2021 ALB China Client Choice
For lawyers, it is the greatest honour to be recognized and praised by their clients. What factors do clients take into account when choosing their preferred lawyers? In what ways do these lawyers go the extra mile to satisfy their clients? With these questions in mind, ALB interviews a number of lawyers named on this year’s ALB China Client Choice list.
There are about 530,000 lawyers in China in 2021, and this number is expected to grow rapidly by tens of thousands every year. To deliver professional excellence in an increasingly competitive legal service market, more and more lawyers are coming back to the inherent nature of the legal profession: being a professional legal service provider.
From the nearly 2,000 responses to this year's Client Choice survey, we observe that clients also assessed lawyers using two metrics: Professionalism and quality of service.
Compared with previous years, this year's survey sees subtle changes in clients' assessing perspectives. In the past, clients recognized a lawyer's professional competence in a more generic way, but now they are able to pinpoint a lawyer's uniqueness. Some examples include "being able to spin out the logical implications of the legal aspects of a case,” "frequent involvement in legislative discussions, and deep domain area insight,” and "tackling commercial negotiations with an incisive understanding of human nature.”
In an era where client experience matters most, clients' expectations for lawyers are increasingly diversified. In addition to "being fast, efficient and patient,” lawyers are also expected to "have strong communication skills and be approachable.” Some respondents expect lawyers to "stand in clients' shoes and anticipate client needs,” and some may even require lawyers to be "of integrity.”
What do lawyers think about these expectations? As Ye Yusheng, partner of Jingtian & Gongcheng, who is on this year’s list, puts it: "The services provided by lawyers to clients are essentially about tailoring professional legal expertise to solutions that address clients' particular concerns.” Professional competence and good attitude are equally important.
If we were to describe the past year of post-pandemic life in one sentence, it might be "All that is solid melts into the air.” From the political and policy landscape to the socio-economic environment, everyone has been in the midst of unanticipated changes and lawyers are no exceptions. However, they need to embrace changes and explore new ways within the relatively fixed legal framework.
Yang Hui, senior partner of Dentons China and a native of Xi’an, the capital city of Shanxi province, has been serving the real estate market in the city and surrounding areas for the past 20 years. He tells ALB that the pandemic, changes in the way of working, and the stringent regulatory scrutiny of "houses for owner-occupation and not for flipping" and "three red lines,” have posed considerable challenges to real estate lawyers.
Yang gives an example of responding to changes with new ideas. In 2020, he and his team made a lot of efforts on M&A dispute resolution. If lawyers are to prevent lawsuits from causing an M&A deal to be mired in administrative penalties and long delays in going to market, they need to "adopt a variety of strategies, including fully communicating with the court in terms of the market landscape.” It is with such communications that in a dispute involving hundreds of millions of yuan, "the trial court gave an innovative preservation ruling, which facilitated the dual goals of dispute resolution and timely market listing for the client,” says Yang.
According to Zhang Jianlai, a partner of Sunshine Law Firm who specializes in engineering construction and environmental protection, changes can be both good and bad. For example, China’s post-pandemic focus on domestic circulation has brought about more opportunities for the infrastructure sector, but at the same time posed increasing challenges to lawyers doing international engineering projects. But ultimately benefits outweigh drawbacks, as "uncertain landscape changes will definitely lead to operational risks, which may eventually evolve into legal risks and disputes, prompting clients to increasingly turn to lawyers.”
Zhang admits that the nature of the legal profession makes it difficult for "lawyers to innovate themselves. Rather, they need to place more emphasis on innovative transaction models by clients or on the market … Lawyers can evaluate such innovative models under the existing legal system, and support innovative transactional structures by contracts or otherwise.” In addition, lawyers may "support innovation by being involved in legislative work or policy formulation to advance social progress.”
To Jeffery Guan, senior partner of Joint-win Partners and a consumer finance specialist, changes can train lawyers to be more discerning to identify and analyze what clients need at different stages, giving them the first-mover advantage.
For example, the quarantine and stop work measures at the outset of the pandemic adversely impacted the capabilities of some borrowers to repay their loans, causing difficulties in paying off existing loans upon maturity. Anticipating such a scenario, lawyers need to promptly communicate with bank clients. After the pandemic has been brought under control and social activities regained stability, consumer loan has become an important financing tool. In response, the consumer finance sector is embracing Internet technology, allowing borrowers to obtain loans faster and at a lower cost. At such a time, lawyers need to predict potential amplifying risks from such synergy.
