Women play a significant role in society and deserve to be recognised and celebrated in every industry. This year, ALB China's Top 15 Female Lawyers showcases exceptional lawyers acknowledged by the market for their outstanding contributions to the legal services sector. ALB engages in conversations with a few of these remarkable professionals to delve into their career trajectories, the hurdles female lawyers encounter, and their aspirations for future progression.
In recent years, the number of female lawyers in China's legal profession has been steadily increasing, and the male-to-female ratio among lawyers is trending towards greater balance. Despite the significant achievements of many female lawyers in their careers, a majority of them still encounter numerous challenges in their professional development.
Currently, more than 40 percent of lawyers in China's first-tier cities, including Shanghai, Guangzhou, and Shenzhen, are women. Data from the Shenzhen Lawyers Association, in fact, reveals a continuous increase in the proportion of female lawyers in Shenzhen since 2017. Additionally, half of the lawyers in second-tier cities like Dalian are women.
Catherine Shen, a partner at Commerce & Finance Law Offices, shared with ALB that she has been working as a lawyer for 18 years. Before joining the firm in 2018, she had worked at international law firms, multinational corporations, and domestic law firms, focusing on mergers and acquisitions (M&A), private equity, and foreign investment.
"In 2019, I helped an international investment institution complete a benchmark project, which was seen as the first investment in a data centre with a variable interest entity (VIE) structure. The deal was extremely difficult due to the complex transaction structure. I took the lead in providing high-quality and efficient legal services of international standard for this project, including designing the transaction structure, due diligence, and drafting, reviewing, and negotiating all the bilingual transaction documents. It was highly appreciated by the client," says Shen.
Since joining Commerce & Finance Law Offices in 2018, Shen has led her team in handling nearly 100 investment and acquisition projects in the field of new economy real estate. These projects encompass warehousing and logistics, data centres, biomedical industrial parks, and other industrial parks, serviced apartments, hotels, and commercial complexes, among others. The projects include not only asset-level investment and acquisition, but also the establishment of joint venture real estate investment platforms and equity financing for new economy infrastructure operators.
Grace Zheng is the senior partner at Co-effort Law Firm. She has been practicing in foreign-related matters since 1999, covering shipping logistics, ship financing, and foreign-related arbitration. Over the past 20 years of practice, she has acted as the legal advisor to many domestic and foreign import and export trading companies, financial institutions, financial leasing companies, shipping logistics enterprises, and ship repairing and building enterprises. Zheng has provided legal services involving international trade, ship financing, non-litigation projects in maritime logistics, as well as litigation and arbitration business.
Zheng has also won multiple awards for her outstanding performance. For instance, Zheng was selected as one of the first members of the young lawyer pool of the Shanghai Bar Association in 2010. In 2018, she was awarded the nomination prize for the Shanghai Outstanding Female Lawyer and was selected as one of the outstanding lawyers handling foreign-related matters worthy of recommendation for the 45th anniversary of China’s reform and opening up. Zheng believes that these awards validate her years of hard work.
In terms of theoretical research and legislative proposals, Zheng was invited to participate as an expert in the formulation of several regulations and policies and research topics, such as the formulation of the Measures of the People’s Republic of China on the Registration of Ships, as well as the revision of the Admiralty law by the Ministry of Transportation. Zheng was also appointed as an expert on the revision of the regulations of the registration of ships, as well as a legal advisor of the ship registration.
Zheng was entrusted by the China Maritime Arbitration Commission in 2014 to draft the standard format of ship financing and leasing contracts. It was completed in 2022 and officially released at the North Bund Forum in 2022.
"It was China’s first and only standard format of contract specialised for ship financing and leasing. With more than 100 pages, it is a detailed document that provides a universally accepted contract sample in the field of maritime finance and acts as China’s sample contract in international shipping," says Zheng.
Ma Zhe, the Executive Partner at Grandway Law Offices, has been with the firm since graduation and worked her way up from paralegal to associate and partner.
"Grandway Law Offices has always adhered to the mentorship mechanism. I received rigorous and professional training as well as friendships from my colleagues when I first joined the firm. I am also willing to pass on the tradition after becoming a senior lawyer," says Ma.
Regarding obtaining recognition from clients, Ma believes it is essential to see things from the client’s perspective. "Put yourself in the client’s shoes. When there is a conflict between the client's interests and your own, the client's interests are paramount. Additionally, you should not make moral or value judgments about the client and strictly adhere to your professional duties."
