2021 ALB China Top 15 Litigators
Despite the challenges in 2020, China’s litigators still achieved great results by winning positive results for their clients and delivering high-quality service experiences during the process. And with 2021 well and truly underway, these outstanding litigators are looking to an even brighter future.
The litigators ranked this year perfectly illustrate one word: Resilience. In spite of the enormous pressure COVID-19 pandemic placed on the industry, these lawyers continued to work efficiently, kept learning, and quickly accommodated themselves to the new working way – handling cases online. They not only obtained favourable judgments for their clients, but also provided them with excellent legal service experience. We talked with some of the winners to hear their views about changes and developments in the past year, and their expectations for the future.
The COVID-19 pandemic has had a profound and far-reaching impact on the litigation business. Given the pandemic, many cases handling procedures had to be delayed or even suspended during the first six months of 2020. But the lawyers never stop working actually. Yao Xiaomin, senior partner at Lantai Partners, says that she and her team used that period of time to carefully study the Civil Code, the Minutes of the National Work Meeting on Civil and Commercial Court Trials, and all related judicial interpretations. And every week, Yao organized her team members to share with each other what they have learnt and how they thought about it every week, to help all members continuously expand their knowledge reserves. Zhou Jinlong, senior partner at Hai Run Law Firm, tells ALB that during that time, his team did more in-depth researches on some specific issues in the practice, regularly wrote analysis articles, and then shared them with the whole team.
"We always quickly respond to the changes in client demand in the process of economic development. When our clients have problems related to performance of contracts, we immediately shifted our work focus from the design of contract terms, the design of transaction structure and the interpretation of contract terms, to helping our clients resolve contract performance-related risks, or sometimes helping them solve problems such as bankruptcy, restructuring and bond redemption. So, we always try to give our clients comprehensive solutions, instead of simply giving clients a pre-judgement on whether they can win the lawsuit."
—Yao Xiaomin, Lantai Partners
The COVID-19 pandemic also brought a lot of contract issues, especially the execution of contracts, which has led to a significant increase in contract dispute cases. These cases are usually very complex and involve many sectors and fields, posing greater requirements for lawyers. "We always quickly respond to the changes in client demand in the process of economic development. When our clients have problems related to performance of contracts, we immediately shifted our work focus from the design of contract terms, the design of transaction structure and the interpretation of contract terms, to helping our clients resolve contract performance-related risks, or sometimes helping them solve problems such as bankruptcy, restructuring and bond redemption. So, we always try to give our clients comprehensive solutions, instead of simply giving clients a pre-judgement on whether they can win the lawsuit," Yao says.
In response to the challenges, Sun Binbin, equity partner at Zhong Lun Law Firm, led his team to start internal business researches in line with the pace of legislation updates, since the beginning of 2020. Sun led his team to carefully study and different requirements and characteristics of the Supreme People's Court, as well as medium and high people's courts and arbitration institutions at different places in terms of the hearings of cases, and then optimized the norms and details of all types commercial cases undertaken by the team, thereby improving the quality of case handling. Furthermore, under Sun's leadership, the team implements an all-round agency strategy to effectively realize the demands of clients, and wins the continuous trust of many clients and great reputation in the industry.
"We believe that what makes a good dispute resolution lawyer is the accumulation of knowledge and work experience; and what makes a better dispute resolution lawyer is the continuous growth in expertise," Sun says.
In addition to the increase in the number of contract dispute cases, there have been many cases involving new types of disputes, says Zhang Guanglei, partner at Jingtian & Gongcheng. Although international commercial transactions reduced in number since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, the sudden changes in the market environment have led to many new types of disputes. For example, in investment and M&A transactions, Valuation Adjustment Mechanism (VAM) agreement conditions were triggered due to market factors, which led to a large number of related disputes; in international trade, disputes arising from the export of epidemic prevention supplies occurred frequently; and due to cancellation of international sports events, there were also many disputes related to venue leasing, ticket sales and commercial endorsement deals.
