After unprecedented market feedback and extensive editorial research, China Business Law Journal presents this year’s elite lawyers in the Chinese legal market. Kevin Cheng reports

This year has seen the obstinate pandemic largely under control in China but sporadically rearing its head, as well as the rapid intensification of the regulatory environment following a series of seismic legal shake-ups, creating a backdrop against which businesses are settling into irrevocably altered roles and facing unfamiliar challenges. For these reasons and more, external legal expertise from both domestic and international law firms is even more highly valued.

For the sixth year in a row, China Business Law Journal has reached out to legal practitioners, in-house counsel and corporate management, inviting nominations of private practice lawyers that, in their opinion, deserve recognition for their contribution and excellence over the past 18 months.

The response was on a scale that went beyond all expectations. The 200 elite lawyers in the A-List comprise 100 practitioners of Chinese law and 100 international lawyers committed to China-related businesses, and were selected after meticulous research from more than 2,000 nominations from across the globe.

STARRY SKIES

When asked to recommend lawyers who have lent their unique expertise and helped their client companies navigate through critical times, corporate counsel were fulsome in their praise.

Chen Wei, a Beijing-based partner at JunHe, received compliments from Huang Yeping, an executive director at Morgan Stanley, for his speciality in complex project structuring and delivery.

Chen was also described as “a great lawyer in the telecom sector and M&A-related sectors” and “a leading attorney in internet data centre (IDC) businesses” by Frank Fan, the operating director at I Squared Capital, a private equity firm focusing on global infrastructure investments headquartered in Miami.

Hu Jin, the president of Harbin Gloria Group, controlling shareholder of Shenzhen-listed Harbin Gloria Pharmaceutical, was impressed by the legal services provided by Jin Chengfeng, a Beijing-based partner at TianTong Law Firm, during the company’s strenuous bankruptcy and reorganisation.

“Jin is a highly professional and dedicated lawyer, one of the best that I’ve had the pleasure to work with,” says Hu.

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Joy Jiang, a senior legal manager of Xiaomi Mobile Software, considers Hu Gaochong, a partner at the Beijing head office of Zhonglun W&D Law Firm, a “trustworthy partner” and “an exceptional specialist in dispute resolution”.

“In lawsuits, Hu Gaochong can acutely identify the weak links of the adverse party and exploit them to his advantage, which often yields remarkable results,” says Jiang.

Hu Gaochong was further praised by Diao Yunyun, the legal director of Tencent, for his extensive experience in labour disputes, and by Gu Yajing, the legal director of BNP Paribas, for strong legal analytical ability.

With his expertise in overseas listing, Liu Zhenguo, managing director at the Shenzhen office of DeHeng Law Offices, managed to impress Jiang Keyang, board secretary and chief financial officer of Ming Yuan Cloud Group, a digital solution provider on the real estate value chain. “From setting up the overall overseas structure to streamlining our corporate history, Liu was instrumental in the company’s IPO in Hong Kong,” says Jiang.

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Zhang Tianyu, compliance manager at the London branch of China Merchants Bank, identified Paul Li, a partner at the London office of Zhong Lun Law Firm, as a highly qualified English Law lawyer with significant experience in the banking and financial sectors. Li is their long-term legal counsel in drafting, commenting on and negotiating syndicated and bilateral loans.

This has been a historical year for China’s legal practitioners for numerous reasons, beginning with the implementation of the nation’s first Civil Code, and followed by the step-by-step maturation of its comprehensive data regulation, with the Data Security Law taking effect in September and the Personal Information Protection Law two months later.

The upheavals in China’s legal landscape undoubtedly posed challenges to legal practitioners all around, but they also represented opportunities for the well-prepared. Li Chunyi, a partner at the Beijing head office of Zhongzi Law Office, proved to be one of them. “Proficient and responsive, Li Chunyi excels at locating the correct and feasible solution in complex situations,” says Wang Na, a legal manager at Beijing’s Capital Airport Holding, who also told us that Li hosted a number of Civil Code-themed training sessions for their subsidiaries.

