Conducting legal research on any foreign jurisdiction is a daunting task. Chinese legal research is especially intimidating to non-Chinese attorneys because of the substantial differences between their home country and China’s government and legal system. Written Chinese also presents a formidable obstacle, particularly to attorneys whom simply do not have the time to learn it.
With these challenges in mind, the message of this short article is that some Chinese legal research can be conducted by foreigners. Nonetheless, foreign attorneys will often require input from Chinese counterparts, and it is usually necessary (and always prudent) for foreign clients to engage local PRC counsel.
Opportunities and Challenges
In the past, only PRC and large international firms advised non-Chinese (foreign) clients in Mainland China. However, China’s continued importance in the manufacturing industry and promise to become the largest consumer market is presenting attorneys around the world with opportunities to work alongside local counsel on PRC legal matters.
Despite these opportunities to collaborate with local counsel (instead of simply refer work), foreign attorneys are generally hesitant to conduct any research on Chinese legal issues for various reasons. First, most foreign attorneys simply cannot read Mandarin. Second, foreign attorneys received their legal training abroad. Additionally, some come from common law jurisdictions, while China has a civil law system. Finally, China’s legal environment is evolving at a very rapid pace.
With these challenges in mind, the message of this brief introduction to performing research in China is that some research can be conducted by foreign attorneys, and doing so will foster opportunities to work with local firms on inbound-China work.
Approaching Chinese Legal Research
There is no one right way to conduct legal research. I tend to follow the same general steps for unfamiliar areas of Chinese law as with other jurisdictions – first reading related articles from local practitioners, and then using legal databases as well as government and institutional sources.
Perhaps the best official sources for national law and legislative news are the websites for the National People’s Congress (click here), Legislative Affairs Office of the State Council (click here) and Supreme People’s Court (click here). Local (particularly provincial and first-tier municipal) governments may also have English websites with information on important local laws involving foreign companies.
For national regulations, the majority of Chinese administrations have English portals that include information about the administration and links to official English translations of some of their regulations. Additionally, administrations sometimes issue English explanations on regulations that affect foreign companies.
In addition to official sources, there are many paid services in English. For example, Chinalawinfo (click here) has many of the official English translations of laws and regulations in China. For Mandarin-readers, they also provide split English/Mandarin views, which can be very helpful for drafting agreements, working with Chinese colleagues, etc. I also highly recommend the China sections on Practical Law (click here).
Collaborating with a Chinese Firm
As only PRC attorneys employed at local firms can perform legal services (Chinese lawyers working at foreign firms in China do not have active licenses), foreign firms can either advise their clients to find local counsel or work with a Chinese firm to offer the client a “one-stop shop”. If you choose the latter, then a general understanding of Chinese law and practice would be invaluable, enabling your firm to better recognize clients’ legal needs and risks as well as how to engage, cooperate with and review work product from Chinese attorneys.
Paul Kossof, an American attorney in our Beijing office, represents Chinese investors and construction companies in outbound large-scale infrastructure and energy projects. If you are interested in learning more about our Construction and Energy practices, please contact him at PaulKossof@zhonglun.com.