By William Dodson
One of the senior partners of my consultancy Silk Road Advisors is a Chinese Lawyer. Ms. Zhang is certified to practice law in China, not in the States. She typically takes on corporate cases that Western international law firms gain on behalf of their Western clients, but for whom the practice can only do so much in moving agreements through government channels. Also, many of the Western law firms prefer to stay within the city limits of the First-Tier cities, Beijing, Guangzhou and Shanghai. She prefers to stay outside the city limits of the First-Tier cities: the noise, pollution and overall pushi-ness of Big City China doesn’t impress her, though she is a native of Beijing.
She has been doing some work for a Shanghai firm on behalf of a client in a second-tier city in Jiangsu Province. She is assisting in the dissolution of a joint venture between a Chinese company and a Western company. By nature her work style is highly colloborative. She has a very good working relationship with the Jiangsu lawyer that represents the Chinese side of the case. They both have a professional, yet tenuous relationship at best with the Chinese lawyer out of Shanghai, a young lady. Ms. Zhang marks the differences down to one of generation. She and I discussed how it might be more complicated than the generation gap between the “Mao generation” and China’s “Little Emperor Generation”.
Ms. Zhang admits she has more in common with the Jiangsu lawyer than with the Shanghai lawyer, basically because of age: Ms. Zhang and the Jiangsu lawyer are both adolescents of the Cultural Revolution; that is, she and he are in their mid-forties. I have heard from many Chinese that there is a clear demarcation in the social attitudes of Chinese who lived through the Cultural Revolution and those born after that terrible decade from the late sixties to the late seventies. One of the greatest differences is the degree of consideration of others of each generation. In this instance, the Shanghai lawyer – Ms. Zhang has told me – is pretty inconsiderate. “She is so confident,” Ms. Zhang told me. “No problem, no problem,” she [the Shanghai] lawyer says, and insists on ramming things through government channels without some of the approvals that, should there be a snag down the line, will force the approval process to begin all over again. Though the Shanghai lawyer is herself a woman of slight stature, she bullies the Jiangsu lawyer that represents the Chinese side of the joint venture. When the Shanghai lawyer is curt with the Jiangsu lawyer, Ms. Zhang and the Jiangsu lawyer look at each other knowingly. They have an unspoken communications network built on shared generational experience.
“How much of that is the ‘New York’” effect?” I asked Ms. Zhang. “That is, how much of the Shanghai lawyer’s approach has to do with Shanghai seeing itself at the center of the world, much like New York City. Often those kind of professionals,” I offered, “tend to run roughshod over others and don’t seem to have a lot of patience for niceties.”
“She is not from Shanghai,” Ms. Zhang offered. “She is from the South. She spent some time in America studying American law after working for a Chinese law firm. She is really confident like American lawyers. She also doesn’t listen. She just orders the Jiangsu lawyer around.” She apparently just lets Ms. Zhang get on with Ms. Zhang’s own work, doesn’t seem to give Ms. Zhang any grief. Perhaps she sees Ms. Zhang as an older sister; or perhaps she doesn’t have to put Ms. Zhang in an adverserial role, since Ms. Zhang is supporting the Shanghai law firm out in the nether-reaches of China (a two-hour drive from Shanghai).
Ms. Zhang gets the same “generational” feeling from another young Shanghai lawyer with whom she has worked, a nice enough fellow, just broke thirty years old. But that same kind of cockiness pervades his interactions with the people who he encounters professionally.
Whatever the reasons might be, Ms. Zhang senses that the new generation of Chinese lawyers, born outside cities like Shanghai, but educated to some extent in the West and working for Western firms, marks a huge shift in the way law will be practiced in China.
Less emphasis will be placed on relationships to win the day, and more on brains and professional credentials. One hopes that as the new generation of lawyers reshapes China into a country that abides by the Rule of Law that genuine relationships between people are not sacrificed in the process.
William Dodson, This is China! Weblog