On the frontier of data protection, Ramon Huang, a Shanghai-based senior partner at Hui Ye Law Firm, emerged as a trustworthy long-term solution provider on personal information security and data compliance for CloudWalk Technology, a Chinese developer of facial recognition software, according to Tao Fuwu, the general manager of its legal department.

Hannto Technology, an intelligent office hardware manufacturer and supplier in Shanghai, chose Yang Xun, a local partner at Llinks Law Office, to provide its legal counsel. “With profound insight in intellectual property protection and data security, Yang is able to stay on top of legal and economic developments,” says Lee Ying, chief of staff of Hannto. “He is always precise, timely and practical with his advice, safeguarding our company interests to the largest possible extent.”

Ramon Huang also provides regular legal counsel on personal information security and data compliance for CloudWalk Technology, a Chinese developer of facial recognition software, according to Tao Fuwu, the general manager of CloudWalk Technology’s legal department.

Intellectual property protection is another legal area that saw massive shifts in China during the year, for which Guan Rui, legal general manager at New Oriental Education and Technology, turns to Guo Chunfei, a senior partner at the Beijing office of Tiantai Law Firm. “Guo is extensively experienced in intellectual property, able to provide specialised and effective legal services,” says Guan.

Emil Zhang, director of the European IPR department of Huawei Technologies, gave high marks to Gao Xiang, a Shanghai-based partner at AllBright Law Offices, for his insights in intellectual property and key technologies. “Gao strategises from the client’s perspective, which often leads to him directing the client’s objectives to a satisfying conclusion.”

With mergers & acquisition, litigation and capital markets continuing to lead in practice areas in which the most A-List lawyers demonstrate the value of their services, legal counsel in more specialised or even niche areas can be extremely valuable but relatively hard to come by.

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“Not only a seasoned and certified expert on maritime and shipping, Loh has rich experience in the wider field of international trade,” says Wang Zhenming, general counsel of China International United Petroleum & Chemicals (Unipec), of Loh Wai Yue, partner and chief representative of the Beijing office of Ince & Co. “He targets clients’ needs with utter precision, is quick to come up with solutions, and exhibits maturity and professional merit in complex multi-jurisdictional disputes.”

In terms of the fast-growing life science industry, Zhou Zhenyang, deputy legal director of Roche Diagnostics (Shanghai) commends Katherine Wang, a Shanghai-based partner at Ropes & Gray, for her know-how in NMPA (National Medical Products Administration), HGRAC (Human Genetics Resources Administration of China) and healthcare data regulation, as well as her client-centric ethic.

Victor Gallo, general counsel at PlayAGS, was able to secure the expertise of Gao Jun, a partner at the Shanghai office of Zhong Lun Law Firm who, in addition to his corporate legal knowledge, was well-versed and up-to-date in China’s gambling laws. PlayAGS is a casino game and system developer, manufacturer and supplier headquartered in Las Vegas, Nevada.

In the cases of some lawyers, their path to excellence can be difficult to imitate. Victor Liu, senior director and senior legal counsel at NBA China, nominated Zou Wen, the founding partner of GEN Law Firm, believing that Zou’s unique experience as a former judge granted her intimate familiarity with the litigation process.

BEYOND LAWYERING

Intuitively, we attribute an in-depth understanding of legal provisions, the ability to stay one step ahead of industry shifts and turns, and wide-ranging practising experience as the top qualities embodied by an elite lawyer. But these are by no means the only aptitudes enabling lawyers to stand out.

“Zhang displays the highest level of professionalism, with strong ethics and a duty of care to the client that exceeds usual industry standards,” observes Nicholas Erekose Sim, the CEO of Fiduciary Securities (Hong Kong), who goes on to describe Chris Zhang, senior partner at Jincheng Tongda & Neal Law Firm to be “very driven, and despite a high level of success, works long hours every day and responds quickly and to the point”.

