After 19 years as a journalist, with most of that time spent in China, Katherine Wilhelm decided that it was time to look through a new lens at the changes China was undergoing, both economically and socially. The new framework she chose was law.
Having worked her way up the newspaper ladder (earning a Masters degree in journalism from Columbia along the way), Ms. Wilhelm was sent to Beijing in 1987 by the Associated Press. As a fluent Chinese speaker who also held a masters degree in East Asian studies, she was soon promoted to Beijing bureau chief at the unusually young age of 33.
At that time, says Ms. Wilhelm, China was still very much isolated from the world: for the average person, life had no international component, and trade was fairly restricted. "Only a foreigner could get hold of Time magazine," she recalls. Working first in China and then in Vietnam, she covered explosive changes, including seven weeks of student-led political protests in China's Tiananmen Square in 1989; Mongolia's "Velvet Revolution"—when the Communist Party gave up power in 1990; and the reestablishment of U.S.-Vietnam relations in 1996. In 1998, following a sabbatical as a John S. Knight Fellow at Stanford University, Ms. Wilhelm became a senior writer for the Far Eastern Economic Review. Although working as a journalist in China was always a delicate undertaking, it was fascinating, she says, watching people cope with the upheaval.
Why would a successful journalist pursue a legal career? "I'm a bit obsessed with China," says Ms. Wilhelm. "It's the most fascinating drama unfolding in the world today." Yet, "as a journalist you're always the outsider watching, especially in a country like China. I wanted to try another way of being and working in China and thought law would be a useful framework."
Indeed, as major law firms set up offices in China, there grew a need for American lawyers to work in them. The chief role for these firms, explains Ms. Wilhelm, is to help foreign companies do business in China, through joint ventures, for example, or to bring Chinese firms to the New York markets for bond and security issues.
Ms. Wilhelm chose Columbia Law School because of its strong international law offerings, and she has been consistently impressed with the breadth of those offerings. Two of her favorite courses have been a seminar on global governance taught by Professor Jose Alvarez ("We're talking about really cutting-edge issues in international law and have been exposed to a range of theories....") and Transnational Litigation taught by Professor George Bermann '75 LL.M. ("You learn what happens when you have a multinational company based in France that signs a contract in Switzerland, and there's a breach of contract in Florida....") Her favorite experience of all was taking part in The Philip C. Jessup International Law Moot Court competition.
Ms. Wilhelm kept in touch with issues related to China by taking several courses on Chinese law and through weekly events organized by the Center for Chinese Legal Studies and the Society for Chinese Law. And while she misses the drama of daily life in China, she is glad to have invited an big changes in her own life. "There's great freedom in taking such a leap," she says.