"Given that there are not many adjudication rules can be referred to, how to apply prevailing laws to effectively resolve disputes is a challenge faced by adjudicators. Therefore, dispute resolution lawyers need to carefully study the norms, legal principles, and practices, and conduct in-depth analysis of the adjudication principles of similar cases, so that they can present persuasive analysis and argumentation to help adjudicators seek new adjudication ideas."
—Zhang Guanglei, Jingtian & Gongcheng
"Given that there are not many adjudication rules can be referred to, how to apply prevailing laws to effectively resolve disputes is a challenge faced by adjudicators. Therefore, dispute resolution lawyers need to carefully study the norms, legal principles, and practices, and conduct an in-depth analysis of the adjudication principles of similar cases, so that they can present persuasive analysis and argumentation to help adjudicators seek new adjudication ideas," Zhang says.
In addition to the impact on business, the COVID-19 pandemic has also changed the way how litigation lawyers work –– handling cases online. Li Hao, senior partner at TianTong Law Firm, says that because of the pandemic, many dispute resolution agencies launched online systems, which have been widely used due to lockdowns and travel restrictions. More and more court sessions, conversations, and cross-examination are conducted online nowadays. It might bring permanent changes to the working mode of lawyers, requiring the legal industry to adapt quickly.
Wang Jialu, partner at Commerce & Finance Law Offices, echoes Li's opinion. He points out that online court sessions have already become a "new normal", posing new requirements for law firm and lawyers in terms of the way interacting with courts, and the office software and hardware environment.
It is not easy to change from having "arguments" face to face to doing it virtually. But the lawyers interviewed say that through quick adaptation and active adjustment, the work can still proceed in an orderly manner. Zhou led his team to conduct online imitation trials to help the team to get used to the new mode quickly. They also involved their clients into the online work to maintain close communication with them, letting their clients see that the related work was not stopped by the pandemic, and their lawyers were making thorough preparations for court sessions and making rational pre-judgements. These flexible working modes received positive responses from clients.
KEYS TO WIN
For litigation lawyers, the number of cases they win is one of the most direct assessment criteria, and even may have an impact on their sources of clients, and their reputation and industry influence. How to increase the "win rate" in trials and maximize possibility for clients to win cases? The lawyers interviewed share with us their experiences.
"The most important thing is that we must adhere to the logical approach of legal relations, the basis of claim rights and legal thinking, and make good use of the basis of claim rights and legal relations to handle cases, which can sometimes change the direction of the cases rather easily."
—Sun Binbin, Zhong Lun Law Firm
To win a case, it requires lawyers to have very solid basic skills, precise grasp of the facts of the cases, and careful attention to details. "The most important thing is that we must adhere to the logical approach of legal relations, the basis of claim rights and legal thinking, and make good use of the basis of claim rights and legal relations to handle cases, which can sometimes change the direction of the cases rather easily," Sun says.
Li points out that the results of a considerable number of cases are actually predictable. When handling those cases, the most important thing is to do everything in a careful and solid way to avoid mistakes. There are also cases in which the results are affected by factors such as facts, laws, and policies, and therefore unpredictable. But the value of lawyers' work is best manifested in such cases. When handling these cases, lawyers should try their best to dig out the details of the facts, and make sure the facts are solid and irrefutable.
Li shares with us one financial case he handled, in which he talked with all the relevant staff of the client who were involved in the transaction, from basic-level employees to the vice president, one by one, and then made a comparison tables to find different points, and verified the points one by one. "This kind of intricate work can minimize the uncertainty of the facts and lay a solid foundation for subsequent legal arguments," Li says.
Li also points out that as a litigation lawyer, court sessions are the key. When handling difficult cases, he and his team would first carry out imitation trials to test theories or experiment with each other, so as to find out the weak points and deficiencies, and carefully design each link in the court sessions. "Representing clients in litigation is a systematic work. An excellent lawyer needs have various abilities, to name a few, attentive, professional, good at expressing, and quick to respond. A litigation lawyer needs use all these abilities comprehensively to ascertain facts, solve problems, and ultimately win the lawsuit," Li summarizes.
Wang points to three elements of success: the party concerned has justifiable grounds, the lawyers are highly professional, and an agile team works efficiently.
