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July 4, 2016

What Does A China Business Lawyer (for Foreigners) Do?

Every time I introduce myself as a lawyer, I would be asked, “so what’s your area of expertise?” My simplified answer would be, “foreign-related business matters in China.” If they ask for more detail, I would tell them that my team and I provide consultancy to foreign investors and help resolve any disputes they may have within the jurisdiction of China. And if they keep asking, I would ask them if they are familiar with McKinsey — I work like a consultant from McKinsey.

I spend most of my working time writing attorney reports, sending/replying to emails, and communicating with relevant parties on the phone. Since most of my clients reside outside of China, I seldom need to meet them in person. When necessary, we get on a Skype conference call.

Client-Attorney Relationship Establishment

Here’s an example of a typical case. Last week I went to meet an European client who has been importing electronic goods from China and intends to build a factory by forming a joint venture with a Chinese business partner. He needs a lawyer’s help to negotiate his company’s shares, form the joint venture, provide legal support and supervise the early stage operations of the company.

I reminded him that during this process, some of the work involved would normally not be considered a lawyer’s work (for example, hiring and forming a management team) and asked if he would mind to paying us our standard consulting rate for those tasks. He said he was aware that we would be more expensive than most agencies that help foreigners form local businesses, but he understands that those agencies would not be able to provide the legal support that the joint venture may need in the near future.

[pullquote align=”right”]I ended up being the de facto general manager[/pullquote]

I needed to do some thinking, for he reminded me of another European client that we had last year. To help that client build a factory in Zhejiang province, I dedicated 80% of my energy and time, partnered with a local firm and a Beijing firm, and ended up being the de facto general manager for that business. I would spend four hours every week to drive from Shanghai to the factory. I needed to consider carefully this new client’s engagement and the services requested.

After the first meeting, I would send out a follow-up email as soon as I can. I try to make the email straightforward and simple — sum up the points of the meeting, offer our services based on information provided by the client and our best judgment, provide our fee structure, and let the client know what kinds of support we may need from his side.

Barring unexpected circumstances, the client would reply to the email and agree to the proposal. Then we would prepare an engagement letter and include relevant terms such as agreed upon services scope, fee structure, and so on. The engagement letter would then be sent to the client to sign.

Here’s a tip for lawyers: unless the client and the attorney have reached an oral agreement on services scope and fee structure, neither the firm and nor its attorney or staff shall directly send the engagement letter or engagement contract.

How do we deliver our services?

Besides the communication with clients by email and phone, most of our work are reflected in our written attorney reports.

A typical attorney report would contain the following:

  1. Instructions we received;
  2. Work we have performed based on those instructions;
  3. Results of our research and our opinions regarding the status quo;
  4. Work arrangement for our next engagement and expected costs; and
  5. Our other opinions and recommendations regarding the whole project.

The attorney report follows basic business communication logic, i.e., disciplined business thinking and communication. In other words, they’re written to push the project forward, solve problems, set up goals, and move ideas to actions.

The main work of a business lawyer is to submit clearly written attorney reports. Our clients use such reports to help them see what they should be concerned about, what concrete goals they should form and the processes involved. Our attorney reports show them what they should do and how to do it.

Besides the daily communication and reports, there are sometimes breakthroughs that call for face-to-face communication with the opposing party and/or their attorney. In such cases, we would have the client be present. Otherwise, if needed, my colleague or myself can act on behalf of the client if a proper authorization is in place.

What skills are required?

What a foreign client looks for in a Chinese lawyer is the lawyer’s local experience. A Chinese lawyer who handles foreign-related matters must at least possess basic lawyering skills in the local jurisdiction, which means the lawyer must have practiced law as a licensed and independent lawyer for a local firm for at least two years. A lawyer with this experience is far more likely than, for instance, a foreign lawyer to be capable of providing practical opinions in solving the client’s local problems.

And the lawyer must be able to communicate with the client face-to-face or over the phone or e-conference in English. It is not mandatory for a Chinese lawyer to master English, but mastering English is a must for a Chinese lawyer who handles foreign-related matters.

Again, the lawyer must be able to write well in English. To that end, the lawyer needs to do a lot of reading – in English – on legal writing, business writing, and reports writing. The lawyer’s writing must appear logical and professional, especially when writing an attorney report.


This article is written for seeking out like-minded lawyers to work with us. If you are a capable lawyer who can work independently, please feel free to contact us.

I also frequently look for people to fill GM and CFO positions for my clients’ invested joint ventures or WFOEs in China. If you happen to be looking for such positions, please feel free to contact me by sending your CV to inquiry@evaslaw.com.

July 4, 2016