Meanwhile, Zhang Zexian, senior partner of Beijing DHH Law Firm, believes the changing landscape prompts lawyers to continually upskill and take on new responsibilities. He cites two examples. One is that courts at all levels started to introduce virtual hearings amid the pandemic, and this brings "new challenges to lawyers such as to how to procure judges to have a quick grasp on the facts of a case, how to efficiently adduce evidence and conduct cross-examination, how to prepare well-structured legal instruments to fully express arguments?"
The other example relates to the real estate and engineering construction sector where Zhang Zexian is an expert. He noticed an array of issues hidden behind rising housing prices in the past year despite the pandemic driving down housing prices in some cities, which led to an increase in class-action lawsuits in the sector. In handling such lawsuits, lawyers need to "fulfill their obligations as legal practitioners, but should also take up the responsibility of resolving social conflicts.”
In addition to providing professional solutions to clients using their expertise, lawyers are delivering "intangible value" beyond the sphere of law, which is increasingly cherished by clients.
A capital markets expert, Ye first points out the importance of business acumen. According to him, "capital markets lawyers need to get fully acquainted with all aspects of a deal they are handling and the grounds on which the deal is structured, so that they may better support business designing from a legal perspective." This approach can be replicated elsewhere. "The right business mindset allows lawyers to explore business models from the perspectives of knowing your clients, honing services, seeking suitable models and building the right teams.”
Yang concurs. "Clients place more emphasis on a lawyer's skills to solve practical problems, including his/her business sense developed on the basis of legal expertise.” To develop such skills, "constant reflection remains an effective way, particularly when clients increasingly grow in size. Summarizing the mistakes made by each client during business activities is an effective way to avoid making the same mistakes with other clients."
The importance of technological literacy in serving clients is also not lost on this year's winners.
"The past year saw obvious changes in the way lawyers serve their clients," says Zhang Jianlai, "we have been increasingly adaptive to working and living online, and this has improved productivity. However, lawyers need to catch up in terms of responsiveness and use of Internet-based tools.”
Ye tells ALB that "providing technology-enabled services online will be an important change in the legal sector" going forward. He believes this will reshape the "service side" of the legal profession: "This requires lawyers to better manage clients both online and offline and build a closer relationship with clients, particularly in capital markets, investment and M&A areas that involve a large number of overseas clients. Smooth online communications and services, and better rapport with clients will be key.”
Zhang Zexian shares that, since the beginning of the pandemic, he and his team have tried various online office and conferencing tools to better serve clients. He observes that "virtual work capabilities and expressiveness in front of the camera play a bigger role for online work. Virtual work capabilities are the foundation for improving the efficiency and effectiveness of case handling, while expressiveness in front of the camera is vital to guarantee such efficiency and effectiveness.”
As lawyers embrace new technology, so do their clients. Therefore, lawyers also need to understand the technologies adopted by clients. Guan gives an example: he and his team regularly download the client-facing applications developed by their financial institution clients. "By downloading and browsing these apps, we can form a better understanding of the clients' business models and can also review the special compliance requirements governing financial institutions and whether there are any potential risks that may infringe upon financial consumers' interests or benefits from consumers' perspectives," says he.
While the past year and a half has broken from normalcy in many ways, most lawyers find themselves busier than before the pandemic. Many recent reports indicate that following a shift to online communication, lawyers are seeing more urgent requests from their clients, and thus getting increasingly burdened with heavier physical and mental stress.
"Very often lawyers have to change their mindset and normalize such stress in work,” Zhang Jianlai confesses, "For example, a client may sometimes call very late on a Saturday for a very pressing issue. Will you feel upset out of instinct, or will you put yourself in the client's shoes? If a lawyer is very willing to help clients solve problems, and deeply appreciative of the trust from clients, he/she will not feel so stressed."
"To cope with pressure, a lawyer has to keep learning, and keep anticipating and serving clients' future needs to the best of his/her ability," says Yang, "it is also important to develop a sense of happiness in this process."
