My research interest in the Chinese legal profession dates back to 2002, my last year at Peking University Law School, when I used an internship at a large corporate law firm in Beijing as my first opportunity for participant observation. Since then, I have been conducting empirical studies on various aspects of the legal profession in China, including corporate lawyers, criminal defense lawyers, human rights and activist lawyers, migrant lawyers, basic-level legal workers, elite law schools, women judges, and so on. Working with a number of outstanding collaborators including 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. Since 2017, I have expanded my research on the legal profession from mainland China to Hong Kong and Taiwan, with a focus on how colonialism and authoritarianism influence the historical development of professions in both societies. 

Professional Competition and Regulation

My early empirical work on Chinese lawyers focuses on professional competition and regulation. My Ph.D. dissertation research, for example, uses two social processes, boundary work and exchange, to explain the fragmented social structure of the Chinese legal services market. Published as a book in Chinese (《割据的逻辑:中国法律服务市场的生态分析》The Logic of Fragmentation: An Ecological Analysis of the Chinese Legal Services Market) and five journal articles in English, this project 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 the complementary processes of boundary work and exchange. These two social 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.

The theoretical core of this research project is summarized in my Symbolic Interaction article (“Boundary Work and Exchange”), and my four articles on the corporate, personal, and in-house sectors of the Chinese legal profession present its main empirical findings. My first two 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 with foreign law offices have produced a localized and hybrid expertise for Chinese corporate lawyers, which makes the global-local jurisdictional boundary increasingly blurry and porous. My China Quarterly article (“Lawyers, State Officials, and Significant Others”) investigates the interprofessional competition that Chinese lawyers face in ordinary litigation. I argue 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. My Wisconsin Law Review article (“Palace Wars over Professional Regulation”) examines the boundary work between competing professional regulators on in-house counsel in state-owned enterprises and how the regulatory competition is constrained by the exchange between state agencies and the legal professions that they regulate. 

Lawyers and Criminal Justice

Another line of my empirical work 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 research collaborator Terence C. Halliday. As co-principal investigators, we received a major grant from the National Science Foundation and two grants from 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. From 2005 to 2015, we conducted 329 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 often have the ideological orientation to challenge state power, protect citizen rights, and pursue proceduralism; (2) political embeddedness: lawyers often rely on political connections with the state 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.

To this date, this collaborative project has resulted in five 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), International Journal of the Legal Profession (“Advocates, Experts, and Suspects”, with Cheng-Tong Lir Wang), and China Perspectives ("Law as a Sword, Law as a Shield", with Ching-Fang Hsu), a book chapter (“Birth of a Liberal Moment?”), and a co-authored book (Criminal Defense in China: The Politics of Lawyers at Work) published by Cambridge University Press in 2016. After the publication of the book, I have also written two new articles examining the history of lawyer mobilization in China ("The Ecology of Activism", with Terence C. Halliday) and the use of performance arts by feminist activists and activist lawyers ("Performing Artivism", with Di Wang).

Law and Globalization

Globalization has been a major theme of my work ever since my first Law & Social Inquiry article in 2006 (“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 switched the focus from grassroots courts in rural China to elite corporate law firms in Beijing and Shanghai as these law firms played a crucial role in the globalization of the Chinese economy in the early 21st century. The 2006 and 2008 Law & Society Review articles mentioned above (“Client Influence and the Contingency of Professionalism” and “Globalization as Boundary-Blurring”) 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.

This focus on the global-local boundaries continues in my more recent work. 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. Inspired by the GLEE Project, my 2013 Law & Social Inquiry article (“The Legal Profession as a Social Process”) presents not only a processual theory of the legal profession, but also a research proposal for studying lawyers and globalization in emerging economies. Collaborating with Hongqi Wu, my main empirical study for the GLEE Project was published in the American Journal of Sociology in 2016 (“The Ecology of Organizational Growth”). Following the Chicago School of sociology, this article proposes an ecological theory of organizational growth to challenge existing theories on law firm growth as well as general organizational theories such as population ecology and neo-institutionalism. 

In 2017, David B. Wilkins and I received a book contract from Cambridge University Press to publish the GLEE China research as an edited volume The Chinese Legal Profession in the Age of Globalization: The Rise of the Corporate Legal Sector and Its Impact on Lawyers and Society. An introduction of the book written by Liu, Trubek, and Wilkins was published as an article in the Asian Journal of Law and Society in 2016 (“Mapping the Ecology of China’s Corporate Legal Sector”). The book is expected to constitute the third and final volume of the GLEE trilogy on globalization and the legal profession in India, Brazil, and China. 

Legal Profession

Sida Liu

Sociologist of Law