In-house Counsel Awards 2021-22 | China Business Law Journal

After months of intensive market surveys and research, China Business Law Journal’s editorial team unveils our In-house Counsel Award winners. Kevin Cheng reports

CHINA’S LEGAL LANDSCAPE in 2021 was as eventful as it was dynamic. The year witnessed the implementation of the nation’s first Civil Code, a comprehensive, unified civil law framework second in status only to the constitution. It also saw a regulatory overhaul for the supervision of all data and personal data controllers with the promulgation of the Data Security Law and the Personal Data Protection Law, in force since September and November, respectively, and well-documented amendments to the Company Law, Anti-Monopoly Law, and Education Law.

The covid-19 pandemic continued to hang over every business transaction and all aspects of daily life, while cross-border commercial affairs were wrought with uncertainty as geopolitical tensions fermented. On a more positive note, emerging areas such as fintech, big data, cloud technology and artificial intelligence, continue to thrive and are responsible for much market vigour.

For all these reasons and more, companies faced tangible compliance pressures and challenges. In-house legal teams, simultaneously the frontline of compliance and its last line of defence, must grasp both legal knowledge and industry trends, apply business acumen, and remain focused on corporate objectives and industry practice, chasing the elusive point of balance between “business” and “law”, along with other business departments.

Behind the curtain of every high-profile, high-stake listing, merger and acquisition, or bankruptcy and reorganisation lie the hard work and expertise of in-house counsel whose vital contributions, although irreplaceable, are sadly often overlooked. For the very purpose of according in-house counsel the market recognition they deserve, we inaugurated our In-house Counsel Awards three years ago.

REFLECTING THE MARKET

For months, China Business Law Journal conducted extensive market surveys and appraisals in accordance with its accustomed practice. We aim to commend elite counsel for their excellence in the past year from an independent, objective and fair standpoint, and accurately reflect market opinion. No fee arrangement was involved between surveying market views and finalising the list of winners.

The editorial team solicited nominations from Chinese and overseas practising lawyers, legal professionals, industry leaders and in-house counsel, inviting recommendations of outstanding in-house counsel, individuals and teams in China’s legal market. For neutrality reasons, in-house counsel refrained from nominating themselves in individual awards and teams with which they were a part in team awards.

Eventually, based on more than 1,000 items of market feedback, with consideration from our independent editorial research, we selected hundreds of winning and highly commended individuals and teams. Primarily, we gauge their legal knowledge, communication skills, creativity and impact on the industry. Please see the performance parameters for specifics.

Performance parameters

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

The awards include the General Counsel of the Year and In-house Team of the Year, the highest awards for individuals and teams, respectively, as well as categories in various practice areas and sectors.

In particular, for teams, practice areas include Capital markets (domestic); Capital markets (overseas); Compliance (domestic); Compliance (cross-border); Data protection & privacy; Dispute resolution (domestic); Dispute resolution (cross-border); Employment & labour; Intellectual property (patent); Intellectual property (trademark & copyright); Intellectual property (litigation); Mergers & acquisitions (domestic); Mergers & acquisitions (cross-border); Restructuring; Trade secret.

Industry sectors under team awards include Asset management; Automotive; Aviation, shipping & logistics; Banking & finance; Cloud services; Construction & infrastructure; Consumer & retail; Education; Electrical & electronics; Energy & natural resources; Environment & renewable energy; Food & beverage; Healthcare & life sciences; Industrials & chemicals; Insurance & trust; Internet & e-commerce; Media, entertainment & sports; Online gaming; Private equity & venture capital; Real estate; Technology & telecoms.

For individuals, practice areas include Capital markets (domestic); Capital markets (overseas); Compliance (domestic); Compliance (cross-border); Data protection & privacy; Dispute resolution (domestic); Dispute resolution (cross-border); Employment & labour; Intellectual property (patent); Intellectual property (trademark & copyright); Intellectual property (litigation); International compliance; Mergers & acquisitions (domestic); Mergers & acquisitions (cross-border); Restructuring; Trade secret.