Another way to manage stress, as Zhang Jianlai points out, is to realize that "you are not alone.” He shares a recent incident: In early June when Guangzhou and Shenzhen saw a new wave of COVID-19, a client in the northern city of Shijiazhuang asked his team to go there immediately for an urgent deal, while he and his team had to stay in Guangzhou.
"We were almost giving up, but finally we managed to send a colleague in Beijing to the client's place, which made the client extremely satisfied," he says. "The pandemic has made us deeply appreciative of the importance of a team. A team enables its members to withstand the changing landscape, and with support from the team, lawyers can better cope with stress."
Indeed, no one is an island. "The same applies to the legal profession, as no lawyer or law firm can fight alone as an island," says Ye. In addition to support within a firm, "Law firms and lawyers need to innovate collaboration across different practicing areas, geographical regions and segments, and respond to changes with solidarity.”
At the same time, lawyers are starting to realize that they are not just lawyers in their professional capacity but also individual persons, and exploring one's personality could eventually help with career advancement.
Yang tells ALB that he is learning to be an angel investor currently. "I've invested in several start-ups in big data, Internet and defence sectors, and learnt more about those sectors in the process. What matters is that these investments bring me the pleasure of being super focused."
In addition, "the constant fight with my son's homework is fun and helps me better control my emotions; it's also a good distraction to have a motorcycle driving license and own a motorcycle, as it makes you forget you're not a teenager anymore," he says.
Putting aside his role as a lawyer, Guan just wants to be an "ordinary person.” "I have seen many lawyers working too hard, struggling in work and even suffering from physical illness. An 'ordinary person' should participate in family events, develop hobbies, engage in daily entertainment and socialize with friends after work," says he.
"Many lawyers I know still have work in mind even during leisure activities. I suggest lawyers have an 'ordinary person' mentality so that they can enjoy themselves off work and fully relax both physically and mentally," says Guan.
"Recently 'involution' has become a buzzword, and indeed lawyers are prone to anxiety, " says Ye, "but I am rather optimistic. Lawyers excel because of professional expertise, and are therefore more resilient to risks. Lawyers can have many career choices. There is no need and no point to panic."
Ye says he is now more in search of "inner peace" in the post-pandemic era. "I unwind through hiking and reading, try to be a master of my emotions and time, and hope to achieve a good work-life balance.”
To the ranked lawyers, winning client praise never means slowing down their pace of moving forward. They are still facing challenges and dream big for the future.
Zhang Jianlai points out two challenges. One is the "low-price competition triggered by growingly intense competition in the legal service market.” He admits that the "legal service industry has not yet formed well-recognized service standards. Most clients have not developed any criteria to measure 'good services.’ Taking M&A deals in the new energy sector for example. Initially, law firms could charge over 100,000 yuan in fees, but now the quotes are down to 20,000 to 30,000 yuan in some cases, which could not even cover travel expenses. How could lawyers afford to deliver good services at such a low cost?"
The other challenge lies in team building. "The core asset of a law firm is its people, and it's getting increasingly difficult more than ever to recruit top talents," he says. "We also struggle in talent retention. I am more preoccupied with team building these days."
Zhang Zexian also has a lot to say about people. "Lawyers are increasingly involved in major and complicated cases in engineering construction, real estate, land and investment & financing, and clients are expecting more from their lawyers.” He is actively probing into issues such as "how to efficiently improve service capabilities of a team? How to ensure each case gets resolved with a high service level and quality? How to bring a better experience to clients and clear their anxieties in addition to delivering good outcomes?"
"I always think of delivering satisfactory services for clients, but often it is difficult to make clients satisfy," says Yang. Talking about the future, he still expects a lot from himself. "I expect myself to fearlessly embrace the Internet at the right time in this digital era, and resort to the Internet and big data to make both standardized and non-standardized practices more thoroughly market-oriented."
Zhang Jianlai likewise looks forward to further advancements in his career. "I want to grow professional expertise in environmental protection and infrastructure and win more recognition from clients and fellow lawyers. This is the greatest value of being a lawyer," says he.
Zhang Zexian hopes to contribute more to his team besides self-improvement. He envisions "building a team using the business partner mechanism so that team members have more sense of gain, happiness and achievement. I look forward to building an elite team in resolving major and complicated disputes in construction engineering, real estate, land, and investment and financing."
To contact the editorial team, please email ALBEditor@thomsonreuters.com.