A top economic performer among the provinces, Jiangsu is playing the right notes in eastern China’s legal market with the establishment of a third circuit court and other specialised tribunals. Sha Miao reports

As an integral part of the Yangtze River Delta Economic Zone, Jiangsu is among China’s most prosperous provinces, ranking the highest per capita GDP according to the Bureau of Statistics of Jiangsu province.

Jiangsu has been an affluent place since ancient times. The capital, Nanjing, was the seat of six dynasties that played an irreplaceable role in China’s history.

The province is surrounded by rivers and sea, which creates great potential for shipping, and being located next to Shanghai, Jiangsu makes the most of resources from the neighbourhood to optimise its industrial structure. Last year, its GDP reached RMB10.27 trillion (US$1.59 trillion), according to local authorities, second only to Guangdong among the provinces.

On the front lines

The legal market in Jiangsu clusters around Nanjing, and while traditionally serviced by local firms, an influx of national firms has been witnessed of late, especially after the Supreme People’s Court established the Third Circuit Court in the city in December 2016, and other specialised courts and tribunals such as the maritime and environmental resource courts.

The Third Circuit Court is among six set up across the country, and has jurisdiction in Jiangsu, Shanghai, Zhejiang, Fujian and Jiangxi – the main provinces and cities in the above-mentioned Yangtze economic zone.

These circuit courts are known as the “Supreme Court at people’s doorsteps”. As a result, according to a Supreme People’s Court report in 2020, the number of lawsuit-related visits to Beijing has dropped 71.8% compared to 2019, saving a lot of costs for petitioning.

“[The Third Circuit] is a dispute resolution centre in eastern China,” says Zhang Lijun, head of the executive committee of Nanjing-based Fadedongheng Law Firm. “Many law firms from other provinces have accelerated their expansion in Jiangsu [as a result].”

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Beijing-based Tiantong Law Firm, a litigation-focused firm, was one such outfit to set up its Nanjing office in June 2017, sensing a boom in the regional litigation market.

Wang Feng, the founding partner of the firm and the head of its Nanjing office, says corporate equity investment disputes, large-scale infrastructure project disputes, trade disputes, financial derivatives disputes, bankruptcy restructuring of large and medium-sized companies, and insurance disputes have all been active recently.

In January 2017, Jiangsu took the lead in setting up an intellectual property (IP) tribunal in Nanjing and Suzhou, becoming one of the first adjudication organs specialised in IP, and established in China, with cross-regional jurisdiction over patents and other technical cases.

According to a report released by the Jiangsu High Court in April 2020, the court received more than 20,000 IP rights cases in 2019, and the number of both accepted and concluded IP rights cases continued to rise steadily, a reflection of the region’s economic development and technological innovation capacity.

“Nanjing’s IP rights protection environment is well-rounded,” says Zhang Mingyuan, a partner at King & Wood Mallesons’ (KWM) Nanjing office. Apart from the IP tribunal, Zhang says the Nanjing Intellectual Property Protection Centre, which is under the Nanjing Municipal Market Supervision Administration, has also built a channel for fast pre-trial, confirmation and enforcement of patent rights in information technology, biomedicine and other fields.

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Other specialised courts set up in the province include the Nanjing Maritime Court, established in February 2019 to support Jiangsu’s port economy and shipping business, and the Nanjing Environmental Resource Court, opened in May 2019. The latter was the first such court in China, and is intended to strengthen the protection of the Yangtze River ecosystem.

Attracting talent

Like other coastal provinces and cities, Jiangsu has been developing its high-tech industries.

“Jiangsu originally focused on developing large-scale companies, but now it is more inclined to support the technology industry,” notes Jeffrey Wang, the managing partner of DeHeng Law Offices’ Nanjing office.

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Although most internet companies are headquartered in first-tier cities, internet and telecoms companies such as ByteDance, Huawei, Xiaomi, Jingdong and ZTE have chosen to set up large-scale R&D centres in Nanjing or Suzhou.

Talent is key to the competitiveness of high-tech companies. “Nanjing attracts professionals,” says DeHeng’s Wang. “In recent years, there is also a trend among professionals to settle down in second-tier cities like Nanjing, which has attracted companies, too.”

One reason for this trend appears to be quality of life. As Zhang, of Fadedongheng, notes: “Nanjing’s natural beauty, good business policies, enlightened government and superior legal environment” have caught the attention of top companies.

Suzhou, next to Shanghai, has a higher GDP than Nanjing. Since 2006, the China-Singapore Suzhou Industrial Park, a modern industrial township with Singapore’s investment backing, has been developing the biomedical industry, and now boasts more than 1,400 such companies.

To build an international biopharmaceutical industry, the Suzhou government has adopted several policy measures such as the Measures to Accelerate the High-quality Development of Biopharmaceutical Industry in Suzhou, and the Implementation Plan for Building a Landmark of Biopharmaceutical and Health Industry in Suzhou (2020-2030).

