After extensive research, China Business Law Journal presents its top private practice lawyers for China-related business. Luna Jin reports
It was a year that has stretched even the best of businesses, leaving entire industries and sectors struggling for survival. In the midst of the chaos, the best commercial lawyers have emerged as a force of composure and direction, anchoring their clients with advice and strategies that have smoothed the way through the worst of times.
Increasingly, the value of such professional services is being appreciated. China Business Law Journal conducted its annual survey and received nearly 2,000 recommendations from in-house counsel, business leaders and lawyers. Among them, we selected 200 elite lawyers for China-related practice, including 100 lawyers working in PRC firms and 100 in foreign firms.
A considerable number of nominations spared no words in expressing their gratitude and appreciation. The relationship between lawyers and in-house counsel, by virtue of these sincere accounts, is becoming stronger than the conventional definition, perhaps a result of being there for their clients when the chips were down.
The legal community is built on professionalism. As repeatedly refined terms in contracts, as delicate exchanges at the negotiation table, this professionalism forges experience and decisiveness that helps steer businesses through adversity.
As a legal expert in the culture, entertainment and media industry, Cherry Guo, a Beijing-based senior partner at Tiantai Law Firm, is recommended by Dong Peng, general counsel of KuGou, and Shi Xian, director of the legal department at CCTV Animation Group.
“[Guo has] unique experience on music, content and digital practice,” says Xue Jingmei, a senior counsel at Apple (China).
In the field of asset management and asset securitization, Wang Cheng, executive director of the investment banking department at CICC, was impressed by Qin Maoxian, a partner based in Beijing and Shanghai at Jingtian & Gongcheng, for his outstanding achievements and clear judgment. “In recent years, Qin has completed a number of asset securitisation projects with wide influence in the industry, showing exceptional professionalism and his client-oriented service philosophy,” says Wang.
The best lawyers in the industry often master knowledge beyond jurisdictions. In the area of antitrust and data protection, Michael Hu, general manager at JCDecaux China, says of Zhou Zhaofeng, the Beijing-based managing partner of Fieldfisher China: “He is one of the few Chinese lawyers who can advise clients on international scope. For example, he has advised us on GDPR [the EU General Data Protection Regulation] and Chinese data protection law.”
From the same field, Ken Dai, a partner at Dentons based in Shanghai, attaches great importance to transforming professional knowledge into suggestions that companies can actually implement. “Dai is one of our most trusted external lawyers,” says Yang Hualong, general counsel, Asia, for Mettler-Toledo.
“For the past years we have engaged him and his team for providing advice and guidance,” he says. “We appreciated very much Dai’s, and his team’s, great response and high quality. Dai is always energetic and supportive, and providing you with pragmatic advice to help you carry on.”
In terms of dispute resolution and debt disposal, Xu Bangwei, a partner at Jingtian & Gongcheng based in Beijing and Guangzhou, is recommended as “the top lawyer in the industry”, and what impresses his clients most is his determination.
Zhang Tingting, director of the legal department at Sinovac Biotech, says: “Xu is elegant, optimistic and confident, with spot-on analysis on cases, always to the point. He is abundant in practical experience and a bold decision-maker, and can give clients comprehensive, objective and pertinent legal opinions.”
First-class practitioners in the industry are good at breaking barriers and proactively building bridges with in-house counsel, and even business departments.
Feng Weili, an in-house counsel from Li Auto, recalls that at the beginning of a project, Zhang Yinying, a Beijing-based senior partner at Hengdu Law Firm, not only participated in intellectual property-related work including patent warning, patent retrieval, infringement risk prevention, patent mining and patent distribution, but also trained the in-house team on the co-operation protection of patents and trade secrets. “Zhang can communicate well with technical experts and explain legal issues clearly to them,” adds Feng.
Senior as they are, the best lawyers never make light of the basic work. As the saying goes, practice makes perfect, and this may be the only proper work ethic for lawyers to stay ahead.
Charles Chau, a partner at Jones Day in Hong Kong, is “highly sought after” on capital markets transactions. “He is very hands-on and is closely involved in the daily execution of transactions,” says Oscar Wu, head of corporate finance at Everbright Securities. “He is very focused and devoted to his work.”
