The market has spoken. After thorough editorial survey and research, China Business Law Journal presents the elite lawyers in China’s legal market. Kevin Cheng reports

It has been an unusual year in many unusual ways. For some, 2022 was the cradle of opportunity, for many others, a trial by ordeal. But for good, or bad, and everything in between, we approach the year’s end with hope for the future, and gratitude for the people we trusted to sail beside us through the perilous tides.

Perhaps more than ever, companies navigating the myriad of worldwide uncertainties, from the pandemic to the looming recession, require the services of capable external advisers able to reliably provide professional support exactly when and where it is most direly needed.

The A-List recognises the private practising lawyers that have fulfilled this role most admirably over the past year.

Unprecedented market response

In our seven years of annual A-Lists, we have developed a tried-and-tested process to gauge and convey market opinions.

We reached out to more than 10,000 in-house counsel and corporate executives in China and around the world, partners at Chinese and international law firms, as well as legal professionals from a wide range of practices, asking them to recommend lawyers that they believe to be the most deserving of recognition.

All private practising lawyers for the China market were automatically eligible to be nominated. As usual, for considerations of neutrality, lawyers could not nominate themselves or their colleagues practising at the same law firm.

Expectations were high to begin with, but the fervent market reaction still left us overwhelmed, not to mention more than a little flattered. In the span of a few weeks, we received thousands of nominations, shattering all previous records.

During the next step, we contacted all nominated lawyers and invited them to submit further materials, including notable performances and significant deals conducted during the past 18 months, to help us make more informed decisions.

The final list is the aggregate result of market nominations, candidates’ own submitted supportive information, and independent research conducted by the editorial team. As usual, there is no fee consideration anywhere between being nominated to being included in the A-List.

The evaluation process was as eye-opening as it was difficult, as we were dazzled by the versatility and creativity displayed by candidates when advising on complex deals, defending clients’ rights and interests, and exploring rarely trodden paths to accommodate novel business forms, such as crypto assets and the metaverse, into the existing frameworks of compliance.

It was an encouraging reminder that, even in times of economic slowdown, China’s legal market remains a scene of robust growth. According to a recent market survey (see “Counting blessings” in China Business Law Journal, volume 13, issue 7), the median revenue of 66 law firms that disclosed their financial performance in 2021 increased by 8.6% year-on-year. The same survey also showed that, among the 78 law firms that shared relevant personnel data, the number of partners grew by 28% compared with the previous year.

In view of these new heights, we felt the time ripe for an expansion. This year, the A-List includes 150 practitioners of Chinese law and 120 international lawyers committed to China-related business.

We would like to share our heartfelt appreciation to all who participated in our market survey, as well as earnest congratulations to all winners.

Strength in diversity

Time and again, external legal counsel have proven themselves not just pundits of legal know-how, but also proficient in the language of a wide range of industries, enabling them to propose solutions that balance compliance and commercial viability. It is little surprise that when asked why endorse these particular lawyers, the corporate executives and in-house counsel have much to share.

Zhang Liang, the chief financial officer of Rainmed Medical, compliments Geng Ke, practice partner at the Beijing office of O’Melveny on his familiarity with the listing procedures of biotech companies in Hong Kong. Rainmed, a Suzhou-based vascular interventional robotics company, completed its H share IPO in July 2022 with Geng leading the team advising on Hong Kong and US law.

“Geng is a seasoned lawyer who has participated in the overseas listing of many Chinese pharmaceutical, medical and life science companies,” Zhang remarks. “His knowledge and experience are invaluable to biotech companies in China looking to go public.” More recently, Geng advised on the Hong Kong listing of Jenscare Scientific, a Ningbo-headquartered developer of innovative solutions for structured heart disease, in October.

While Geng’s lengthy dedication in the field may be difficult to match, success can also manifest as a swift rise to prominence, as was the case of Eric Chow, managing partner and namesake of Eric Chow & Co, in association with Commerce & Finance Law Offices.

Acknowledging Chow’s ability to provide not only legal advice, but also business insights and commercial solutions, Freeman Yeung, the CEO of Global Education Alliance, comments: “It is perhaps not surprising that his firm has become one of the most formidable IPO firms despite only having been established in Hong Kong just a few years ago.”

