Modern legal profession in China is only 35 years old

Modern legal profession in China is only 35 years old

Peng Xuefeng, founder and chairman of Dacheng Law Offices. (Photo: Peggy McInerny/UCLA.)

The rapidly growing legal profession in China is exerting a profound influence on the country's economy, society and politics, says Peng Xuefeng, chairman of the Beijing-based Dacheng Law Offices.

Peng attributed the explosive growth of the legal profession to China's rapid economic growth, spurred by the country's opening to the world and adoption of market reforms.

UCLA International Institute, January 28, 2014 — Rapid economic development is driving the expansion of the legal profession in China, which in turn is contributing to the rule of law in the country, said Peng Xuefeng, founder and chairman of the largest law firm in Asia.

Speaking through an interpreter at an event cosponsored by the UCLA Center for Chinese Studies and the UCLA School of Law on January 21, Peng gave an overview of the practice of law, particularly commercial law, in China since 1979.

When Dacheng Law Offices became one of the first market-based law firms in China in 1992, Peng said he hoped that it would grow to 100 attorneys by the time he retired. Contrary to his expectations, the firm has grown from 5 to 4,000 lawyers and is now the largest law firm in Asia, with headquarters in Beijing and satellite offices in Los Angeles, San Francisco and New York.

Peng, who completed both a master’s degree and doctorate in law at Peking University, is also a legal scholar with several books to his credit. In addition to his private practice, he has served as vice-chairman of the country’s national bar association, the All China Lawyers Association, where he led the drafting of ethics rules for attorneys. He is the recipient of many awards in the profession, including the Award for Eminent Contribution to the Chinese Legal Service Industry in 2006.

Historical overview

The legal profession was abolished by the government of the People’s Republic of China in 1957–58, said Peng, with many lawyers subsequently sent to jail or re-education camps. The government reintroduced the profession in 1979, the same year China established diplomatic relations with the United States. At that time, noted the speaker, there were only 212 lawyers in the country.

Peng pointed out that the re-establishment of a Chinese legal system also preceded the important political trial of the Gang of Four — the disgraced leaders of the Cultural Revolution in China, including Mao’s last wife — which began in 1981.

Few people wanted to become lawyers in the 1980s, observed the speaker, as the memory of what happened to attorneys in the late 1950s remained strong. The government accordingly created the first law firms and more or less directed the sector for 10 years. With the legalization of cooperative partnership firms in 1989, however, the legal profession became increasingly market driven.

By 2013, said Peng, China had 230,000 lawyers and 20,000 law firms. Over the past decade, Chinese law firms have also become predominant in the region. Through 2008, the biggest law firms in Asia were American, said Peng, but by 2013, 8 of the top 10 were Chinese.

The speaker attributed the explosive growth of the legal profession to China’s rapid economic growth, spurred by the country's opening to the world and adoption of market reforms.

When he began his law firm, Peng noted that lawyers primarily handled criminal and civil litigation. Today, however, the majority of Chinese firms are large, multiservice partnership firms that principally practice corporate law, with specialized practice groups in such areas as corporate finance, international trade and banking.

Impact of the modern legal profession

Based on his experience heading a multiservice coporate law firm in China, Peng asserted that lawyers were contributing to the rule of law in the country in several ways. First, the practice of law has had a direct influence on the economy, he said, with lawyers now working in every area of the economy and society.

“There is a saying,” he recounted, “that in the early 1980s, Chinese lawyers were like surgeons — they only cured problems that already existed. Today, they are like primary care physicians who prevent problems from happening.” Especially in strategic areas of the economy, he noted, teams of lawyers are now hired by businesses and government agencies to analyze the risk factors and legal impact of big projects.

Second, said, Peng, many lawyers have become legislators in the National People’s Congress. China announced in 2010 that it had established a complete legal system, said Peng, noting that Chinese lawyers have played a large role in drafting and revising the many laws needed to build that system.

Third, the legal profession is influencing politics in China, said Peng. As the role of government in the economy has been gradually reduced, he pointed out that lawyers have been supporting the private sector by providing legal counsel to over 350,000 Chinese enterprises. 

Finally, Peng claimed that lawyers were contributing to Chinese society and cultural life by supporting the growth of civil society. In this respect, he cited a recent meeting he attended in China that discussed building legal services to involve Chinese citizens in community development, a process in which they have been minimally involved to date.

Liu Chi (left) and Peng Xuefeng of Dacheng Law Offices with a student. (Photo: Peggy McInerny/ UCLA.)

The speaker also noted that he was working with other leading legal firms, which are primarily based in China’s most economically developed regions along the coast, to provide legal services to those parts of western China that still lack such services. Their goal is to improve the quality of economic development in these regions.

Peng recounted an interchange with a European colleague who believes the transparency of legal proceedings in China, particularly those involving government leaders, still has a long way to go. Although Peng concurred with this assessment, he argued that the country had made progress in due process over the past three plus decades.

In particular, he stressed that the legal awareness of ordinary Chinese citizens has grown, with the performance of lawyers in high-profile trials now the subject of public discussion.

Peng also claimed that respect for intellectual property rights is growing in China. Not only will intellectual property rights protection be a significant growth area in China, he predicted that the growth of the legal profession as a whole would continue to be multidimensional.

The speaker even believed that the constitutional independence of the Chinese judiciary would gain ground in practice over time. Here, he pointed to a decision of the Eighteenth Chinese Communist Party Congress to give the judicial system, and not local governments, control over court budgets and the disciplining of judges. “Although it will be a slow process,” he concluded, “I am confident that the legal profession in China is picking up speed.”

Peng’s remarks were translated by Liu Chi, senior partner at Dacheng, who has degrees in law from Peking University, Temple University School of Law and UCLA School of Law.

Published: Tuesday, January 28, 2014