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In-house Counsel Awards 2024| China

14 min read

In the past year, these in-house legal teams and leaders left the biggest impressions on the market. Kevin Cheng reports

LOOKING BACK no further than a year, we have witnessed major revisions to the Company Law, promulgation of new filing rules for overseas listing and more tightened regulations over data handling. Each step that furthers the rule of law also has wide ramifications to corporate practice, compelling companies to stay sharp and keep up.

Companies turn to their own trusted in-house counsel before anyone else to steer them through the waves of compliance risks and achieve strategic objectives in spite of relocating legal goalposts.

Every year, China Business Law Journal conducts a market-wide survey to determine the brightest stars over the in-house legal landscape, be they individuals or clusters of like-minded professionals. And every year, we marvel at the abundance of talent, creativity, leadership and promise on display from the burgeoning legal community. This moment never gets old.

The winning in-house counsel and teams ‒ recommended in our survey by partners of law firms, corporate executives, fellow in-house counsel and various other members of the legal market in China and beyond ‒ are recognised for their significant recent accomplishments, stellar expertise in their respective fields, and contributions to the world of law and business. To ensure impartiality, in-house counsel may not nominate themselves for any individual award, or their own team for any team award.

After months of groundwork, we arrived at the final list of winning teams and individuals based on an unprecedented volume of market nominations and subsequent submissions of the nominees, as well as the editorial team’s independent research. The performance parameters against which candidates were evaluated are set out here.

The latest edition of the In-house Counsel Awards is part of our ongoing efforts to fairly, objectively and accurately reflect the genuine opinion of the legal market. As with all our other awards, this involves no monetary or other obligation at any point between launching the nomination and finalising the winners.

The awards include the In-house Team of the Year and General Counsel of the Year, the highest accolades for the team and individual divisions, respectively, as well as finer categories covering a myriad of practice areas and industry sectors.

Paul Tang EN

For teams:

  • Areas of practice are: Anti-bribery & anti-corruption; Capital markets (domestic); Capital markets (overseas); Compliance (domestic); Compliance (cross-border); Data protection & privacy; Dispute resolution (domestic); Dispute resolution (cross-border); Employment & labour; Environment, social & governance (ESG); Intellectual property (copyright); Intellectual property (patent); Intellectual property (trademark); Intellectual property (dispute and enforcement); International compliance & sanctions; Mergers & acquisitions (domestic); Mergers & acquisitions (cross-border); Restructuring; Securitisation; Taxation; and Trade secrets.
  • Industry sectors are: Agriculture; Artificial intelligence; Asset management; Automotive; Aviation, shipping & logistics; Banking & finance; Biomedical & life sciences; Construction & infrastructure; Consumer & retail; Data & cloud services; Education; Electrical & electronics; Energy & natural resources; Environment & renewable energy; Fintech; Food & beverage; Healthcare & pharmaceutical; Industrials & chemicals; Insurance & trust; Investment banking; Internet & e-commerce; Media, entertainment & sport; Medtech; Private equity & venture capital; Real estate; Technology & telecoms; Tourism & hospitality; and Video games & e-sports.

For individuals:

  • Practice areas are: Anti-bribery & anti-corruption; Capital markets (domestic); Capital markets (overseas); Compliance (domestic); Compliance (cross-border); Data protection & privacy; Dispute resolution (domestic); Dispute resolution (cross-border); Employment and labour; Environment, social and governance (ESG); Intellectual property (copyright); Intellectual property (patent); Intellectual property (trademark); Intellectual property (dispute and enforcement); International compliance & sanctions; Mergers & acquisitions (domestic); Mergers & acquisitions (cross-border); Restructuring; Taxation; and Trade secrets.
  • Industry sectors are: Agriculture; Artificial intelligence; Asset management; Automotive; Aviation, shipping & logistics; Banking & finance; Biomedical & life sciences; Construction & infrastructure; Consumer & retail; Data & cloud services; Education; Electrical & electronics; Energy & natural resources; Environment & renewable energy; Fintech; Food & beverage; Healthcare & pharmaceutical; Industrials & chemicals; Insurance; Internet & e-commerce; Manufacturing; Media, entertainment & sport; Medtech; Private equity & venture capital; Real estate; Technology & telecoms; Tourism & hospitality; and Video games & e-sports.

