Foreign cases raise bar for lawyers

Updated: 2015-06-03 07:39

By Cao Yin in London(China Daily)

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Language skills, knowledge of Western systems needed as companies expand

Liu Honghui recalled both the excitement and the apprehension of the latest legal cooperation with one of the largest Chinese-American associations during his trip to the United States in April.

Regarding the language differences involved, Liu, a lawyer from the Jing Shi Law Firm in Beijing, said: "It's hard and nerve-racking to speak with Chinese-Americans, let alone the foreigners around them. Although I have five years' experience in dealing with foreign-related disputes, it's still a problem to communicate with foreign litigants without language aids."

Liu said his problem is shared by many other Chinese attorneys, especially when they want to practice overseas.

"We can read and take time to learn legal materials in English, but we find it difficult to speak to foreign counterparts," he said.

The number of Chinese lawyers has been increasing in recent years, reaching 271,000 last year, according to the latest statistics from the Ministry of Justice.

"Less than 10 percent of them can really handle foreign-related disputes and affairs," Liu said.

Few Chinese attorneys have knowledge of foreign law or foreign language skills, he said, and the problem has become more pressing as more Chinese enterprises are extending their business in Western countries.

Some law firms and the Supreme People's Court have taken measures to provide better legal services for Chinese companies operating abroad and to effectively handle foreign-related disputes.

The top court established a talent database of judges last year and now has 430 judges who are able to handle foreign-related cases and communicate with foreign litigants.

"We collect information on judges with the ability to speak English and experience in dealing with foreign cases, aiming to know our nationwide team of judges make full use of our resources when we have international cases," an official of the top court said.

Liu's firm is sending more lawyers abroad, providing them with the opportunity to speak with foreigners.

However, Yang Lin, head of the international office at Ying Ke Law Firm, said she does not think language is the major barrier when Chinese lawyers take foreign-related cases or extend their legal business overseas.

In Yang's eyes, the key for Chinese judicial officers in dealing with foreign-related cases is to adapt to foreign legal environments, and then narrow the cultural gap between China and Western countries.

Yang said it's more important to encourage Chinese lawyers going abroad to understand the judicial procedures and business cultures of Western countries.

"It's not hard to find a lawyer who can speak English in China, but those who have experience in dealing with foreign-related cases and a knowledge of foreign business culture are seldom seen," she said.

A finance lawyer in London said many issues between Chinese and Western companies stem from basic misunderstandings.

"A willingness to adapt their business approach to suit the people they are dealing with is essential; otherwise there will always be tension," she said.

Li Mingquan, a lawyer in charge of business in London at the Ying Ke Law Firm, said her company has provided legal services in Britain for Chinese enterprises ready to set up abroad.

"We've hired four lawyers with knowledge of UK legal procedures in investment, and they fit in very well, reducing unnecessary misunderstandings for Chinese companies extending overseas," Li said.

But she added that legal talent familiar with foreign business culture is difficult to find and that such lawyers often demand higher pay.

After China joined the World Trade Organization in 2001 and its economy climbed higher in the world rankings, more Chinese enterprises wanted to go abroad and deal with foreign companies, "which has not only brought opportunities but also disputes", said Liu.

Solving such disputes demands lawyers who know foreign law and can talk with their foreign counterparts.

Now, many Chinese law firms are longing for international assignments, hoping to develop a reputation and establish a better image overseas.

"We are seeking capable talent and researching foreign markets," he said.

His firm is considering opening an office in Britain to handle the rising number of commercial cases in Europe and provide legal services to Chinese companies entering the market.

He said he was pleased to see the Chinese leadership establish a team of lawyers to solve foreign-related cases and encourage more Chinese attorneys to go abroad in the Fourth Plenum of the 18th CPC Central Committee in October.

"We need to find talent with experience in dealing with foreign-related disputes for more than five years or with experience studying law overseas, and we'll provide them training abroad," he said.

Liu's firm has nearly 30 lawyers who meet this talent requirement, and it sends them to study abroad for three to six months to boost their language skills and knowledge of the foreign legal environment.

Chinese courts are also educating bilingual judicial talent to deal with the increasing number of foreign-related cases.

Since Zhou Qiang was appointed top judge in 2013, legal cooperation and foreign issues have been highlighted. Last year, the Supreme People's Court produced an English version of its work report and said it will publish versions in more languages in the future.

The court has often relied on international publishing departments to translate legal papers, which is a time-consuming process because most nonlegal officers cannot understand judicial documents. Therefore, the move got underway to build a judicial team with foreign language proficiency.

Liu Li, a judge specializing in hearing foreign-related civil cases at the Chaoyang District People's Court in Beijing, said the key for Chinese judges dealing with foreign disputes is a better understanding of foreign laws and different legal backgrounds.

(China Daily 06/03/2015 page5)