Regarding the first element, Wang says: "many clients came to me to evaluate cases that have gone through the first and second instances. Some of the cases even have undergone retrial. In some cases, although the parties concerned have justifiable grounds, the court might not make corrections by revoking the judgement that has come into force, considering the "res judicata" of the effective judgment and the cost of making corrections; therefore, if the parties concerned continue with the legal process, and the probability of getting the court's support may only be 1%. But I often say that although it seems that there is only 1% chance of winning the case, if we give up, the probability of winning is zero. Therefore, for those difficult cases, if the party we represent wants to win the case, they must first find the right lawyers, and secondly, they must fully trust their lawyers' professionalism, and then they can initiate the procedures, formulate and implement plans, and then work toward the possibility of winning favourable results."
Then what makes a “right" lawyer, which comes to the second attribute in Wang’s theory: professional expertise. According to Wang, “Over the past few decades of practicing law, I have studied and evaluated thousands of litigation cases. There are cases where the client made an assertion on obviously reasonable grounds, however, the litigation ends without the desired result despite tedious efforts made from the first instance to retrial. Contrarily, some cases seemed beset with difficulties, but the claims filed by the client were supported, delivering satisfactory results. To conclude, the professional expertise of the attorney at law is crucial to the processing of litigation cases. A good attorney is required to develop excellent professional capabilities, have an awareness of the deals involved, and stay focused on the big picture. Keeping informed of the objectives of the client in a deal, an attorney could steer the case in the desired direction, which also enables him/her to, before the court, account for the evolution of the litigation as well as the intrinsic logic behind it. A good lawyer shall be adept in nimbly and swiftly capturing the core focus in a case, and rapidly identify a starting point and key clues amongst sheer volume of information and evidence.”
Taking of the third attribute – strong execution of the team, according to Wang, it requires the legal service team to stay abreast of the full picture on resource allocation, follow up with all steps and procedures involved in the litigation, and closely watch on each step, whilst assessing the cases and developing litigation plans are just early-stage actions. Besides, sometimes supervision over judicial practices by competent authorities and the news media plays a role, to some extent, in winning the cases.
PROCESS MATTERS TOO
In addition to obtaining favourable verdicts, clients have demanded, over recent years, a higher level of experience in the legal service process. As Sun puts it, "The legal profession, by its fundamental nature, is to render legal services to clients with professional approaches. As to the recipient of such services, that is, the clients, in addition to case outcomes, being informed of the evolution of the case and forging a sense of trust are also important metrics for assessing the legal services rendered." That said, maintaining good communication is increasingly critical to improved legal service experience.
Sun shares the practices among her team: "We need to exhaust all our efforts to obtain the most favourable outcomes for cases, and meanwhile giving clients a clear understanding of how cases are evolved. To this end, we need to pinpoint client requirements, keep clients informed of the developments of case handling, and guide clients to set accurate expectations as well as make prompt decisions referring to our extensive experiences and capabilities in handling litigation cases. We remain highly accountable to clients. We have won more trust and recognition from clients as this approach helps manage the full workflows, fostering our status among our clients as an important support force for business development and as a reliable dispute resolution expert.”
Li has acted likewise. As he puts it, "As a rule, I adhere to established workflows, and promptly report what I do in each step of representation to the clients. This will effectively calm clients as they may be at a loss about how legal representation works. Besides, it is also conducive to standardizing workflow processes among attorneys involved. Such way of working has been tested to be efficient, as evidenced by positive feedbacks from clients, and it does help reduce the cost of communication with clients, build trust with clients, and increase efficiency."
Zhang also emphasizes the importance of communication. He closely liaises with clients in his counselling work, and often answers the questions of clients with patience and efficiency. He always makes explanations to clients when and as needed in connection with developing case handling strategies, collecting evidence and drafting legal instruments, and seeks clients’ opinions.
"Maintaining good communication with clients is an ethical requirement for lawyers," Zhang said.
