Disparities still exist, but - like the country as a whole - China’s lawyers are ready to enter the world stage.

I have just come back from a brief trip to China. In my available free time in the mid-sized provincial city which was the venue of our meeting, I had the usual impressions – ubiquitous construction work, gleaming shopping malls, and evident signs of wealth. Our meeting was with representatives of the Japanese and Chinese legal professions.

Since on the last occasion when I wrote about this meeting, which takes place annually, I concentrated on the Japanese side, this time I will report on China, moving from the factual to the impressionistic.

By the end of 2013, there were about 252,400 practising lawyers in China, a growth of 20,100 over the previous year (+ 8.65%). The total is about 100,000 more than the number of solicitors in England and Wales – indeed about 100,000 more than any of the largest European national legal professions.

The number of law firms nationwide is 20,442, which is 1,081 more than in 2012 (+ 5.58%). Only 4,649 are sole practices. In 2013, about 2,536,500 lawsuits (+ 5.35%) were dealt with by lawyers, about 1,000,000 non-contentious matters, and 368,800 legal aid cases. The legal profession’s total income was apparently 47 billion RMB (about four-and-a-half billion pounds).

One of the more pressing challenges for the Chinese legal profession is the difference between the east of the country (developed) and the west (still largely underdeveloped). The All China Lawyers Association (ACLA) is trying to remedy the disparity. There are about 2,856 counties in China, and 174 of them did not have a single lawyer before 2013.

In 2013, ACLA eliminated 144 counties from the non-lawyer list.  

China is keen to develop its lawyers’ international capacities. ACLA received 3.8 million RMB (about £360,000) from its Ministry of Finance to launch a project to train lawyers in international practice. A database of 348 lawyers practising in the field was established. The first 97 (considered to be at the top of the list) were trained last year in an intensive course in Beijing.

Then 37 were selected to go on to Germany (note Germany, and not the UK) for further training.

Now I move to more impressionistic conclusions. I visited a leading large law firm in the provincial city where our meeting was held. It has around 800 lawyers nationwide, not the biggest in China by any means. It had just moved into gleaming new offices on a high floor of a tower block, with wonderful views over the sea, like something you might come across in San Francisco. Two things struck me.

First, the firm had three trainees from the West – two from the US and one from Switzerland. In former times, it used to be Chinese students you would see in Western law firms; a sign of how circumstances have changed is that the opposite is now occurring.

The second was cultural. The lawyers sat in rows in an open-plan office, with just short glass screens between them, and about two metres distance between each – not something which I think would be tolerated by solicitors in a large law firm in the City of London.

I spoke to several local lawyers in different settings. There is no welfare state or other safety net, and they had an evident determination to succeed. They spoke excellent English (a couple had undertaken masters’ degrees at Scottish universities, but others had picked up good English even though they had never left China). They had multiple contacts with large English law firms.

All of this goes to show that what applies to the general Chinese economy applies also to its legal services – growth, investment, a stepping onto the world stage. Doubtless our own large firms are aware of this, but it seems that a competitor is creeping up.

Jonathan Goldsmith is secretary general of the Council of Bars and Law Societies of Europe, which represents around a million European lawyers through its member bars and law societies. He blogs weekly for the Gazette on European affairs