My research interest in the Chinese legal profession dates back to 2001-2002, my senior year at Peking University Law School, when I did an internship at a large corporate law firm in Beijing. Since then, I have been conducting empirical studies on various aspects of the legal profession in China, including corporate lawyers, criminal defense lawyers, migrant lawyers, basic-level legal workers, elite law schools, and, most recently, women judges and the adjudication committee in courts. Working with a number of outstanding collaborators such as Terence C. Halliday, Ethan Michelson, Hongqi Wu, Xueyao Li, Chunyan Zheng, Jiahui Ai, Lungang Wang, and Zhizhou Wang, I have developed the study of the Chinese legal profession from an obscure research topic into a vibrant area of empirical studies both in China and internationally. 

Professional Competition and Regulation

My early empirical work on Chinese lawyers focuses on professional competition and regulation. My Ph.D. dissertation at the University of Chicago, published as a book in Chinese (《割据的逻辑》[The Logic of Fragmentation]) and four articles in English, investigates the interprofessional competition between lawyers and other legal service providers in the Chinese legal services market. Based on more than 250 interviews conducted in 12 provinces of China, I argue that the structural fragmentation in this professional service market is shaped by the political fragmentation in its state regulatory regimes through two complementary social processes: boundary work and exchange. These two processes have produced the isomorphic structural patterns of the legal professions’ market competition and state regulation in China’s three-decade-long legal reform since 1979.

Three articles on the corporate and personal sectors of the Chinese legal profession present the core empirical findings of this research project. My 2006 and 2008 Law & Society Review articles ("Client Influence and the Contingency of Professionalism" and "Globalization as Boundary-Blurring") examine the work of elite Chinese corporate lawyers and how they interact with their clients and foreign law offices in China. The findings suggest that the complex client environment and boundary work against foreign law offices have produced a hybrid of localized expertise among Chinese corporate lawyers, which makes the global-local jurisdictional boundary increasingly blurry. My 2011 China Quarterly article ("Lawyers, State Officials, and Significant Others") investigates the interprofessional competition that Chinese lawyers face in ordinary litigation. It argues that the symbiotic exchange between law practitioners and state officials is the key social process that explains lawyers’ weak structural position and unsuccessful boundary work in the legal services market. The theoretical core of this research project is summarized in my 2015 Symbolic Interaction article ("Boundary Work and Exchange"). 

Lawyers and Criminal Justice

Another major part of my empirical research examines lawyers’ political mobilization in the criminal justice system. Since 2005, I have been working on a large research project on China’s criminal procedure reform and criminal defense lawyers with my collaborator Terence C. Halliday. We received two grants from the National Science Foundation and the American Bar Foundation in support of this project, which is the first large-scale social science inquiry on the role of lawyers in China’s criminal justice system and criminal procedure reforms. From 2005 to 2015, we conducted more than 300 interviews with criminal defense lawyers and other informants in 22 Chinese cities. We find that the meaning of politics in lawyers’ everyday work is twofold: (1) political liberalism: lawyers challenge state power, protect citizen rights, and pursue proceduralism; (2) political embeddedness: lawyers often rely on political connections with state agencies to solve problems in their legal practice. Criminal defense lawyers in China are differentiated into five clusters according to these two dimensions of politics as well as their geographic locations. 

Until today, this collaborative project has resulted in a book chapter ("Birth of a Liberal Moment?") and four journal articles in the Law & Society Review ("Political Liberalism and Political Embeddedness"), Law & Social Inquiry ("Recursivity in Legal Change"), Asian Journal of Law and Society ("The Trial of Li Zhuang", with Lily Liang), and International Journal of the Legal Profession ("Advocates, Experts, and Suspects", with Cheng-Tong Lir Wang). Thanks to the increasing public interests in the political mobilization of Chinese lawyers and the government crackdowns upon them, some of our research findings were quoted by the popular media, including the Guardian, the New York Times, and the Wall Street Journal. The final product of this project is our book, Criminal Defense in China: The Politics of Lawyers at Work, published by Cambridge University Press in 2016. 

Law and Globalization

Globalization has been a major theme of my work ever since my first English article ("Beyond Global Convergence"), which uses the case of a Chinese lower court to examine the conflicts of legitimacy between global and local institutions. After that, I have switched the focus from grassroots courts in rural China to elite corporate law firms in Beijing and Shanghai because these law firms have played a crucial role in the globalization of the Chinese economy since the 1990s. The two Law & Society Review articles mentioned above are the early products of this line of inquiry. In all three articles, I argue that the globalization of law is not a process of global institutional diffusion and isomorphism, but a process of boundary blurring and hybridization at the social boundaries between global institutions and localized expertise.

Since 2011, I have been a core member of the Globalization, Lawyers, and Emerging Economies (GLEE) Project, co-directed by David B. Wilkins and David M. Trubek at Harvard Law School. The GLEE Project examines the impact of globalization on the legal professions in Brazil, India, and China. My main tasks in this project include coordinating the GLEE China research team and leading the research on elite law firms in all three countries. My GLEE paper with Hongqi Wu on the growth of large corporate law firms in China ("The Ecology of Organizational Growth") was published in the American Journal of Sociology in 2016. Following the Chicago School of sociology, this paper proposes an ecological theory of organizational growth to challenge existing theories on law firm growth as well as organizational theories such as population ecology and neo-institutionalism. In addition, I have also written a paper on the internationalization of Chinese legal education in the early 21st Century with Zhizhou Wang and Xueyao Li, to be published in the Journal of Legal Education in Winter 2017. The GLEE Project will produce three edited volumes on Brazil, India, and China, as well as a series of journal articles. I will be the main editor for its volume on China. 

Chinese Lawyers

Sida Liu

Sociolegal researcher