Industry sectors under individual awards include Asset management; Automotive; Aviation, shipping & logistics; Banking & finance; Cloud services; Construction & infrastructure; Consumer & retail; Education; Electrical & electronics; Energy & natural resources; Environment & renewable energy; Food & beverage; Healthcare & life sciences; Industrials & chemicals; Insurance & trust; Internet & e-commerce; Media, entertainment & sports; Online gaming; Private equity & venture capital; Real estate; Technology & telecoms.

In response to new developments in the legal market and industry trends, the 2021 In-house Counsel Awards have been expanded from the first two iterations. For instance, we added the practice area category of Intellectual property (litigation) in recognition of individuals and teams excelling in patent or trademark disputes and the protection of IP rights. The category of International compliance, not to be confused with Compliance (cross-border), awards counsel who have successfully avoided or repelled foreign sanctions in overseas dealings. In terms of sectors, new categories include Environment & renewable energy, and Cloud services.

We would like to express our gratitude to all nominators who shared with us their individual and/or team candidates, and our cordial congratulations to all the award recipients. While we unfortunately do not have the luxury of space to mention all the winners’ achievements in the past year, the rest of the article will focus on sharing their highlights.

HIGHEST ACCOLADES

The General Counsel of the Year award goes to Joe Zhou, head of the legal and compliance department and compliance director at China International Capital Corporation (CICC). Zhou leads a legal team of about 220 staff, including talent from mainland China, Hong Kong, Singapore, the US, Europe and Japan.

According to statistics from Wind and Dealogic, CICC ranked first among Chinese investment banks in terms of the size of IPO underwriting in 2021. According to Bloomberg, CICC was also the top Chinese overseas debt underwriter in 2021.

During the year, Zhou and his team participated in 48 litigation and arbitration cases, including the fraudulent accounting of a pharmaceutical company, achieving victory in all closed cases. He provided legal support in the Hong Kong secondary listings of five Chinese companies and two dual primary listings, and assisted three Chinese telecom operators in their A-share listing applications after their delisting from the New York Stock Exchange. They also advised in the Ministry of Finance’s issue of EUR4 billion-denominated (USD4.22 billion) sovereign bonds, the Hong Kong listing of an online music company, a bond issue under Southbound Bond Connect, infrastructure public REITs, and tech ETF funds. In internal compliance, Zhou led in the establishment of CICC’s legal compliance and anti-money laundering monitoring platforms.

Zhou is also the winner in Asset management, and highly commended in Capital markets (overseas), Compliance (cross-border) and Dispute resolution (domestic) categories. The legal team of CICC is also the winner in Dispute resolution (domestic).

The legal department of Baidu is our In-house Team of the Year. Led by general manager Li Yanjie, the legal team of more than 60 staff is responsible for Baidu’s mobile ecosystem (Baidu Search, Drive, Wenku, Wiki, Knows, etc.) and healthcare businesses, while charged with the group’s data compliance, corporate governance, trademark and domain rights protection, and litigations.

In March 2021, Baidu completed its secondary listing on the main board of the Stock Exchange of Hong Kong, raising more than HKD23.9 billion (USD3 billion). During the year, a number of cases managed by Baidu’s legal team were selected as model cases by the Supreme People’s Court and local high courts, many of which set valuable precedents for the industry. For example, in the unfair competition dispute involving its DuSmart speaker, the court for the first time identified an artificial intelligence (AI) voice command as a legal right protected by the Anti-unfair Competition Law. In the trademark lawsuit against Baidu Barbeque, the court innovatively determined that the defendant’s infringement accounted for 35% of its revenue.

