Private firms are teaming up with the Federal Government to equip Chinese legal leaders with an insight into the Australian legal profession. Alex Boxsell reports
A SELECT group of 10 Chinese lawyers will spend the next four months learning everything they can about the Australian legal industry in an initiative designed to strengthen bonds between the two countries.
And with the relatively young legal system in China being inundated by foreign firms eager to develop extensive networks in the country, there has never been a better time to solidify a professional relationship on a formal basis.
Through placements in Australian firms, as well as government departments, regulatory bodies, law societies and law schools, the visiting lawyers will be exposed to a wide variety of legal experiences under the Australia-China Legal Profession Development Program.
The federal Attorney-General Philip Ruddock’s department has spearheaded the program in conjunction with the Law Council of Australia (LCA) and others. Although such placements have occurred on occasion on a privately funded basis in the past, this is the first program to be fully resourced with government funds.
AusAID (the Australian Agency for International Development) has sponsored every member of the group. Six are experienced practitioners invited to the country under the Australian leadership awards fellowships program, while the remaining four are younger lawyers selected under the China-Australia governance program.
With offices in Shanghai and Hong Kong, Minter Ellison is one of the large Australian firms offering a position to a member of the Chinese delegation.
Special counsel Andrew Thomson, who himself speaks Mandarin, recently introduced Sun Qingan — a corporate lawyer from Dacheng Law Firm in Shanghai — to the inner workings of Minters’ Melbourne office.
“We are going to help her go through some transactional work, and certainly drafting, and give her the opportunity to drill into some areas of Australian legal research that she wants to,” he said.
Having been involved with comparable programs during a career in politics, Thomson described this as a “great leap forward in Chinese-Australian relations”.
“I was Minister for Sport and Olympics for a couple of years before the Sydney Games, and we had these sorts of exchanges with the Chinese bureaucracy in sport and anti-doping co-operation and things like that,” he said.
“But this is another leap forward because it’s law firms. It’s not some government lawyer coming out for a bit of a look around — it’s the real deal.”
Allens Arthur Robinson’s Melbourne office has confirmed a placement with Fu Shuang Ye, chairwoman of partners of Zhong Hao Attorneys atLaw in Beijing.
Jim Dunstan, the executive partner in charge of Allens’ Asian operations, said the firm has offered similar placements before but never as part of a formal government-funded program.
“It’s a novel concept and quite an interesting one, because it enables a number of different firms to build connections with the Chinese legal profession,” Dunstan said.
A critical method of developing knowledge of any jurisdiction involves “getting to know people in the legal profession, particularly people who are likely to be of importance and influential in the profession as the years go on”, he said.
But China is not just any jurisdiction, and Dunstan sees an enormous future for Allens on the back of its offices in Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong.
“We’re going through an expansion of our Beijing office … it is increasing in size significantly in the next few months,” he said. “We’re lucky in the sense that we have been there comparatively a long time. If you have got a team of people who have been there for quite a period of time, then you are in a very strong position.”
With the pool of legal work growing at an amazing rate, Dunstan believes foreign law firms are probably the largest entrants in China in terms of number of any business at the moment. “They’re coming by the busload,” he said.
The timing of this program is therefore vital. Ruddock hopes it will foster trust and understanding between the two nations, and that the Chinese delegates will act as ambassadors for Australia’s legal sector on their return to China.
And with a four-month placement, Dunstan said the period should provide enough time to give the lawyers a good impression of how sophisticated Australian firms operate.
Partner Kevin Hopgood-Brown began a relationship with the Chinese profession on behalf of Deacons back in 1983, when he taught in the law faculty of Beijing University. The firm now has a significant presence in China, with offices in Hong Kong, Shanghai, Beijing and Guangzhou.
“As China has become one of Australia’s most important trade and investment partners, it is important that our two legal professions work together as closely as possible,” he said.
The advantage of the program in his mind is that it “provides the opportunity for lawyers and organisations who might not otherwise have the chance to work together to develop relationships while at the same time learning more about each other’s systems”.
“China already has some of the best lawyers in the world, but the legal profession is still developing and expanding,” Hopgood-Brown said. “It is now, and will continue to be, one of the most important legal markets in the world and we look forward to deepening our ties with our Chinese colleagues.”
President of the LCA, Tim Bugg, who hosted the visiting lawyers at a dinner last week, said not only are they keen to learn from the Australian profession, but there is a great deal that can be learnt from them about their own.
Bugg was a member of the Australian Legal Services Mission to China, led by Ruddock, in July 2006. With approximately 30 delegates, he said it was “by far the largest and most intensive” delegation of its kind ever to hit China’s shores. This April Bugg will lead a LCA delegation that will return to the country to build on what was achieved last year.
“At this stage we are planning to hold seminars in both Shanghai and Beijing for local practitioners to talk about practice by Australian lawyers in China and vice versa,” Bugg said.
The delegation will also discuss “aspects of legal practice here, particularly legal practice management, which Australian firms have been very much involved in for a number of years at a very sophisticated level”.
Bugg said the LCA already has a very strong relationship with the China Law Society and the All China Lawyers Association. But he stressed the relationship must be maintained, for the importance of the role Chinese lawyers play in one of the fastest growing economies in the world cannot be underestimated.
Following the low regard with which they were held during the Cultural Revolution, lawyers “are now considered to be a very important part of the fabric of China, particularly in assisting with the development of China and involvement in business”, Bugg said.
“And it is important to keep in mind that the Chinese legal profession is a relatively young one. The oldest law firm in Beijing, for example, was established in 1979.”
The program and upcoming trip to China is just one of many initiatives the LCA is involved in concerning the strengthening of ties with foreign jurisdictions.
Efforts to receive funding for a visit of members of the South Pacific bars have progressed, while a contingent of US lawyers visited Canberra this week to discuss legal services in the US ahead of the Australian Legal Convention.
The sponsorships under the current program are part of an $8 million AusAID fellowships program that will see 370 professional leaders from all over the Asia-Pacific region visit Australia.
“They will draw on the skills and knowledge acquired during their time in Australia to shape social and economic policy and encourage development in their own countries,” Parliamentary Secretary of Foreign Affairs, Greg Hunt, said.
Also visiting Australia is Cai Peng (intellectual property lawyer from Zhonglun W&D Law Firm in Beijing); Dr Chen Xuebin (managing partner at Asia-Pacific Great Wall Law Firm and head of a branch office in Shanghai and Nanjing); Li Xin (division director of the International Judicial Cooperation Department of the Supreme Prosecution Service); Xie Yongfa (divisional director of the Investment Promotion Division of the Hebei Provincial Department of Commerce); and Judge Yang Honglei (of the Supreme People’s Court).
The younger lawyers also include Chen Dong (of the Urumqi Legal Aid Centre, in Xin Jiang); Gao Hui (who has six years’ experience in company and securities law at Xin Jiang Tian Yang Law Firm); and Zeng Fen (of the Beijing Municipal Lawyers Association).