In-house specialty


When speaking to legal professionals, we often hear of a certain partner at a law firm experiencing an unexpectedly difficult transitional period after becoming a corporate’s in-house counsel, even though the roles are assumed by many to be different in name only, but largely identical in function. This is due to the relatively subtle, unperceived differences between an in-house counsel and an external lawyer. Winny Zhang reports


reviously, China Business Law Journal unveiled the leading in-house counsel and corporate legal teams in the Chinese legal market, and we also surveyed them on their methods and strategies for striving for excellence, in order to unravel the necessary skills for their success.

We compared their feedback with the keywords for becoming an elite lawyer, as submitted by the A-List lawyers. Although there are many commonalities between the habits proposed by in-house counsel and practising lawyers, the former’s role as part of the corporation lends them a unique perspective. In this article, we will cover the chief skills required to succeed as an in-house counsel as compared to a lawyer at a law firm, both the common ground and the differences, in hopes that they provide insights for newcomers to the profession.


1.Excellent legal expertise

Almost half of the survey respondents point out that an excellent in-house counsel must have excellent legal expertise. Liu Li, director of legal compliance department at Thunder Software Technology, believes that “the greatest value of an in-house counsel is being able to combine business practice with professional legal knowledge, and then provide feasible solutions to prevent crises and mitigate risks.”


However, a general counsel’s practice is slightly different to that of lawyers, who tend to focus on a specific area, or specialty. Given that most enterprises involve laws in areas such as taxation, financing, compliance and in particular regulations related to their specific industries, Sun Chuntao, head of legal division, policy and regulation division at China State Shipbuilding, advises that: “[in-house counsel] should have comprehensive legal knowledge.”

As Chinese companies rapidly grow their businesses, with many expanding internationally in recent years, they have begun to face a growing number of foreign-related and cross-border challenges. Li Yupeng, general manager of Xiamen C&D’s legal department, says an in-house counsel must “have overseas legal expertise to help companies carry out business in foreign markets”.

2.Appetite for learning

The world of business world is ever-shifting, as are the regulations governing all activities. “You cannot find new land on an old map,” cautions Feng Liqiong, chief legal officer of BOE Technology Group. “In-house counsel should realise that experience can also be a trap, and must not be content with established opinions and past successes.” She says that in-house counsel should stay up to date with industry innovations, keeping up with business changes by constantly learning new things and broadening personal horizons.

In-house specialty Feng Liqiong

The mindset for constant improvement is not limited to the legal profession. Mou Nan, legal & compliance senior manager at Yangtze Green Fund, advises that in-house counsel should be able to “quickly grasp the knowledge of other professional fields”.

3.Colloquial communication

Liu Li, at Thunder Software Technology, points out the significant advantage offered by good communicative skills. “There is no shortage of talented minds with professional knowledge, but precious few of them can convey that knowledge effectively,” says Liu.

This begs the question, how exactly do in-house counsel communicate effectively? Several recipients of our In-house Counsel Awards promote the method of translating complex laws into layman’s terms. Marlene Toh, counsel of IBM (China), suggests to “present complicated matters in a simple way”.

In-house specialty Nancy Wei

Brian Chen, vice president and general counsel of Greater China at KONE, stresses that most of the communication targets of in-house counsel are not lawyers, while Nancy Wei, legal director of Tupperware China, recommends “translating legal concepts and requirements into common language for business teams to understand and get the point”.

Finally, Shawn Yun, senior vice president of legal compliance at Beijing International Resort Theme Park and Resort Management Branch, advises attention to attitude during discussions. “Keep a balance between empathy and assertiveness,” he says.


1. Corporate-oriented v client-oriented

Elite lawyers, according to our previous survey conducted on A-List winners, consider clients’ needs their top priority. But to an in-house counsel, of course, there is only one client: his or her own company.

Fan Linna, deputy head and general counsel of shipping finance at Bank of Communications Financial Leasing, says that an in-house counsel is no longer just a lawyer, but must “ensure the overall development of the [company’s] business” from a managerial perspective.

Song Hao, general legal counsel of Cowell Health Group, believes it is crucial “to be familiar with the industrial traits and logic of the [company’s] field of operation”.

Ma Lan, general counsel of QI-ANXIN Technology Group, says: “[In-house counsel should] develop insight into the business logic and model before evaluating legal risks and proposing practical solutions.”