Against the palpable intensification of data and privacy regulation, Baidu’s legal team ensured that all apps under the banner were able to pass various compliance reviews, and none were required to be taken down. According to Baidu’s 2021 annual report, the group’s mobile ecosystem contains more than a dozen apps including Baidu App, Haokan and Baidu Post. Baidu also provides AI-based cloud services and intelligent driving services, highlighting the gravity of data compliance.

Baidu’s legal team is also the winner in Intellectual property (litigation), and highly commended in Dispute resolution (domestic), and Internet & e-commerce.

WINNER HIGHLIGHTS

Mu Xiaoqing, general counsel at BAIC Capital, is highly commended in the Capital markets (domestic) and Private equity & venture capital categories. Last year, she led the team in performing due dilligence on more than 50 prospective investment targets, achieving a due dilligence rate of 100%, and assisted five PE-invested companies to obtain IPO approval.

“With excellent communicative skills, Mu often represents the investors in negotiating with counterparties and funding parties,” says Wang Kaiding, a Beijing-based partner at King & Wood Mallesons. “She embodies the expertise of a legal professional, especially her capability in leading investment and financing projects.”

Eric Xie, the chief legal officer at Foxconn Industrial Internet, leads the legal and IP team in handling all IP cases to safeguard the interests of Foxconn and its subsidiaries. According to Xie, Foxconn submitted more than 5,000 IP cases in the past two years.

Xie also led and fully participated in the setting up and issue of USD-denominated medium-term notes by Foxconn’s overseas subsidiary, Cloud Network Technology, amounting to billions of US dollars.

“Xie is an expert at cross-border IP, compliance and capital markets, both at home and overseas,” comments Su Zheng, a Beijing-based partner at King & Wood Mallesons. “Since going public, Foxconn has always attained an ‘A’ rating at the information disclosure appraisal, which could not have been possible wihtout Xie and his team’s rigorous efforts,” she says.

Similarly, Zhang Zhiyang, senior adviser at the Beijing office of Covington & Burling, considers Xie a strong and innovative leader. “[Xie] is good at applying legal principles to business,” he says. “He is skillful at business manoeuvres while maintaining legimitacy and compliance.”

Xie is the winner in Intellectual property (litigation) and Industrials & chemicals, while being highly commended in Mergers & acquisitions (domestic). Foxconn’s division of legal and intellectual property is highly commended in Intellectual property (patent), Cloud services; Industrials & chemicals; and Technology & telecoms.

Tina Liu, general counsel and chief legal officer at Sumitomo Pharma China, and the legal team under her wing received recognition in the healthcare sector. The team received many lawyer recommendations due to its achievements in the group’s major acquisitions and licensing deals, as well as its success in production compliance, IP protection and personal information protection.

According to Vincent Zhu, executive director and senior partner at A&Z Law Firm, the legal team at Sumitomo Pharma China is responsible for “leading, initiating and advancing all-round patent protection schemes for all company products in order to better accord with the updated patent laws and requirements in China, providing effective legal support for the company’s domestic IP and patent protection strategy”.

In addition to acknowledging the team’s accomplishments in mergers and acquisitions, Lin Feng, a Shanghai-based partner at Jin Mao Law Firm, points out that during the year, the team “led in the construction of the company’s digitised operation and maintenance system and, on the basis of a sweeping audit on data flow and information security, constantly improved on the e-management process encompassing compliance and data collection and security”.

The team is highly commended in Mergers & acquisitions (cross-border) and Healthcare & life sciences, while Liu is highly commended in Intellectual property (litigation), Mergers & acquisitions (cross-border) and Healthcare & life sciences.

James Jiang, a partner at the Shanghai office of Yuanda China Law Firm, says Karl Yeh, legal director at TCL, and chief IP officer at TCL Industries, is a “prestigious and widely respected senior in-house counsel in the industry”.

“In 2021, I have worked with Karl on various IP and compliance litigation cases in and outside China, including the ACT v OPPO/TCL series of standard essential patent [SEP] cases, global label review projects and other ongoing US IP litigation cases, of which the ACT case will set the compensation parameters in the industry for SEP cases,” says Jiang.