We would like to express our sincerest appreciation for all who participated in the survey, as well as our heartfelt congratulations to all winning teams and individuals.

Jonathan Chu EN

PERFORMANCE PARAMETERS

In our survey, we asked respondents to rate teams and individuals against several key performance parameters. We evaluated each individual nominee and each team on the following criteria:

  • Legal knowledge
  • Communication skills
  • Leadership skills
  • Creativity/innovation
  • Breadth of jurisdiction/practice areas/industries

  • Legal knowledge
  • Efficiency/creativity
  • Team depth and strength
  • Breadth of jurisdiction/practice areas/industries
  • Use of technology
  • Impact and significance

TOP OF THE HILL

The legal and compliance team of Zeekr, our In-house Team of the Year, bore the impact of global economic slowdown and geopolitical complications that assailed both traditional and new energy vehicle sectors.

In spite of these challenges, the 80-strong team came out swinging. In 2023, the team, led by chief legal officer and chief compliance officer Liu Fang, shepherded the Geely subsidiary through its USD750 million round A financing and preparation work for its upcoming US IPO.

Zeekr was additionally among the first companies to complete its cybersecurity review and filing with the China Securities Regulatory Commission (CSRC), both relatively new requirements for mainland Chinese companies eyeing a listing elsewhere.

Liu laid the groundwork for cross-border compliance to coincide with the company’s outbound ventures, including establishing a global data compliance management system and an online compliance management platform.

The Zeekr team is the winner in Compliance (cross-border), and is highly commended in the categories of Capital markets (overseas), Data protection & privacy, Intellectual property (patent), Artificial intelligence, and Automotive. In individual awards, Liu is the winner in Compliance (cross-border) and Automotive, and is highly commended in the Capital markets (overseas), Data protection & privacy, Intellectual property (patent), and Intellectual property (trademark) categories.

Zhang Jiangbo, general counsel at Huayou Cobalt, is the recipient of our General Counsel of the Year award. Zhang was instrumental in the listing of Huayou’s 50 million GDRs on the SIX Swiss Exchange, which raised USD582.5 million for the Shanghai-listed lithium battery material supplier.

Last year also saw Huayou executing a three-way agreement with PT Vale Indonesia and Ford Motor in the USD3.8 billion Pomalaa Block High-Pressure Acid Leaching (HPAL) project.

Wang Dechang, a Beijing-based partner at Jincheng Tongda & Neal, says Huayou Cobalt was the first domestic energy company to obtain the ISO 37301 compliance management system (CMS) certificate, which “showcases not only superior compliance management from the legal team, but also outstanding contribution in promoting the company’s compliance culture”.

Li Sheng

Paul Tang, a Hong Kong-based partner at White & Case, describes Zhang and his legal team as being truly exceptional. “Their solid legal skills are matched by their ability to work seamlessly with both internal and external teams, making them invaluable assets to Huayou’s success,” he says.

Zhang is additionally the winner in Capital markets (overseas) and Mergers & acquisitions (cross-border), as well as being highly commended in Compliance (domestic), and Environment & renewable energy. In team awards, the legal department of Huayou Cobalt is the winner in Mergers & acquisitions (cross-border), and Environment & renewable energy, while being highly commended in Capital markets (overseas).

INDUSTRY ADVANCERS

Many of our winning in-house counsel are not only walking encyclopaedias for legal matters, especially concerning the laws, regulations and significant cases pertaining to their own company’s businesses, but also figures of authority in the sectors in which their company operates.

In the embattled real estate sector, for example, the legal department of Hisense Real Estate, led by legal director Shao Mingzhi, stood out for its contributions to the company’s case management, risk alert and bankruptcy reorganisation systems, according to Sheng Yan, Qingdao-based senior partner at Hylands Law Firm.

