5 keywords for becoming an elite lawyer

Irina Baranova

We asked some of our elite A-list lawyers to provide us with keywords that others might use to rise to the top of their game. These were the top five

China Business Law Journal previously selected 100 lawyers working in PRC law firms and 100 lawyers in foreign ones as “legal elites”. We recently sent out a questionnaire on tips for becoming an elite to the lawyers who took out these awards and, based on their replies, we developed our five keywords as a means of inspiration for lawyers keen to emulate these winning professionals.

Beneath each keyword, you’ll find a comprehensive list of factors our award-winning lawyers identified as making them stand out, with a few habits and tips that make up their magic formula for success.

We sorted these replies with a word cloud generator to find out the five most popular keywords and some of their derived habits. The information received was too extensive to be included in its entirety due to space limitations, so our report provides a brief synthesis of insights – but one well worth examining. Does your work strategy have what it takes to become a future elite?


Almost one out of every four answers in our survey mentioned the client, undoubtedly showing that the principle of “customer first” is crucial in the legal profession as well. But what are the core strategies for servicing the client?

(1) Solution-oriented

Sam Boyling, a partner and joint head of office at Pinsent Masons’ Singapore and Beijing offices, says it’s necessary to be fully insightful of clients’ needs from the moment they step into your law firm. “Remember that clients don’t want legal services, they want a positive outcome for their business,” he says.

“Transposition” is one of the high-frequency words used to refer to providing practical solutions. Paul Li, a non-equity partner of Zhong Lun Law Firm in London, says: “Think more from clients’ perspectives and provide legal solutions rather than legal analysis.”

Sometimes law firms should be a step ahead of their clients. Matteo Zhi, a senior partner of D’Andrea & Partners in Shanghai, suggests: “Good lawyers resolve problems, but great lawyers avoid problems.”

(2) Effective communication

Jay Tai, a partner at Proskauer in Hong Kong, is an advocate for enhancing communication. “Regularly check or catch up with clients on their well-being and meet up socially,” he advises.

Many lawyers believe most disputes in a commercial co-operation arise from misunderstandings and miscommunication. Ray Liu, a global partner and managing partner of the Beijing office of Dorsey, agrees that communication is always the key to success, and is not limited to communicating only with customers. “We need proper and timely communication with our clients, colleagues, peers, and even our opponents,” he says.5 keywords for becoming an elite lawyer Andrew Powner

Andrew Powner, managing partner of Haldanes in Hong Kong, emphasises avoiding communication errors in this information age, adding: “Ensure that people do not argue by email or WhatsApp, as it is always better to meet face-to-face when there is a disagreement.”

Law is a profession dealing with words, and therefore perfection in language is necessary for lawyers. Many legal professionals never cease making efforts to acquire knowledge, skill and proficiency in their linguistic ability. Liu Xiao, a partner at Quinn Emanuel in Shanghai, chips in with some sound practical advice. “I deliberately review my Chinese and English skills every week, such as the grammar and recent expression habits, or whether I habitually use passive voice more often, and whether the emails to clients are not accurate enough.”


Lawyers must be professional enough to guarantee clients’ legitimate rights and interests. This is not just hyperbole. Although many of the top lawyers surveyed did not directly say “professional”, their words reflected their concern for professional quality.

(1) Attention to detail

“The devil is in the details,” says James Jiang, a partner and corporate head of Yuanda China Law Firm in Shanghai. Several lawyers agreed, advocating attention to detail in order to see the bigger picture.

5 keywords for becoming an elite lawyer Katherine Wang

Focus on detail is also a methodology for analysing cases. “Always try to break down large and complex problems into smaller pieces and provide succinct answers to each small question,” says Katherine Wang, a partner at Ropes & Gray in Shanghai.

(2) Strategic mindset

Some replies mentioned that, by thinking independently, it’s possible to propose more targeted solutions and suggestions for clients, and to solve complex practical problems. Yu Peng, a senior partner at DOCVIT Law Firm in Beijing, says: “Sometimes it takes longer to think about a case than to act.”

5 keywords for becoming an elite lawyer Yu Peng

But how to think is the key. Qi Zhaobo, a partner at Hai Run Law Firm in Beijing, provides a special response: “I often figure out a solution from the opponents’ perspective.”

(3) Good work habits

Work tasks are divided into a hierarchy of priority. Good work habits can not only achieve twice the result with half the effort, but also improve professional quality and image. It can be meticulous work such as clearing desks, effective time management or, as Hu Zhengzheng, a partner at Jingtian & Gongchen in Beijing, says, he uses WeChat to record to-do items at any time. “The first task of a day is to review the to-do list,” says Hu.

5 keywords for becoming an elite lawyer Mark Reed

During an investigation, many lawyers agreed that it is necessary to develop the habit of responding swiftly to show respect and attention to clients. Mark Reed, a partner at Stephenson Harwood in Hong Kong, explains: “Ensure top quality and responsive service irrespective of fee because the referrals will then follow.”


(1) Keep up with legal trends

He Fang, a partner at JunHe’s Beijing headquarters, says that “keeping up with the current legal developments and reading broadly” is one of her secrets to success in this fast-paced world.

However, with vast amounts of documents to peruse every day, how much time can a lawyer spend on reading? Cherry Guo, a senior partner at Tiantai Law Firm in Beijing, advises: “Make full use of fragmented time.” She believes in the interpretation that time is just like the water in a sponge – squeeze it, and you will have it.