Furthermore, a breakthrough was achieved in the decade-long unfair competition dispute between TCL and Ericsson, with a settlement reached in July. According to Yeh, under TCL’s persistence, the judge rendered a “top down” verdict in the first-instance trial in California, which has been a trend in global licensing negotiations noteworthy for Chinese companies. TCL further launched anti-monopoly and anti-unfair competition lawsuits against Ericsson in China, which enhanced its bargaining power. The case was recently selected for China Business Law Journal’s Deals of the Year 2021.

Yeh is a winner in the category of Electrical & electronics, and is highly commended in Compliance (cross-border), Dispute resolution (cross-border), Intellectual property (patent), and Labour & employment. The TCL Industries IP team, led by Yeh, is the winner in Intellectual property (IP), and is highly commended in Dispute resolution (cross-border), Intellectual property (litigation), and Electrical & electronics.

DEBUT CATEGORIES

In the current anxiety-inducing international environment, many Chinese companies that have “gone out” have found themselves victims of geopolitical circumstances beyond their control, or perhaps their longtime dedicated business activities have suddenly been labelled as “sensitive” or “dangerous”. From certain aspects, our new category of International compliance is a poignant reminder of a distrustful global atmosphere. There is little doubt that in-house counsel able to repel such overwhelming external risks deserve recognition.

Thunder Software Technology, listed on the ChiNext market of the Shenzhen Stock Exchange, is a world-leading provider of smart operating system products and technologies. Liu Li, director of its legal compliance department, demonstrated considerable foresight in the area of international compliance. Familiar with the export control and trade sanction regulations in the US, EU, Japan and China, Liu and her team set up compliance systems corresponding to export controls, economic sanctions, anti-monopoly, data security and privacy protection of all jurisdictions, while fostering a team of in-house experts.

Cindy Quan, senior partner at Longan Law Firm, remarks: “Liu pre-eminently has reserved a vast amount of knowledge on overseas compliance and enacted a comprehensive legal support system covering legal issues, IP and international trade compliance. Not only did she achieve considerable personal growth, she helped train dozens of promising, motivated and responsible legal experts for the industry.”

Other than being crowned the winner in International compliance, Liu Li is highly commended in Labour & employment, Intellectual property (trademark & copyright), and Technologies & telecoms.

In March 2020, Junzheng Logistics, engaged in logistics and technical services in the fields of warehousing, international freight forwarding, import and export of goods or technologies, was added to the Specially Designated Nationals (SDN) list by the US State Department, causing heavy damage to its businesses, payment and financing. In response, Xu Jie, chief compliance officer and legal director at Junzheng, quickly set up an international compliance system while devising strategies to appeal the US sanction. Finally, in June 2021, the sanction was lifted without conditions.

Junzheng became the first Chinese company, as well as the only private company, to have successfully appealed to the US for unconditional removal from the SDN list. Xu Jie is the winner in Dispute resolution (cross-border) and Aviation, shipping & logistics, as well as highly commended in International compliance. Junzheng’s legal department is highly commended in Aviation, shipping & logistics.

Innovative and high-tech companies are closely supervised by both Chinese and foreign regulators, and Nasdaq-listed Kingsoft Cloud, currently exploring a secondary listing in Hong Kong, is no exception. The company’s data compliance is in the hands of Luo Liuhu, the data protection officer. Stressing initiatives in compliance, Luo helped Kingsoft Cloud obtain TrustArc’s privacy certification in the US, and the multi-tier cloud security (MTCS) certification in Singapore.

Luo and the data & privacy protection team at Kingsoft Cloud’s legal department have been highly recognised in the practice area of Data protection & privacy and in the sector of Cloud services.