According to Yao, in addition to maintaining close communications, lawyers are encouraged to have clients deeply involved in the case handling process, and to have clients perceive the complexity of the cases involved, in the course of which litigation attorneys may be inspired by clients. This year, Yao and her team represented a bank in a litigation case. During their preparation for the lawsuit, the client came all the way from Kunming, and participated in the mock trials. The client, together with the team, studied the case, and listed out the arguments the other party could raise. The formal trial proceeded smoothly, and there were hardly any circumstances beyond what Yao and her team predicted, which greatly boosted the client’s confidence. In the end, Yao and her team won a favourable verdict for the client and gained increased trust from the client.
Zhou also agrees and exercises the practice of involving clients in the case discussion and prejudging process. He points out, "This may benefit us from two aspects: first, it mobilizes the clients to get involved, and second, it is easier to forge a closer tie with clients and facilitate in-depth communication. By doing so, clients may no longer take the final verdict as the sole and only basis to measure if the attorneys have dutifully performed their tasks.
LOOKING INTO THE FUTURE
Talking about future development, Sun said that in the coming years, commercial disputes are poised to be increasingly specialised and complicated in the context of improving the business climate and rapidly changing economic landscape. “We have always been committed to building a high-level professional dispute resolution team. To that end, we will constantly update professional expertise and skillsets, enhance professional responsiveness, and build extensive and wide-ranging practical experiences. Looking ahead, for purpose of better dispute resolution experience, my team and I will practice diversified dispute resolution paths in more complicated cases, offer a higher level of granularity in offering professional expertise needed in dispute resolution area, and therefore maintain the excellence of our dispute resolution team.”
In the future, Li will continue to be fully committed to dispute resolution practices that involve finance, corporate and guarantee areas. Following amendments to the Company Law this year, he will continue to study the practical issues in connection with the company law that comes to the fore and devotes his team to make both theoretical and practical progress in this area.
"I always have had the thought that lawyers, as part of the legal community, are able to and obliged to make some theoretical contributions." Li said.
Zhou hopes to make breakthroughs in work approaches to earn more business in the future, and also expects to communicate and cooperate more with peers and media. He adds: ”We are planning to launch a standardized legal service product for cases of the same type. For now, this idea is being contemplated, and it represents one of the focuses in our future researches.”
Zhang's plan incorporates both litigation practices and academic development. He says: "In the next five years, I will, as always, do my work well as a good litigator in the area of dispute resolution and endeavour to build a presence in the area of cross-border dispute resolution. Also, in my role as a law school mentor, I will do my best to share my knowledge and experience with students, help them gain an understanding and awareness of career features of a dispute resolution litigator, and address/alleviate the concerns in their career planning. Over the long run, I expect to gain an extensive impression among more people with my expertise and practices and contribute more to the development of cross-border dispute resolution sector in China."
Wang says, "After 30 years’ career as an attorney, what impresses me most is ‘quality service’ carries more weight than ‘innovation’. As far as business is concerned, it is always more important to retain existing clients than to acquire new ones; while in cases of team cultivation, a better talent cultivation and training plan focusing on existing team members always carries more weight than blindly expanding the team. For that reason, in the next 20 years and beyond, I will continue to train young litigators and develop a team force composed of outstanding litigation lawyers, and together with my team, fight for our clients in litigation cases even if the odds of winning is 1%. As for business development, we will adopt Internet technology means to create innovative ways of promoting, but at the same time avoiding overdoing so. Like I said, quality service carries more weight than innovation, and innovation should be based on quality service.”
Per Yao, she has been committed to building the best financial legal service team in the market and breaks down this target to concrete and individual tasks each year. Thanks to Lantai’s talent integration mechanism, litigation lawyers are sometimes involved in non-contentious transactions, and therefore have the opportunity to gain a deeper understanding of the sheer variety of existing financial products in the market as well as the legal relations behind them. Likewise, non-litigation lawyers who get involved in litigation cases will gain knowledge about areas that may lead to risks, and are therefore able to grasp the key points in drafting contracts, thus better avoiding risks. This approach of team integration helps Lantai leverage the strengths of both litigators and non-litigation lawyers and therefore establishes it position as a first-class financial legal service provider.
To contact the editorial team, please email ALBEditor@thomsonreuters.com.