Assiduousness is a virtue to many companies in need of external legal services due to the potential workload involved, as was the case with Shanghai Film (Group) Corporation, which enlisted the help of Michael Liu, a senior partner at Dentons, for organising and streamlining their massive film and TV library.

“Liu has helped us organise over 1,500 films and TV products in the span of six months, which was a massive amount of work, unheard of in our company’s history,” says Peng Yong, the legal director. In addition, Liu prepared a detailed report with recommendations on future day-to-day copyright operations and security.

Michael Liu’s willingness to go the extra mile is a reminder of a lawyer’s fundamental role as problem solver.

Besides appreciating the legal analytical skills of Anthony McKenzie, Singapore-based managing partner and head of corporate at Carey Olsen, Alan Cheung, the general counsel of a family office, praises him for being able to “offer advice that not only weighs in on the pros and cons of some tricky issues but is commercially executable, even when it is not asked of him”.

Proficiency in communications, or people skills, is an area sometimes taken for granted but should never be underestimated in a lawyer’s work, especially when involving cross-jurisdiction disputes, where everything from linguistic and cultural barriers to politics threatens to get in the way.

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Ermanno Vitali enjoys a close working relationship with D’Andrea & Partners in his capacity as the CEO of FAAM China, praising Carlo D’Andrea, founder and managing partner of the international firm, as a “leading Italian lawyer” that “assists many Italian multinationals in their business in China”.

His commendation extends to Matteo Zhi, senior partner at D’Andrea based in Shanghai. “Matteo is one of the few Chinese lawyers who have studied in Italy and could work with the client directly in the Italian language,” says Vitali. “His deep knowledge in inter-cultural understanding always helps in important negotiations of cross-border transactions.”

The value of lawyers’ abilities to bring people together in spite of cultural and jurisdictional gaps has not gone unnoticed. Aaron Shao, the head of legal (Greater China) of Abbott, a US-headquartered multinational medical device and healthcare company, conveyed to us his high opinion on Tiana Zhang, a Shanghai-based litigation partner at Kirkland & Ellis.

“Tiana has an intimate understanding of law and culture in both the US and China, as well as extensive investigation and litigation experience in both jurisdictions,” he says. “She is perfectly positioned to work on matters that have potential cross-border legal implications.”

In inter-jurisdictional dealings, lawyers must be able to not only extend their expertise to a different set of rules and regulations, but also be able to switch their mindset at a moment’s notice. Rossana Chu, managing partner at LC Lawyers, is described as well-versed in both regards.

“Her understanding of Chinese institutions and culture, and the complexity involved, is unrivalled,” says Philip Ng, managing director and head of legal and compliance of CMB International.

Daphne Tse, CFO and company secretary of Greenheart Group, a Hong Kong-based multinational forestry company, echoes those sentiments. “[Chu’s] experience and knowledge give us a sense of confidence that a true professional is always standing shoulder to shoulder with us to safeguard our company’s interests.”

Professionalism, in the sense of both know-how and dedication, can work wonders in maintaining lawyer-client relationships. Wang Ran, head of China debt capital markets department at UBS, credits Renee Xiong, a partner at Sidley Austin’s Hong Kong office, as one of their most trustworthy long-term partners for her experience in the Asian capital market and her well-recognised professionalism.

A managing director of a top Asian research institution was likewise impressed by the attentiveness to detail of Bill Wu, managing partner at Hairuo & Partners in Shanghai. “Wu is highly empathetic,” he says. “He conveys both legal sense and sensibilities.”

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As the global economy continues to face uncertainties along numerous fronts, reliable and insightful legal counsel able to steer companies safely through the mist in a constructive, deliberate manner can exceed the face value of such services.

Alec Orudjev, general counsel of FT Global Capital, puts his trust and confidence in Justin Chen, founder and managing partner at PacGate Law Group, whom Orudjev describes as having a superb, highly effective and reassuring approach to client matters.

“In these volatile economic times and challenging global regulatory environment, Chen is one of a few outstanding legal professionals I feel comfortable turning to for advice and guidance on many complex, multi-faceted and time-sensitive matters,” says Orudjev.

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