China Watch – A foreign lawyer’s view from the inside

A couple of weeks ago I was invited to participate as a judge in a legal English contest conducted by the Sinopec law department. On the surface, this was part training exercise and part game show, but there was a deeper objective, which became apparent quite quickly.

Other judges included Allen & Overy Hong Kong partner Mark Roppel, dean of the Beijing Foreign Studies University law school Wan Meng (probably the most internationalised law school dean in China, with excellent English), and senior Sinopec lawyer Cheng Daqing, who also helped design the competition. All of this was under the direction of the head of the Sinopec law department, Jason Jixing Zhang, who is one of the most impressive of the new generation of Chinese in-house lawyers.

This contest was like a combination of Who Wants to be a Millionaire and Britain’s Got Talent. The 10 finalists, who had been selected from among more than 800 hopefuls from throughout the vast Sinopec group through a gruelling three-month competition, took their places on the stage standing behind lecterns complete with buzzers and LED displays for the scores. They were introduced by a smartly dressed MC couple, who introduced each round as well as the variety acts between each round (all Chinese aspire to be vaudeville performers, it seems). The entire show – and it was quite a show – was broadcast throughout the Sinopec network on closed-circuit television. This could have been nominated for a Bafta award for best foreign state-owned enterprise television production.

There were four rounds. In round one, each contestant was required to write the correct answers to the questions on a small whiteboard and hold them up for judging. In round two the first contestant to buzz in was permitted to answer the question, with points deducted both for a wrong answer and for buzzing in early. It became apparent from the first question that this was not merely a simple vocabulary quiz (although round three was a timed vocabulary translation lightening round): it was a full on law examination. Among other things, the contestants were asked to define limited liability, under what conditions an offer would be deemed to have lapsed, how to protect trade secrets and whether, and under what circumstances, parties to a contract containing an arbitration clause can go to court.

This would not be so remarkable except for the fact that the contestants were not drawn only from the Sinopec law department – they came from across all of the operational and functional teams in the Sinopec group in China. That’s when it dawned on me: Jason Zhang was conducting an English contest as a means of elevating legal awareness throughout the entire company.

Round four was the extemporaneous speech contest, which is where our panel of judges came into play. We were asked to score each speech, with a high score of 20 points. We were to take into account content, pronunciation and intonation, grammar and vocabulary, presentation and delivery as well as time (approximately two minutes). An ‘okay’ presentation would be scored between five to 10 points and a ‘good’ presentation was to be awarded 11 to 15 points, while an ‘excellent’ speech would garner 16 to 20 points. Before the final round commenced, we were gently advised not to give anyone a score lower than 10 – no need to bring embarrassment to any contestant.

As judges we felt no small amount of pressure since no consultation was allowed and the scores were collected immediately after each speech and then flashed onto the big screen behind the contestants – with each individual score set out to the right of a photo of each judge. After the first several scores were posted, I thought I detected a pattern: Mark Roppel of A&O was consistently scoring the speeches lower than I was. So I decided to calibrate my scores down for the next few speeches only to find that his corresponding scores were on the rise.

I was particularly mortified when I saw that my score for one of the truly exceptional contestants (and they were all very good) was posted as a 14 when I had written down a score of 19. That five-point difference kept him out of the lead. When I tried to point out the error, I was waived off. “Points don’t matter” was the answer, which turned out to be true. We all chose two contestants for best pronunciation and two more for best presentation, and those with the most votes in those two categories won special prizes. Ultimately, everyone was a winner.

But this blog is not really about a legal English contest; it’s about spreading the gospel of the importance of legal compliance, the role of the law department and even the rule of law in China.

Here is a sampling of some of the topics for the extemporaneous speeches:

– Legal services should ‘go global’ one step ahead of the company.

– What is the best way to interpret the following from a legal perspective: “The biggest risk is to see no risk”?

– Proper legal management not only saves costs but also creates profits.

– Legal affairs management is not just the responsibility of in-house legal counsel but is everyone’s responsibility.

– In-house legal counsel are the ‘sword’ and the ‘shield’ of the company.

– In-house legal counsel are participants in and gatekeepers of the important decisions of the company.

– Contract management is one of the most effective ways to mitigate legal risk.

– What is the best way to interpret Sinopec’s corporate Rule of Law mission statement, which requires ‘lawfulness, compliance, fairness and integrity’?

Each contestant, including those from outside the law department, spoke with earnest conviction on the role of legal compliance in the company’s operations. While some aspects of these speeches were rehearsed (like experienced politicians, they were adept at responding to specific questions with general platitudes, so there were many one-size-fits-all answers), there was nothing canned about the sentiments expressed. Most of the contestants were still quite young, in their mid- to late-20s, and all in junior positions, so perhaps it was the idealism of youth untainted as yet by the stresses of running the day-to-day aspects of the business with targets and quotas to achieve under sometimes hostile conditions. But for this day and for this contest, the expressions of aspirations of advancing the rule of law were sincere and impressive.

A towering tree grows, over time, from a small seed. I was interested to observe the planting of more important seeds as part of this legal risk management tutorial masquerading as a legal English contest.

Robert Lewis, is international managing partner at Zhong Lun Law Firm, based in Beijing