Riding the rise in Beijing law
If there is one thing that Yao Yi, partner in the Chinese law firm East & Concord Partners, has in spades it’s the ability to adapt to change.
A graduate of Beijing’s Renmin University, Yao’s undergraduate degree in economic law and masters in civil procedural law secured her a position at the Beijing Foreign Economic Law Office, a state-owned law firm specialising in foreign investment.
That was in the early 1990s when a new area of commercial legal practice in China was emerging. “We had just opened the stockmarket in 1992,” Yao recalls. “This was all new in China.”
When a visiting partner from Minter Ellison invited her to work in Melbourne she jumped at the chance and applied for a scholarship to the University of Melbourne Law School to complete a masters in company law and the securities market.
“I was encouraged to do some research in this area,” says Yao, who completed her thesis over two years while working at “Minters” part-time. The Australian legal system was “quite different” but gave Yao “invaluable legal experience”.
While a future in Australia appealed, she received a call from a colleague at the Beijing Foreign Economic Law Office saying the firm was restructuring and she had a chance to be a partner. Yao returned home and a year later was one of eight partners and 16 lawyers at the new East & Concord Partners firm.
“Changes in the Chinese legal system over the past 20 years have been dramatic,” she says. “When I returned in 1994, Beijing had about 3000 lawyers and only a couple of partnership law firms. Now we have over 3000 firms and 30,000 lawyers in Beijing.”
The four-tiered Chinese court system, presided over by a judge and a panel of assessors, hears criminal and civil matters, but she prefers to refer commercial matters to the China International Economic and Trade Arbitration Commission.
“You can get a final arbitration awarded after one hearing,” she says of the commission, one of the largest arbitrators in the world.
Now with 61 partners, 116 lawyers and more than 200 support staff, East & Concord Partners is carving out a niche as a medium-sized firm for mostly local clients.
Post-merger, Yao’s time is largely spent managing the business, integrating the two firms and building a new IT platform – but she still takes a hands-on approach to clients and China’s fast-changing legal landscape.
“The biggest challenge for lawyers in China is keeping up with changes to regulations. I have practiced for over 21 years and I have to learn new regulations every day.”