Similarly, Samson Ng, an executive director at Venus Sky Investment, marvels at the firm’s quick evolution from an IPO shop to a full-service provider with contentious and transactional practice groups under Chow’s leadership. “As society braces for the looming economic uncertainty, his decision to expand into the litigation sphere earlier this year demonstrates his ability to think ahead,” he says.

Steven Cao, general counsel of China Gezhouba Group Overseas Investment, is impressed with the performance in investment, M&A, corporate and high-end commerce of Zeng Zanxin, Beijing-based partner at Zhong Lun Law Firm. “During our co-operation, Zeng and his team demonstrated extraordinary professionalism and a prudent and responsive work ethic,” he says. Zeng advised on Gezhouba Group’s acquisition of 80% equity in Uzbekistan Hengyuan Cement located in Samarkand.

Projects along the “Belt and Road” put the versatility of lawyers to rigorous test, requiring simultaneously extensive insight into wildly different legal rule books across multiple jurisdictions, strenuous cultural barriers, and keen understanding in highly specialised industries, from raw materials and new energy to infrastructure.

Long Yanmei, a partner based in the Beijing head office of Jingtian & Gongcheng, is recognised as an expert in M&A of overseas natural resources and infrastructure construction and engineering. Zhang Jiangbo, legal director at Huayou Cobalt, describes Long as one of the few experienced elite lawyers simultaneously fluent in French, English, and the laws and practice of African countries.

“Long always has a quick and accurate grasp on the nature of the business and practice,” Zhang continues. “With her intuition and insight into clients’ needs, she is able to perfectly integrate legal services with business practice.”

When it comes to customs affairs, Reynolds Wang, general counsel at Atlas Copco China Investment, puts his trust in Tang Meng, a Shanghai-based senior partner at Joint-Win Partners. “With his seniority and capability in customs IP protection and dealing with violations, Tang provides the whole package of compliance advice and services to foreign companies, while maintaining sound communication with customs officials,” he says.

Integrated internet companies tend to have a high demand for IP legal services, with activities constantly pushing the boundaries of existing regulatory frameworks, raising new questions and setting new precedents. Acknowledging the challenge to compliance lawyers, Liang Xiao, the senior legal director of Zhongming Century Science and Technology, finds a trusted adviser in Bai Xiaoli, senior partner at DOCVIT Law Firm.

“Bai is open-minded, creative and dedicated, making her an ideal solver of complex issues,” he says. “Other than day-to-day legal matters and IP-related consultation, we have co-operated in a number of litigations.”

Bai’s ability to quickly pinpoint the key in lawsuits also left an impression with Liu Xingjun, the general counsel of Beijing Automobile Works. “We feel very reassured to have such an excellent lawyer by our side,” says Liu.

Spotlight on the global stage

The combination of China’s growing prominence in international trade and recent years of downturn in the macroeconomic and geopolitical landscape has added to the complexities of cross-border dealings, and in turn the likelihood of disputes, whether due to exhaustion of funding, supply chain blockage or sanctions.

The bright side is that lawyers well-prepared for these undesirable scenarios are given the opportunity to demonstrate their indispensable value.

Jason Sun, Beijing-based senior partner at Dentons China, specialises in international trade relief and is hailed as an expert on country-specific rules for trade remedies in sanctions against China. “Sun represented us in the anti-dumping investigations launched in South Africa against Chinese tyre companies,” shares Zhuang Wan, the legal director of the Jinyu Tyre Group. “Not only did he quickly address the queries of investigators, he also pointed out many irregularities in our operations and offered solutions.”

Sun Tian, a partner at the Beijing head office of DHH Law Firm, lends her proficiency in inbound and outbound government regulatory compliance to China State Shipbuilding Corporation (CSSC). Lai Meiping, associate general counsel at CSSC Huangpu Wenchong Shipbuilding, compliments her ability to resolve complex disputes. “Sun Tian has steered us through several cases triggered by trade regulations and advised on the establishment of our foreign-related compliance system, much to our satisfaction,” she says.

Furthermore, Sun provided similar foreign-related compliance consultation and training to the Shanghai Marine Diesel Engine Research Institute, another CSSC affiliate. “Even for schemes that we thought were perfectly formulated, she would find ways to keep improving upon them,” says Zhang Ling, general counsel of the institute.