Paula Liu, a partner at Han Kun Law Offices, tells ALB that after graduating from Peking University Law School in 2001, she obtained her LL.M. and PhD in the U.S. and returned to China at the end of 2005. From her perspective, she was fortunate to start practicing in China at a time when cross-border M&A and private equity in the modern sense were beginning to emerge in the country.
Before joining Han Kun, she had been practicing in two reputable international law firms for more than ten years, focusing on private equity and M&A. Her years of experience have laid a solid foundation for her development.
“At that time, is still an imported product and a local newborn, and both investors and portfolio companies are in the process of figuring out. While international practices are useful as references, a great deal of localised exploration and thinking is required to make them commercially viable in the domestic environment. Thanks to my top-tier legal education background both in the U.S. and in China, I have been able to participate in this historical process and witness the localisation, maturation, and marketisation of private equity investment. During this process, I have come to realise that lawyers need to constantly refresh their knowledge structure to adapt to the changes. The completion of a pioneering transaction often means the opening up of new frontiers and opportunities for new business," says Liu.
Liu also points out that since transactions involve different areas, transactional lawyers should not limit themselves to a particular form of investment and M&A at a certain stage.
“Enterprises focus on different fields when they are at different stages of development. To grow with a company, a good transactional lawyer should be equipped with various transactional skills to match different needs of enterprises at different stages," Liu adds.
“As a transactional lawyer, you have to realise that you are not an expert in certain areas and need to seek help from experts. When working on a large project, you need to tap into different resources from various platforms and identify who is more specialised in specific areas,” says Liu.
“In addition, transactional lawyers need to be specialised and, to some extent, generalists, as a project may involve a range of issues such as intellectual property, dispute resolution, antitrust, compliance, tax, foreign exchange, etc. At the same time, it is important to have the ability to think through and pinpoint the issues and mobilise resources. The ability to take a holistic view, pinpoint issues and mobilise resources is equally important,” Liu adds.
Contrary to other lawyers, Cathy Fu, a senior partner at AllBright Law Offices, tells ALB that she started her career in a state-owned enterprise and worked there for several years. During that time, Fu worked with international accountants and lawyers and found their careers more challenging. Therefore, Fu aspired to pursue a career as a lawyer.
Fu passed the CPA exam in 1999 and resigned from a state-owned firm in 2000. She worked as an accountant at Pan-China Certified Public Accountants LLP for two years and then joined AllBright Law Offices to work as a lawyer.
“I have grown from a lawyer to a partner. Based on my experience of resigning from a state-owned company to become a lawyer, I believe that life is a journey. If you want to realise your dream and gain more experience, you have to dare to keep pushing yourself beyond your limits. It requires consistent studying and pushing yourself out of your comfort zone. Meanwhile, it is beneficial to have an excellent platform, and AllBright Law Offices provides such a good platform,” says Fu.
“When it comes to the work of lawyers, we have to uphold the spirit of professionalism and dedication and strive for the best results for each case, enabling us to grow faster.”
CHALLENGES AND ACHIEVEMENTS
Although these lawyers have achieved great success in their careers, they still face similar challenges in balancing family and work. Due to the demanding schedules of lawyers, Shen notes that her family time is limited, underscoring the importance of support from her partner.
“For a female lawyer who is also a mother, it's challenging compared to male lawyers, as women tend to focus more on their children’s education. Balancing between career and family is difficult, as I want to devote more time to my work but also spend quality time with my children,” says Fu.
As a mother of two, Fu suggests that female lawyers can make the most of their limited time with their children by engaging in meaningful activities. Fu mentions she has been engaging in parent-child reading since her kids were just a year old, fostering a strong reading habit that will benefit them throughout their lives.
“While we may feel anxious about not being able to be with our children all the time, we can guide them to explore the wider world by improving ourselves,” says Fu.
Zheng also believes that working as a female lawyer poses additional challenges. With the high work intensity and long hours, female lawyers must strive to balance their professional and personal lives, often making more sacrifices than in other professions. However, Zheng is driven by her passion for the legal profession and finds a strong sense of value in contributing to society.
“It’s necessary to thoroughly assess our personal circumstances and family support to decide whether to pursue a long-term career as a lawyer. But as long as we genuinely love the profession and commit ourselves to it, we can overcome the challenges,” says Zheng.
Despite the numerous challenges in pursuing a legal career, Shen believes that passion combined with persistence is crucial. "Lawyers need to amass value and experience. If we derive fulfilment from being lawyers, persistence is essential," says Shen.