Steven Kwok, executive director and head of the corporate finance department at CMBC Capital, agrees: “He [Chau] is hard-working and responsive. He is heavily involved in the whole process of the IPO. You do not expect a senior partner like him would attend printer sessions. We get a lot of partner time for our deals.”
Speaking of his experience of listing on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange earlier this year, Leo Tsai, chief financial officer at Peijia Medical, recommends Geng Ke, managing partner of the Beijing office at O’Melveny. “I can’t overemphasise how knowledgeable and helpful Geng was to Peijia during the listing process,” says Tsai. “His deep experience and intuitive knowledge about the China biotech industry is unlike anything I’ve seen in working with other law firms.”
In the same field of capital market, Zhou Xiaojie, compliance director of Sunac China, recommends Christopher Cheng, a Hong Kong-based partner at Sidley Austin. “As our perennial Hong Kong counsel, Cheng always provides us with extremely valuable legal advice with strong professionalism, in terms of mergers and acquisitions, financing and listing compliance.”
In the eyes of clients, lawyers’ dedication to their jobs is a quality that shines out. Zhang Guanglei, an equity partner at Jingtian & Gongcheng based in Beijing and Shenzhen, is highly trusted by clients in civil and commercial arbitration and litigation. “He is full of passion as well as perseverance in his area,” says Wang Xiaotian, treasury manager at Ping An Group. “The most honourable thing is that he still keeps and preserves optimism, idealism and passion for judicial fairness these days.”
Commercial lawyers are by no means simple and passive vendors of legal information. In practice, in addition to offering legal opinions, they are the glue that holds all parties together via co-ordination, communication and mediation, ultimately making deals or solving problems. The outstanding representatives always have a sense of service.
When recalling the company’s pre-IPO private equity financing, Zhang Zhuo, general counsel and special assistant to the CEO at Chinadata Group, says Steve Lin, a partner in the Beijing office of Kirkland & Ellis, is “strong in forward-looking and overall planning”, and has provided them with legal services throughout the project’s life cycle.
“The ownership structure of our company is rather complex. According to listing regulations, however, we needed to simplify, sort it out and explain it reasonably to the securities regulatory authorities,” says Zhang. “Lin managed to come up with a series of compliance schemes for us that fully meet the commercial requirements with his exquisite technique.
“Our listing also involves debt financing, restructuring, tax, US export management-related regulatory issues, etc. Because of certain individual shareholders, the listing process was time and again affected by uncertainties from US politics. Even so, Lin actively co-ordinated the various teams of Kirkland & Ellis (including government regulatory experts in the Washington office), and resolved issues in a timely manner. He communicated properly with the entire listing team, underwriters included, demonstrating strong leadership, which gave us a great sense of security.”
The more senior lawyers are, the better they are at putting themselves in the other side’s shoes. Jiang Ying, legal director at LEGO Group China, says Zhang Jian, a Beijing-based partner at Shihui Partners, “is particularly good at thinking from the perspective of the clients, and giving advice based on their business model in a holistic manner, with excellent communication and co-ordination skills”.
Li Yadi, legal director of the e-commerce platform Mia.com, also feels that Zhang’s legal services are very considered. “Zhang and his team are professional and enthusiastic,” says Li. “They are well able to look at things from our side, and offer appropriate suggestions.”
A good lawyer is to a company what a doctor is to a patient. Bi Liyan, head of the legal department at China Metallurgical Group, says Rose Zhu, a partner at Loeb & Loeb in Hong Kong, can quickly dive into her role and make a diagnosis based on the understanding of the business background, business model and transaction purpose, as well as identify risks in advance, put forward solutions and solve problems.
“Zhu is able to maintain good communication with clients, keeps diligent and dedicated, and gives feedback shortly after we state our needs,” says Bi. “For any project, Zhu’s ability to organise, co-ordinate and allocate resources for the lawyer team is also highly laudable.”
In the case of long-term clients, top lawyers’ services should fully integrate into all aspects of the company’s businesses. Yu Yinyan, executive vice president (legal, compliance and ethics) of Jaguar Land Rover (China) Investment, says over the course of several years of co-operation, Jackson Teng, a Shanghai-based senior partner at Zhonglun W&D Law Firm, along with his team, has regularly assisted the company to deal with a number of complex commercial disputes involving car dealers and sales, providing day-to-day legal advice, and dispatching a team of lawyers on site for the past two years.
