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. Recently, I have started to expand my research on the legal profession from mainland China to Hong Kong and Taiwan with my University of Toronto colleague Ching-Fang Hsu. 

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 (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 in 2004-2007, I argue that the structural fragmentation in this professional service market is shaped by the political fragmentation in its state regulatory regimes through two social processes: boundary work and exchange. These two complementary 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 and a blurry global-local jurisdictional boundary. 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 the work and politics of China’s criminal defense lawyers with my collaborator Terence C. Halliday. We received three 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 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.

Until today, this collaborative project has resulted in 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), a book chapter (“Birth of a Liberal Moment?”), and, finally, a co-authored book (Criminal Defense in China: The Politics of Lawyers at Work, Cambridge University Press, 2016). Thanks to the increasing public concerns on the persecution of Chinese human rights lawyers in recent years, some of our research findings were quoted by the popular media, including the New York Times, the Guardian, and the Wall Street Journal. Our book was also favorably reviewed in the New York Review of Books in August 2017. In the next two years, we will produce three additional papers to provide a sociological explanation on the rise of lawyer activism in China, including one completed manuscript (“The Ecology of Activism”) currently under review.

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 2006 and 2008 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 article 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 article proposes an ecological theory of organizational growth to challenge existing organizational theories such as population ecology and neo-institutionalism. I also co-authored a paper on the internationalization of Chinese legal education in the early 21st Century with Zhizhou Wang and Xueyao Li. The GLEE Project is producing three edited volumes on Brazil, India, and China, as well as a series of articles in law reviews and social science journals. I am the co-editor with David B. Wilkins for its volume on China (The Chinese Legal Profession in the Age of Globalization, Cambridge University Press, forthcoming). 

My next major project on law and globalization, tentatively entitled “Ecologies of Globalization: China’s Shadow on the Legal Professions in Hong Kong and Taiwan,” studies how lawyers in Hong Kong and Taiwan respond to China’s rapid rise as an economic and political power in East Asia. Collaborating with my colleague Ching-Fang Hsu at the University of Toronto, the project has three primary research objectives: (1) to understand how the adjacent ecologies of legal professions in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and China relate to one another; (2) to investigate how boundaries between social actors are constructed in workplace interactions, such as the boundaries between lawyers, between law firms, between lawyers and business corporations, or between lawyers and the state in the Greater China Region; and, (3) to use the case of the legal profession to uncover the spatial and relational consequences of globalization in East Asia and beyond. At the critical intersection of the sociology of law, social theory, and globalization studies, this project will not only provide the first large-scale social science study on the legal professions in Hong Kong and Taiwan, but also contribute to the emerging body of sociological scholarship on how globalization shapes regional economies and politics.

Legal Profession

Sida Liu

Sociolegal researcher