Zheng has been actively involved in the legal profession, uniting lawyers and assisting those around her, believing this to be the direction female lawyers should strive towards.
On the first International Day for Women in Maritime by the International Maritime Organization (IMO), Zheng was invited to speak at the women's education and development forum, sharing experiences and suggestions for females on how to advance their careers in the maritime sector.
Additionally, Ma suggests that female lawyers need to reflect on their aspirations and how they want to shape their lives, incorporating their careers as a part of that vision.
“It’s easier to persevere when faced with adversity once we discover our interest in our career. It’s more about choosing between work and family rather than trying to balance them," says Ma.
Fu emphasises that female lawyers have their advantages. They tend to approach tasks with great care and exhibit a gentler demeanour when dealing with clients.
Moreover, lawyers are perpetual learners. Female lawyers should continuously expand their knowledge in various areas of legal services, including reading books, attending lectures, learning from peers and clients, and staying updated on current topics such as artificial intelligence, economic development, and international political situations.
“Being a lawyer requires us to possess more knowledge than our clients to serve them better. In each case, we should strive to give our best, accumulating experience and reputation day by day,” says Fu.
“I believe every accomplished female lawyer is not just a professional but also an adept manager of both her career and personal life. Discovering a harmonious balance between work and home is an art that requires lifelong practice,” says Liu.
On the other hand, women lawyers bring distinct strengths to the table. In transactions, their nuanced approach and empathy can offer deeper insights, often paving the way for solutions.
Therefore, Liu believes that lawyers should take their time in their career development and grow impatient. Doing everything quickly is not necessarily a good approach. Liu advocates leaving room for reflection and learning, which takes time. “Even though your progress may not be as swift as those who are constantly in a rush, you will stand firm, enabling you to soar higher once you take off in the future.”
Liu adds that the way to distinguish oneself from other lawyers is to become proficient in their field, something many lawyers have yet to achieve. She notes that currently, many lawyers are overly anxious, overly focusing on acquiring more clients when they reach a certain stage, neglecting fundamental issues.
“I believe good lawyers should immerse themselves in their work. Over time in the market, everyone will recognise you as a good lawyer, leading to more cases coming your way,” Liu says.
Despite their considerable achievements, these lawyers aspire to further advance their careers, having already set their career development plans and goals.
Ma hopes to continue serving her clients excellently and providing training to new lawyers. Leading her team, Ma aims to deliver emotional value to her clients, colleagues, and partners beyond her profession.
In the upcoming years, Fu will remain focused on legal services in dispute resolution, corporate bankruptcy, reorganisation, and liquidation. Simultaneously, she is eager to provide opportunities to diligent and motivated young individuals.
“It’s a challenging time for many companies due to the economic downturn. In the years ahead, I aim to integrate social resources to raise awareness of corporate rescue concepts and offer more bankruptcy training. As a lawyer, I strive to contribute to publicising bankruptcy concepts, enterprise rescue, social and economic transformation, and the establishment of a society based on the rule of law,” Fu emphasises.
In the next few years, Shen plans to intensify her efforts in M&A and private equity, as well as successfully complete some benchmark projects. Shen also aims to cultivate more exceptional lawyer talents with knowledge of both law and business.
Being a lawyer signifies more than just a job for Zheng; it embodies responsibility and commitment. Lawyers must treat each case with utmost seriousness, promote scientific legislation, nurture the legal talent pool, and provide public welfare services to both enterprises and individuals.
“A good lawyer should become a role model in the profession, demonstrating professional standards, ethical practice, and public services. I hope to persist in being righteous and steadfast, leading my team to better serve the community,” says Zheng.
In the future, Liu hopes to build a strong team of lawyers, continue to complete more landmark transactions in private equity and mergers and acquisitions.
Additionally, Liu hopes to continue contributing to the legal industry in China, particularly in cross-border M&A and private equity, especially in assisting clients to solve some structurally innovative, cutting-edge and challenging issues in the new market environment.
2023 ALB China Top 15 Female Lawyers
The 2023 ALB China Top 15 Female Lawyers ranking was open only to lawyers based in mainland China full-time. The list was chosen based on the following criteria:
1. Significant achievements;
2. Important deals or cases;
3. Key work done in the last 12 months;
4. Key clients;
5. Significant awards the candidate has received for work in the form of public recognition;
6. Comments from clients and colleagues.
参评2023 ALB China 十五佳女律师榜单的候选人需为常驻中国大陆工作的女律师，国籍不限。获奖名单按照下列标准选定：