To be one step ahead of the latest developments in the industry means being able to grasp the initiative. Qi Zhaobo, at Hai Run in Beijing, suggests that “following and subscribing to official legal accounts” is an efficient method. Ma Qiang, a partner at Haiwen & Partners in Beijing, provides an alternative to learning: “Actively participate in relevant activities of legal associations and communicate closely with your peers.”5 keywords for becoming an elite lawyer Qiao Zhaoshu

Qiao Zhaoshu, a senior partner at DOCVIT Law Firm in Beijing, says: “We must determine lifelong learning after being on the road of a lawyer. Lawyers deal with all kinds of issues, but not all of them have standard answers, or point to legal domains.”

(2) Open-minded

Standing still undoubtedly leads to a dead end in today’s ever-changing market environment. Charles Darwin, a British naturalist and biologist, wrote in his theory of evolution: “It is not the strongest of species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change.” This sentence is also one of the mottos of a Milbank partner in Beijing, Shepard Liu, which he uses to spur himself on to be at the forefront of the industry.

But how does one stay open-minded? Zhang Wenliang, a senior partner at Guantao Law Firm in Beijing, says: “keep pen-minded and embrace the good parts of disagreement”, while Liu Jianwei, an equity partner at Zhong Lun in Beijing, advises: “Develop a habit of questioning, don’t stick to conventional cognition.”5 keywords for becoming an elite lawyer Zhang Wenliang

When thinking outside the proverbial box, Yu Peng, of DOCVIT in Beijing, counsels: “Think about the factors outside of the legal realm that may bring unexpected impact on cases.”

Lin Wei, Beijing-based senior partner at DOCVIT, agrees that a lawyer should face the media with an open mind. “Write more articles and don’t refuse news interviews … it is more important you force yourself to get some new knowledge through this experience,” he says.


Elite lawyers provide more professional services to clients, which requires not only a legal mindset, but a commercial awareness. “The vision is based on the law, but business thinking and political awareness are indispensable,” says Gary Gao, an equity partner at Zhong Lun’s Shanghai office.

5 keywords for becoming an elite lawyer Gary Gao

Legal services should not be about short-term wins and losses, but a long-term vision of sustainable business development. “Look at services and transactions from a commercial perspective,” says Zhu Hongwen, managing partner of the Shanghai office and head of international practice at Sunshine Law Firm. Zhu Shaobin, a partner of Morgan Lewis in Shanghai, is more specific: “Formulate litigation strategies given clients’ business goals.”

One of the essential aspects of commercialisation is marketing, which elite partners adopt as a tool for developing the law firm. Hilary Lau, a partner and head of energy for Asia at Herbert Smith Freehills in Hong Kong, points out that lawyers need to “have a fantastic business development team”.

Hu Gaochong, a partner at Zhonglun W&D Law Firm in Beijing, explains that taking full advantage of different resources for marketing promotion “can establish and export a professional image”.

“Summarise cases and legal hotspots promptly into articles or courses as a steady stream to the public,” advises Wang Zheng, a partner at Zhenghan Law Firm in Shanghai. Law firms can improve their reputation and attract more clients, resources and talent through a similar series of marketing promotions, adds Wang.


A great deal of background work is involved in legal cases, especially those relevant to multiple jurisdictions and practice areas. It requires seamless co-operation between teams of lawyers and support staff. Michael Zhang, office managing partner at Sheppard Mullin in Shanghai, believes that in this context, his job is to “unify and optimise the strength and expertise of these teams and the firm’s global resources, rather than ‘solo showcase’ by myself”.

Rossana Chu, managing partner of LC Lawyers in Hong Kong, suggests: “Make colleagues feel included so that they know how their contributions can make a success.” Jackson Teng, a senior partner at Zhonglun W&D in Shanghai, says: “Treat your younger colleagues the way you wish to be treated when you were their age.”

Alan Chiu, managing partner at ELLALAN in Hong Kong, says the ultimate goal is “happy team, happy clients”, elaborating further: “Treat your team better and they will treat your clients the same way.”

5 keywords for becoming an elite lawyer Yang Xun

Yang Xun, a partner at Llinks Law Offices in Shanghai, arrives at this conclusion: “If I spend time on my associates, they will someday return this with value.”

Don’t forget: Work-life balance

Although the word “hobbies” is not a sight word in the word cloud analysis, we found that habits related to interests in everyday life were one of the most frequently mentioned answers in our survey. Liu Zhen, a partner and head of China practice at Gunderson Dettmer, worries that “Lawyers may be forced to consume a lot of ‘negative’ energy day in and day out when solving people’s problems. It’s important for one’s mental health to compartmentalise professional tasks from life,” she adds.5 keywords for becoming an elite lawyer Liu Zhen

Many awarded lawyers on the “A-List” stay physically active by jogging, doing yoga, hiking, skiing, etc. Andrew Powner of Haldanes believes that the skills learned from organising football teams help his managing partner work. Bill Gao, the head of the intellectual property department and the youngest managing partner at Landing Law Offices in Shanghai, says: “Stick to a hobby that you have loved since you were a child. For me it is playing the guitar.”

But some hobbies may need moderation. Eric Carlson, a partner of Covington & Burling in Shanghai and Washington, jokes: “Making bread a few times a week is good for the soul, but not for the waistline.”

Each career stage encounters different difficulties, from trainee solicitors and paralegals to senior lawyers or partners. Even if you have become a “rainmaker” for a law firm, many lawyers we spoke to agree that a legal career is a lifelong one that carries lifelong learning.5 keywords for becoming an elite lawyer Michael Liu

Michael Liu, a senior partner at Dentons in Shanghai, advises: “Commit to being a lawyer, not only as a profession but as a career, and be passionate about it.”

Li Haiping, a partner and leader at the Shanghai office of Skadden, adds that she is “passionate about my practice and love what I do”. More than anything else, perhaps this sentence sums up what’s needed to succeed, not just in the legal world.

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