In-house specialty Ma Lan

2. Holistic view

The work of an in-house counsel no longer revolves around litigation, but a trade-off between risk and profit to push a company to hit its profitability targets. Zhou Yongxin, the legal director of Beijing Xiaoguan Cha, advises: “Only with a sense of the bigger picture can we make the right decisions.”

Chen Lumin, legal director of Bilibili, believes that having a comprehensive awareness will certainly help in-house counsel stay one step ahead. “[In-house counsel] must anticipate any compliance issues ahead of the carrying out of the business.”

In-house specialty Chen Lumin

From the expanded perspective, a one-sided victory may not assuredly be the optimal solution for the company. “Have a win-win pattern and a way to think about problems, so as to facilitate transactions quickly and efficiently,” Li Yating checked, in-house legal counsel of Cowell Health Group, sums up thus.

3. Leadership skills

A law firm’s partner may have a team of a few dozen people, while an in-house counsel may potentially lead several times that number. Joe Zhou, head of the legal and compliance department and compliance director of CICC, has a team of 230 people in different countries and regions. To lead such a massive team, extraordinary leadership skills are indispensable.

In the past, in-house counsel was seen as the “firefighter” of the company, rarely taking the initiative to screen for existing loopholes prior to trouble. According to Shelly Huang, formerly the APAC deputy general counsel & China general counsel of Kimberly-Clark, the stereotype is being overturned. “Nowadays, legal counsel are more of an indispensable part of the core leadership involved in the strategic and managerial decisions,” she says.

Zhang Zuyuan, general counsel and chief compliance officer of BAIC Motor, believes that these leadership skills should include “system-building capabilities”. Brian Chen, at KONE, says the ability to “command the confidence of the senior members of the management team and the law department”.

In-house specialty Shelly HuangBusiness operations often involve various issues in different legal fields. “In addition to litigation, civil and commercial law, it is necessary to master various cross-domain knowledge such as financial compliance, antitrust and anti-money laundering,” says Yu Shixuan, the officer in charge of legal and compliance division at CCB International (China).

As an in-house counsel for a commercial organisation, a business application mindset is essential. “Apart from ensuring legality, we must also enable our legal work to serve the business,” says Gong Lin, general manager of the legal centre of A-Living Smart City Services. “We serve the company’s development strategy to deliver the multiple values in law and business.”

While there are concerns that over-reliance on in-house counsel in commercial considerations would compromise their professionalism, Allen Liang, general counsel at Sembcorp (China), disagrees, referring to his own path of growth. Liang says he once was confined within legal compliance and had a relatively narrow perspective until he strengthened communication with his company’s commercial and financial departments in recent years. These changes helped him “remain practical to the nature of the business, thus better able to promote transactions on the basis of risk prevention”.

In-house specialty Gong Lin

4. Management of compliance risks

In 2018, two Chinese tech giants, Huawei and ZTE, were sanctioned by the US, triggering Chinese corporates’ unprecedented emphasis on overseas compliance. China’s authorities also enhanced regulation, initiating investigations on leading companies for monopoly, overseas listings and data protection. The ramifications were keenly felt by most legal counsel, with nearly 70% of the feedback mentioning the importance of “compliance”.

Zhang Hantao, deputy general counsel and director of Harbin Electric International, says: “With greater importance of corporate compliance, compliance management has become an essential part of an in-house counsel’s responsibility and a new challenging area of business.”

In keeping with the trend, Zhao Li, vice general manager of the legal and compliance department of Chenxifunds, says her work pattern has changed from being reactive to proactive. “We provide professional legal advice at the early stage of a project to avoid risks,” she says.

Given the increasingly complex geopolitical environment, Tencent’s senior legal counsel, He Huanhao, says in-house counsel must have a “comprehensive knowledge of domestic and foreign regulations”, and adjust focus depending on the industry in which the company is investing. “For example, which industry requires us to focus on compliance risks of commercial bribery, and which highlights the compliance risks of personal information protection.”

In-house specialty Zhang Hantao

5. A transformation

With more responsibility taken on comes higher requirements for professional capabilities. Zhang Jiangbo, legal director of Zhejiang Huayou Cobalt, says that in-house counsel in general “have transformed from being transaction-oriented to management-oriented, from cost controllers to value creators, and from day-to-day operators to strategic planners”.

The inspirational news of Julie Gao, the former senior partner at Skadden, joining ByteDance as its chief financial officer, also demonstrates that an accomplished lawyer can be a suitable candidate for corporate senior management, and in-house counsel is hardly the only option for lawyers wishing for a change of scenery. subscripton ad red 2022