“While many real estate developers are struggling with solvency, the team at Hisense Real Estate has kept the company … from significant operating risks through rigorous scrutiny and professional competence,” says Sheng. The team is highly commended in Real estate and Dispute resolution (domestic). In individual categories, Shao is the winner in Dispute resolution (domestic) and is highly commended in Real estate.

Zeng Ni, director of legal and compliance department at Ping An Haoyi Investment Management, is the winner in Medtech. This is a new category this year, created in further recognition of the increasing sophistication of the larger medical industry and the especially technical expertise required to provide sound legal advice in this field.

Chen Jingjing, a Shanghai-based partner at Haiwen & Partners, praises Zeng’s team for its high sensitivity to new regulation and policy trends. “This team yields results that have not only driven the efficient co-operation with business and other functions but have also set a benchmark for compliance systems for the entire medical and healthcare industry,” she says. Zeng is also highly commended in Dispute resolution (domestic).

Jonathan Chu, a partner at CMS in Hong Kong, finds the legal team at CITIC CLSA to be “extremely knowledgeable and efficient in processing and instructing on complex dispute matters”. “They are a team that knows what they are doing and know how to balance commercial and legal issues when making decisions,” he says. “The team also covers a large geographical footprint, which makes it all the more impressive.”

The CLSA legal team is the winner in Investment banking and highly commended in Banking and finance. Marco Chung, group head of legal, is highly commended in Dispute resolution (cross-border) and Banking and finance.

Some companies have opened up across more than one front, demanding versatility from their counsel. Hu Ming, executive chairman of the partners’ meeting at DHH Law Firm, is impressed by Cheng Guangdong, general counsel of Nanshan Group for his extensive experience in construction materials, textiles and a host of other sectors, as well as his innovative approach to complex legal issues.

Li Mingtao EN

“[Cheng] leads a team that has achieved significant success in the legal field, supporting the firm’s robust growth in a diverse range of businesses,” says Hu. Cheng is highly commended in Capital markets (overseas), Manufacturing, and Real estate. Nanshan’s legal department is also highly commended in Capital markets (overseas), Mergers & acquisitions (domestic), and Industrials & chemicals.

Jeffrey Zhu, a Shanghai-based partner at Global Law Office, says the legal team at Tapestry Greater China, led by vice president and associate general counsel Lillian Lu, is trusted by business partners for knowing the trade, and respected by their global headquarters. Zhu says this is “not that common nowadays under the tightened geopolitical environment”.

The past few years have also seen data compliance rise to the top of general counsel’s to-do lists, with ramped-up regulations on how data and personal information should be collected, processed, stored and, most sensitively, exported. Meanwhile, data as a service and industry has boomed on the back of soaring needs.

Naming Ge Mengying, general counsel at TalkingData, as “one of the best data compliance officers in China”, Li Sheng, a partner at the Beijing and Shanghai offices of Han Kun Law Offices, says: “Her familiarity with the law and hands-on data compliance experience is unmatched in the industry”.

In both the individual and team awards, Ge and the legal and compliance department of TalkingData are winners in Data protection & privacy, and highly commended in Data & cloud services. The team is also highly commended in the Technology & telecoms category.

PUSHING THE TECH BOUNDARY

The collective frenzy over artificial intelligence is responsible for some of the most intriguing legal conundrums in recent years, as legislators worldwide scramble to fit the revolutionary and disruptive technology into existing frameworks. Consequently, companies engaged in AI products and services are among the most supported, and the most scrutinised.

Metasota is one of the first companies in China approved to operate generative AI. According to Li Mingtao, a Beijing-based partner at Yuanhe & Twelve Tables, is quite a feat for a startup.

“In the fast-growing and emerging field of generative AI, compliance matters are not yet clear,” he says. “Zhang Xiaoyi, general counsel of Metasota, and her team have made strides in this regard, having worked with the in-house technical team to satisfy a series of compliance requirements from the Cyberspace Administration of China, the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology and the Ministry of Public Security for generative AI operators.”

Kong Xin EN

Metasota’s legal team is the winner in Artificial intelligence, and is highly commended in Compliance (domestic). Zhang is highly commended in Artificial intelligence and Compliance (domestic), while also being one of the emerging achievers.