“This is much more real and reliable than some legal advice and legal services that are limited to documents and texts,” says Yu.
Budget control for companies is another important aspect when it comes to service consciousness. Ke Lingjuan, deputy general manager of the legal compliance department of Sinosteel, recalls the first case she took on after her appointment, a major case that had been in litigation in Singapore for many years, when she contacted Sophia Feng, a Singapore-based international counsel at Allen & Gledhill, on the recommendation of her colleagues.
“She read the case file efficiently and completely while she was on a business trip, and gave us a precise judgment on the direction of the case, and proposed the most practical and effective solution for us, which was eventually resolved properly with minimal cost,” says Ke.
“Feng is familiar with both the Chinese and Western laws and cultural differences, and is able to put the interests of her Chinese clients first, and make good use of the diversified dispute resolution mechanism, which saves costs and time for companies.”
Quality service often comes from the years of experience that lawyers accumulate, and that experience is all the more rare when it is gained from cultural exchange. Lucy Hu, legal and compliance head at Carl Zeiss (Shanghai), describes Ulrike Glueck, managing partner of CMS China in Shanghai, as a “veteran lawyer advising foreign clients on their investment in China for more than 20 years, with strong experience in M&A, labour, tax and IP areas”.
Yang Yuhua, a partner of Llinks Law Offices based in Beijing and London, who is familiar with cross-border legal affairs between China and the UK, is highly recommended by clients and fellow practitioners from both countries.
Zheng Lu, deputy secretary general of the Chinese Softball Association, says as a national sports body, the association’s affairs involved are complicated and the requirements for law firms are relatively high. “We are offered high-quality services from Llinks, especially with Yang’s professionalism, which has given great assistance to our association,” says Zheng.
Having worked with Yang for many years, Nick Finlayson-Brown, a Cambridge-based partner at Mills & Reeve, says: “I am always confident that she will give my clients the very best legal and commercial service. She is very responsive, proactive and completely reliable. It is a pleasure to work with her and her colleagues.”
A lawyer’s understanding of business models and business logic is critical, in order to translate legal professionalism into the practical advice that clients need. Jia Hongyi, general counsel of Kuaishou Technology, says Andrew Zhang, a partner Commerce & Finance Law Offices in Beijing, and his team “have outstanding and comprehensive capabilities, and are able to provide clients with a holistic framework and solutions that are compliant, efficient and professional by combining legal approaches with accounting, tax and financial approaches from the perspective of clients’ business objectives.”
In addition to “strong business acumen”, three endorsements from Phoebe Tang, general counsel (greater China) for Danone Asia, to Carl Li, a Shanghai-based senior partner at AllBright Law Offices, are “good network, efficient service and fantastic solutions”.
In the midst of a global pandemic and Sino-US trade tensions, how have top lawyers helped clients in the financial industry? Li Chaotian, head of compliance at Cigna & CMB Asset Management Company, recommends Ray Liu, managing partner at the Beijing Office of Dorsey.
“Clients are extremely interested in obtaining professional and grounded legal advice and risk mitigation solutions, facing unexpected risks and uncertainties,” says Li. “With his professional ability, rich experience, and calm and steady working style, Liu has helped many Chinese and US companies walk out of unprecedented legal dilemmas.”
Chen Qinghua, deputy chief executive of Huarong investment, adds: “As an international lawyer focusing on foreign-related affairs, [Liu’s] unique background from an SOE and rich practice experience from New York on the one hand enable him to deeply understand the business needs and unique solutions for SEO related businesses, and on the other hand enable him to accurately understand the complex legal and commercial relations, manage Dorsey’s international team, and therefore provide high-quality local services. ”
Thoughtful lawyers are always one step ahead of their clients, which has earned Betty Yap, managing partner of Hong Kong office at Paul Weiss, multiple recommendations from clients in several top investment banks.
Liu Pengwei, managing director of Goldman Sachs, says: “Yap really stands out by considering all angles for her clients. She advises with very keen commercial sense, but it is always obvious she has already considered all legal pitfalls and risks before she puts forward her advice.”