Client Influence and the Contingency of Professionalism: The Work of Elite Corporate Lawyers in China

Article excerpt

This study examines how the professional work of elite corporate lawyers is constructed by influence from different types of clients. The data presented include interviews with 24 lawyers from six elite corporate law firms in China and the author's participant-observation in one of the firms. For these elite Chinese corporate law firms, foreign corporations, state-owned enterprises, and private enterprises constitute their extremely diversified client types. Accordingly, lawyers' work becomes flexible and adaptive to accommodate the different demands of the clients. Meanwhile, client influence on lawyers' professional work is mediated by the division of labor within the corporate law firm: whereas partners have solid control over the process of diagnosis, inference, and treatment and thus enjoy a high degree of professional autonomy, associates are largely stripped of this cultural machinery in the workplace, and their work becomes vulnerable to client influence. As a result, client influence on professional work appears to decrease with a lawyer's seniority.

Corporate law practice is rapidly taking over an increasingly large proportion of the global market for legal services before we are able to fully understand its nature and development. Even in China, where the legal profession is still in its formative stage (Michelson 2003, 2006), a small sector of elite corporate lawyers has already emerged and controls much of the most profitable and prestigious legal work. Although they share many characteristics with elite corporate lawyers in other places (Galanter 1983; Nelson 1988; Lazega 2001), the different types of clients they servenamely, foreign corporations, state-owned enterprises (SOEs), and private enterprises-constitute an extremely diversified external environment for the work of the new legal elite in China.

Mostly trained in Britain, the United States, Germany, and Japan, and many with work experience in world-renowned firms, these Chinese elite corporate lawyers nevertheless display distinct behaviors when dealing with the three types of clients. Moreover, partners and associates hold divergent views of client influence on their professional work: whereas associates often describe client influence as a strong and pervasive force in shaping their work, partners seem to care little about the effects of variation in client types on their attitudes and behavior. These observations raise the central empirical questions for this study: Why do these high-status corporate lawyers develop different work strategies for different types of clients? Why does client influence on lawyers' professional work seem to diminish with seniority? And, more theoretically, how can we reconcile these diversified patterns of lawyer-client relationship with the issue of professional autonomy?

By conducting a close examination of lawyer-client interactions in six elite corporate law firms in Beijing, I argue that, embedded in a multicultural and diversified work environment, Chinese corporate lawyers have adopted distinct methods and produced various legal products to serve different client interests, yet the cultural machinery by which they transform the client's problem into legal issues, establish the link between problem and solution, and produce the legal opinions for the client do not vary across different client types. Meanwhile, client influence on lawyers' professional work is mediated by the division of labor within the corporate law firm: whereas partners have solid control over the process of diagnosis, inference, and treatment (Abbott 1988) and thus enjoy a high degree of professional autonomy, associates are largely stripped of this cultural machinery in the workplace, and their work becomes vulnerable to client influence.

After theoretical discussions on the nature of lawyers' professional work and some notes on data and methods, the empirical part of the article is divided into three sections. I first provide a brief overview of the history of the corporate law market in China since the 1980s and the client environment in which the work of elite corporate lawyers is embedded. …