Another large language model (LLM) startup, Minimax, was among the first of its peers to have completed the filing process under the Interim Measures for the Administration of Generative Artificial Intelligence Services, in August 2023. He Jing, a Beijing-based partner at GEN Law Firm, considers Fang Yi, the director of legal at the company and highly commended in the Artificial intelligence category, a promising leader in the AI industry.

“[Fang] manages the workflow well and, very importantly, has demonstrated unique strategic views in achieving what is best for the company,” says He, adding Fang is leading a group of top domestic and international firms in tackling the PE/VC, regulatory and IP challenges facing the nascent AI field.

Becoming “smarter”, however, is not only the concern of those directly engaged in the AI and tech industries. Many general counsel and in-house teams stood out for their clever and effective application of high-tech solutions to their daily operations, sometimes creating automative systems from scratch.

Ren Liguang, a Shenzhen-based partner at King & Wood Mallesons, praises Huang Yiyu, general counsel at Vanke Group, for “leading the upgrade of Vanke’s digitised legal risk management platform, strengthening the integration of law and technology and maximising the legal business value”. “[Huang] is a legal practitioner with massive potential who can go on to make outstanding contributions to China’s legal market,” he says.

Kong Xin, managing partner at the Beijing headquarter of Commerce & Finance Law Offices, is impressed by the success of Xing Jing, general manager of the legal and compliance department at Du Xiaoman, the fintech arm of Baidu, in incorporating technologies in legal operations, including its self-developed anti-money laundering system and anti-money laundering management under digital governance.

“The highly acclaimed Du Xiaoman legal team provides strong support for the company in maintaining a competitive edge in the tech sector,” says Kong. Xing is highly commended in Compliance (domestic), ESG and Fintech categories. The legal and compliance department is also highly commended in Fintech.

The introduction of a new system should be carefully measured as it can fundamentally revise how tasks are approached. If done prematurely or improperly, it risks bringing more harm than good. Therefore, seamless integration of technology into existing frameworks takes not only great insight from leaders, but also foresight.

Liu Guangchao

Zhang Yue, a Beijing-based partner at JunHe, finds this quality in Stacy Yuan, chief legal officer (APAC & China) at Edrington. “Soon after joining [Edrington], [Yuan] foresaw the exponential increase in contract volume,” says Zhang, citing the UK-based spirits maker’s rapid expansion into the Asia-Pacific market and a series of brand enhancing equity investments and transition to the B2C model. “She immediately set off to develop a contract management system, using technology to address the company’s weak points in process compliance and contract filing.”

The system would go on to manage Edrington China’s thousands of contracts throughout their lifecycles, allowing the business and legal units to share contracts instantly. Zhang says this greatly facilitated business negotiations and compliance management. Both Yuan and her legal team are highly commended in Food & beverage, with Yuan also being highly commended in International compliance & sanctions.

COMRADES IN ARMS

When it comes to observing in-house counsel at work and commenting on their accomplishments, few enjoy a better vantage point than the lawyers who toil side by side with them, seeing through complicated deals and fortifying companies’ legal foundations. Open, unhindered and mutually respectful communication is often held to be key to maintaining a healthy and sustainable lawyer-client relationship.

Liu Guangchao, founding partner and director of Docvit Law Firm, reserves high praise for the legal counsel and risk control department of China Communications Trading & Supply, led by chief compliance officer and general manager Han Zhaoyi. “Working with this team is one of the most satisfying experiences in my long career,” says Liu, “They are professional, efficient, loyal to the business, and respectful toward lawyers and intermediaries.”

He lauds the team for its extensive frontline experience and creativity in integrating legal literacy with business fundamentals. “I always believe that that the basis of innovation is an accurate grasp of the underlying logic,” he says. “Without such basic skills, innovation is all style, no substance.”

