident to speak it.

“I think being bilingual in Japanese and English is quite important and useful in the legal industry,” she says.


Language is an important part of a broader suite of skills and knowledge required for developing “cultural intelligence” and achieving successful business outcomes.

More than words

While Ito’s assistance during meetings with Japanese counterparts helps bring clarity to translation (Ito also notes that Japanese spoken in a business context is different from informal, colloquial Japanese), she also has been able to guide Australian lawyers through expectations particular to Japanese culture. For instance, order and hierarchy are a key part of the Japanese business process, so care and time is given to meetings and the steps leading up to an approval.

“Meeting preparation is often quite time consuming from an Australian perspective, but it is quite important in Japanese culture,” Ito notes. “In the Japanese business context, it is important to make sure everything is on the agenda and they know the answers, and who will take the questions. It is very procedural but that is what clients value and, if that is so, why don’t we do it?”

According to Mukund Narayanamurti, the CEO of Asialink Business, language is an important part of a broader suite of skills and knowledge required for developing “cultural intelligence” and achieving successful business outcomes.

In 2012, a national strategy to develop an Asia capability workforce in Australia was devised. In that strategy, language was one of six individual capabilities identified as being critical to business success in Asia.

“In addition to language proficiency, these capabilities include attributes such as having a sophisticated knowledge of international markets, extensive on-the-ground experience, strong relationship-building skills, an ability to adapt quickly to local context, and the capacity to deal with local governments,” Narayanamurti says.

When Grey is asked if there is a single, classic text that captures her love for Mandarin, her response echoes some of the wider attributes for cultural intelligence identified by Asialink Business. It also motivates her to drop any embarrassment she may have about speaking incorrectly and just totally immerse herself in a foreign-speaking world.

“I have come at Chinese in its lived and modern form and that’s how I use it,” Grey says. “I sometimes read poems or books but it’s not my focus and it’s not my love. What I love about Chinese is using it to talk to real people about current things.”