Allen Liang, general counsel at Sembcorp China, and his legal and compliance team are both highly commended in the category of Environment & renewable energy. Sembcorp China is a subsidiary to the Singapore-headquartered Sembcorp Industries, a leading energy and urban development player.

According to a new strategy unveiled in 2021, Sembcorp Industries aims to grow profits from its sustainable solutions portfolio, from the current 40% to 70% by 2025. Sembcorp China also successfully acquired two new energy portfolios, namely stakes in solar power and wind power assets from China General Nuclear Power Corporation and Shanghai SDIC Co-operative Development Equity Investment Fund, at the considerations of RMB3.3 billion (USD502 million) and RMB1.5 billion, respectively. Liang and his team are also both winners in the category of Mergers & acquisitions (domestic).

“Liang has built a professional and effective legal team at Semb-corp China,” says Zhu Hongwen, a senior partner and head of the Shanghai office at Sunshine Law Firm. “The team members are diverse in their expertise and professional backgrounds, and all are well-versed in China’s legal and regulatory requirements.”

Shawn Cao, a Shanghai-based partner at JunHe, remarks that “in spite of the tight schedule, Sembcorp China’s legal team are able to make proper arrangements, remain communicative with the business department, and methodically move the M&A transaction forward”. Echoing Cao’s high opinions, Lu Wenxin, a senior partner at Hiways Law Firm and a fellow Shanghai-based law practitioner, says: “Well-learned in compliance and risk control, Liang’s team is top-notch and highly influential in the energy and environment sector.”

EMERGING TALENT

The 14 legal counsel identified as Emerging achievers for these awards have travelled remarkably far even without dozens of years under their belts. We believe that their voices will be heard across the industry for decades to come.

Frances Zhang, senior legal counsel at HSBC Bank (China), drives the team responsible for legal matters in the securities service department. With their legal support, HSBC completed a number of first-in-the-market deals, including becoming the first foreign custodian bank to assist a qualified foreign investor (QFI) in completing a transaction at the Beijing Stock Exchange. The team also engaged in custody negotiations with many overseas sovereign institutions, and assisted them in filing and debt investment in China. Their soverign immunity added to the challenge.

Eric Zou, a Shanghai-based partner at Jingtian & Gongcheng, praises Zhang for being “familiar with various securities, fund custody services and asset management in all such areas, and at the frontier of innovation, with proficiency in emerging businesses such as QFII, CIMB Direct, QDII, QDLP and QDIE”. Apart from her professional capability, Zou applauds her “affinity, quick-mindedness, ability to untangle complicated issues, and smooth communication with other departments and lawyers”.

With a mission to “build a ‘soulcial’ (sic) metaverse for generations”, Soul, the Gen Z social media platform founded in 2016, has attracted more than 100 million registered users in China. Zhou Jing, general counsel at the operator Shanghai Soulgate Technology and the Soul app legal team, had to complete all the work on the US listing, as well as compliance in personal information and data protection in a short span of time.

Tang Zhengbo, vice president at Fiture, a leading family fitness technology company, compliments Zhou’s experience and success as a legal professional in the internet sector. “Zhou is in charge of the legal department of a unicorn company and built its legal infrastructure from nothing,” he says. “She is particularly accomplished in capital operation and data compliance.”

Fan Lei, chief compliance officer at Inspur Electronic Information Industry, is responsible for the export control, economic sanctions, privacy and data protection, cybersecurity, FCPA anti-bribery, and ESG of the company in China, the Asia-Pacific, Europe, the Americas and Africa.

“Fan is one of the few legal counsel in China’s compliance field to have dealt with three types of sanctions,” comments Du Guangpu, head of the antitrust sector at Jingsh Law Firm’s Beijing head office. “She has sailed through many international sanctions and has first-hand experience in trading shots with foreign government regulation.”

Apart from being an Emerging achiever, Fan, along with Inspur’s compliance department, is further highly commended in the categories of Cloud services and International compliance.