Dai Yi, a partner at the Shanghai office of DaHui Lawyers, worked closely with the legal and compliance department of Baoshan Iron & Steel, led by general counsel and chief compliance officer Shen Yan, during a 2023 long-term chartering contract dispute with a well-known state-owned shipowner. The dispute ended with the shipowner agreeing to rectify the ship and compensate Baosteel during the rectification period.

[The Baosteel team] is knowledgeable, experienced and divides tasks internally in a sound manner,” he says. “They communicate efficiently with lawyers, remain focused on the business needs, and always set their eyes on solving the practical issues.” The team is highly commended in Compliance (domestic), and Energy & natural resources.

Lan Tao, a Beijing-based partner at Han Kun Law Offices, enjoys a long-term relationship with the legal and compliance department of China National Oil and Gas Exploration and Development Company (CNODC), with which he joined forces in several high-profile deals across the globe, including the LNG project in Mozambique and the Búzios oilfield project in Brazil.

Jeff Xu

“They possess abundant skills for negotiation and business expansion, and have demonstrated excellent legal competence and proficient foreign language skills,” says Lan. The team, as well as vice president and general counsel Zhang Yu, are highly commended in Energy & natural resources.

Admiration, however, does not always require long-term development. Jeff Xu, a partner at the Shanghai office of Baker McKenzie, has worked with Ryan Zhang, chief counsel at Ecolab, a US water treatment corporation with a Greater China headquarters in Shanghai, for less than a year, but has come to greatly appreciate his legal expertise and business acumen.

“[Zhang] is able to quickly absorb professional advice from across the board, including real estate, labour, taxation and other divisions,” he says. “At the same time, he is capable of providing detailed and actionable directives to external lawyers, creating a smooth and efficient workflow.”

Zhang is highly commended in Anti-bribery & anti-corruption, and the Ecolab legal affairs team is highly commended in Industrials & chemicals.

EMERGING ACHIEVERS

Seniority matters in the legal profession but perhaps not as much as sheer talent, proven expertise and concrete results. In the Emerging achiever category, we highlight team leaders who, having been in the legal workforce for 10 years or less, have already left an indelible impression among lawyers and peers.

Richard Tian, legal director at Skechers China, leads the team that covers the legal affairs of hundreds of subsidiaries across China. “Tian is dedicated to developing in-house talent,” says Peng Shengfeng, a senior partner at the Shanghai headquarters of AllBright Law Offices, “With a business mindset, [he] perceives issues with exceptional clarity, not stopping merely at the legal aspects.”

Tian is highly commended in the categories of Compliance (domestic), Intellectual property (dispute and enforcement), and Media, entertainment and sports. His legal department is the winner in Intellectual property (dispute and enforcement), while being highly commended in Compliance (domestic), Consumer & retail, and Media, entertainment and sports. The IP team of Skechers China, led by senior legal manager Demi Yu, is highly commended in Intellectual property (trademark).

Benjamin Bai EN

Dylan Zhou, managing partner at the Chengdu branch of DeHeng Law Offices, finds an ideal collaborator in Wang Man, legal manager at Anaya, praising her immaculate work habits that help lawyers become more productive. “[Wang] has always shown great respect to external lawyers,” says Zhou. “She treats people with gentleness without compromising her high demands for work quality.”

The sentiment is shared by Benjamin Bai, a Beijing-based partner at ZSK Attorneys-at-Law, testimony to Wang’s first-class professionalism and negotiation skills in various real estate investment, M&A and restructuring projects. “Whether as a client or a counterparty, [Wang] is consistently courteous and assertive, able to apply her business thinking and legal skillsets to contribute substantively to the project at hand,” he says.

Wang is also the winner in Tourism & hospitality and is highly commended in Media, entertainment and sports.

Chen Yimin, a Shanghai-based senior partner at Jia Yuan Law Offices, is impressed with the macro perspective in project management and high sense of compliance displayed by Zhang Xuemei, vice president of legal and compliance at Shanghai Culture Industry Development and Investment Fund Management, a subsidiary of Shanghai Media Group.

“[Zhang] is respectful to external legal advice but also forms her own independent judgement, all while never losing sight of the company’s objectives,” says Chen. Zhang is also highly commended in Media, entertainment and sports.

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