“Suzhou attaches great importance to the business environment … the city has many one-off policies for admission of outstanding companies,” says Gu Haixiao, a partner at KWM’s Suzhou office.

Gu adds that the integration of Yangtze economic zone, Suzhou’s deeper co-operation with Shanghai and Zhejiang, and the interoperability of policies between the regions have all helped improve the development of the biopharmaceutical industry.

Competitive landscape

According to a report by Jiangsu Lawyers Association, there were 35,000 lawyers in Jiangsu in 2020 working in about 2,000 law firms, 14 of which were employing more than 100 employees (five more than the previous year).

The fierce competition in this market has prompted Jiangsu lawyers to think about how they can establish a firm foothold locally, and be competitive with the big law firms in Beijing and Shanghai.

“We prefer to hire lawyers from a national law firm’s Nanjing branch,” says Bill Zhou, the chief risk officer of Nanjing-based Full-share Holdings, adding that he considers the quality and capability of lawyers, the resources of the platform, and the ability to deploy different teams such as litigation and taxation. If his company chooses local law firms in Jiangsu, it focuses more on the local resources of those firms, he adds.

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Fadedongheng Law Firm has been in Jiangsu for 41 years, Zhang says, and it embraces the competition emanating from an influx of lawyers outside Jiangsu.

“Regional law firms didn’t do much in areas such as compliance and international business, and lawyers outside Jiangsu may help them find the way,” says Zhang, who is also the vice president of Jiangsu Lawyers Association. He says the competition makes lawyers more aware of their shortcomings, and enables them to respond to the challenges quicker.

Hong Wei, a senior partner of Jincheng Tongda & Neal’s Nanjing office, believes that top law firms do well in high-end legal services such as banking and finance, capital markets, M&A, restructuring, and international trade, but local law firms still dominate traditional civil and commercial issues, criminal and administrative litigation.

The legal services market in Jiangsu remains behind Beijing, Shanghai and even Zhejiang province. Competition among firms is more intense in southern Jiangsu, and mainly in Nanjing, Suzhou and Changzhou.

At the end of 2020, there were nearly 6,000 lawyers in Suzhou and law firms there made a combined RMB2.8 billion in revenue last year, with an average per capita income of about RMB500,000, according to a market study by KWM.

“Most local law firms have a similar business structure, focusing on regular litigation business, and acting as external legal counsel to the companies,” says Gu, of KWM.

A Nanjing-based senior local lawyer who chose not to be named says preferential tax rates for law firms in Shanghai and Hainan have led to Jiangsu cases often leaking to these areas, making it difficult for local lawyers to survive.

The decline in clients’ willingness to pay has also challenged some law firms, and competition in the market has put law firms at risk of falling into low-price competition behaviour.

In choosing lawyers, Zhou from Fullshare Holdings focuses on the quality of the lawyer’s work, the time for feedback, and the lawyer’s ability to think and solve problems with a business mindset. He adds that lawyers are also working hard on localisation of high-end business, improvement of service quality, specialisation, and branding in all aspects of their businesses.

Cloudy outlook

Jiangsu’s private economy accounts for more than half of the province’s GDP, and in light of the many market changes in the past year, local lawyers have spotted potential risks in the region’s economy.

“The development of private enterprises in Jiangsu has not been very good recently,” says Zhang of Fadedongheng, adding that the outlook for traditional trading and real estate companies is not optimistic.

Zhang says several RMB100 billion private companies in Jiangsu are now in difficulty, partly because of a lack of core competitiveness, blind expansion and high debt levels.

Forest Ni, a senior partner at AllBright Law Offices’ Nanjing office, says the pandemic has stimulated a downward spiral in the real economy. “Many disputes have erupted over broken capital chains in transactions, which has also put pressure on right sholders to defend their rights,” he says.

However, there is also plenty of room for optimism. Hong, from Jincheng Tongda & Neal, says: “With the pandemic under control and the economy recovering, the direct financing market has boomed, and the volume of various types of bond issuances has increased.”

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Hong says the launch of various innovative financial products related to hot policy topics such as rural revitalisation, zero-carbon emissions, and emerging industries has significantly enhanced market dynamics.

Zhang, of King & Wood Mallesons, identifies new materials, semiconductors, biomedicine, software and information services, rail transportation, automobiles and accessories as some of the industries in the region with sound development prospects.

Looking into the future, “the most awaited news for Nanjing in 2021 is when the Nanjing metropolitan area development plan will be approved by the National Development and Reform Commission,” says Wang, of Tiantong Law Firm.

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“Infrastructure construction is the cornerstone and prerequisite for the implementation of the plan,” he says. “Transportation construction projects involving the Nanjing metropolitan area will account for a large part of the plan.”

An increasing awareness of compliance is also a trend observed by some lawyers. “The ultimate goal of compliance is the sustainable development of enterprises,” says Wang, of DeHeng Law Offices. He adds that changes in the legal and regulatory environment and international relations have impacted on the compliance area.