The ability to provide legal support in more than one jurisdiction is highly valued by multinational companies. Su Yan, the Greater China and Mongolia general counsel of Coca-Cola, finds this quality in Ray Liu, global partner at Dorsey. “Liu provides very productive legal services by drawing on his rich experience in dispute resolution, international arbitration, and cross-border regulatory compliance both in China and the US,” she says.

Naming Edward Liu, a partner at the Hong Kong office of Haiwen & Partners, as one of the best lawyers in international arbitration and maritime trade in the entire Greater China region, Zheng Biao, a deputy general manager at Cosco (HK) Shipping, remarks: “He is one of the precious few dispute resolution-focused lawyers with a background in mainland China, gifted with a global vision, and qualified to practice in mainland China, Hong Kong and the UK.”

Wang Jun, a senior consultant practising at the Perth and Hong Kong offices of FitzGerald Lawyers, lent his services to Feida Environmental Science & Technology, a Shanghai-listed air pollution management firm based in Shaoxing, Zhejiang province, in a contract dispute arbitration in Singapore over an energy infrastructure project. Wang Jisong, general counsel at Feida, says: “Few lawyers practising at foreign law firms can be as seasoned in international arbitration and cross-border dispute resolution as Wang Jun, while being well-versed in the culture of Chinese companies.”

In July 2022, Chen Wei, a Beijing-based partner at JunHe, saw through three significant petrochemical deals between Ineos and Sinopec with an aggregate value of USD7 billion. “Chen helped Ineos close these transactions with his usual prudence, efficiency, professionalism and meticulous care,” says Elsie Ye, Shanghai-based regional manager of the chemical giant, “testifying to his ability to provide excellent legal services in large and complex cross-border M&A dealings.”

Helen Gu, general manager of the legal department of Sina Corporation, considers Heidi Chui, partner at Stevenson Wong & Co, a leading figure of the entire dispute resolution process. “Chui is highly experienced and skilled in cross-border dispute resolution and international arbitration,” she says. “Far from being an armchair strategist, she provides services and advice most pertinent to our actual needs.”

A friend in need

In our many years of surveying the legal market for the most recommended practitioners, we have observed that the key to the lawyer-client relationship is not always limited to the legal and business skills on display. Indeed, sometimes it is the lawyer’s charisma, eloquence, professionalism and diligence that leaves the deepest mark.

Jodie Hu, the general counsel at the National Silicon Industry Group, believes the rigorous, professional, flexible and open-minded ways of Gao Xiang, a Shanghai-based partner at AllBright Law Offices, helped him become a go-to lawyer in times of legal complications.

Liang Shuang, the director of the Tianjin office of Grandall Law Firm, acts as the perennial legal counsel to the Shijiazhuang-based CSPC Pharmaceutical Group. Jiang Hao, an executive director of the company, commends her ability to quickly apply legal knowledge to the specific risks in various industries and all types of companies, as well as her strong sense of responsibility.

“When Liang handles a project, we can always expect her to deliver the finest, uncompromised results,” he says.

Zeng Wenyu, chairman of BOSC Asset Management, praises the business mindset of Hong Liang, founding partner of Zhihe Partners, as well as his acute sense of and insight into the trends of policies. “Apart from advising on legal issues, Hong often shares his interpretations and guidance regarding the latest industry policies,” he says.

Chen Zhuo, a Beijing-based partner at Tian Yuan Law Firm, has advised CSC Financial on a number of disputes over margin trading and short selling deals. Shen Zhifeng, the legal and compliance manager, lauds Chen’s fruitful manner of communication and mastery in financial expertise. “We have come to greatly appreciate and trust in Chen’s thorough and sometimes out-of-the-box way of handling cases,” he says.

Rita Chan, the chief financial officer of Tamjai International, operator of the popular TamJai restaurant chain, endorses the leadership and service quality of Sherlyn Lau, Hong Kong-based partner at Sidley Austin. “[Lau] never compromises in her professionalism, and maintains high quality and standards,” she says.

The sentiment is echoed by Dong Liang, assistant president and general manager of the legal affairs department at Ronshine China, who says: “Even in times of great urgency, Lau always gives her all and refuses to let slip any opportunity to not only reach but surpass the client’s expected goals.”