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Powers of Persuasion

Powers of Persuasion: Bankers and Investors Use Analytic and Communication Skills to Advance Business Transactions

Because of Columbia's strong reputation in transactional and financial law, some graduates, after cutting their teeth as law firm associates, move to financially related companies, such as banks and hedge funds. Charles Li '91 and Wei Christianson '89 are members of a new generation of Chinese businesspeople who have been hired by U.S. banks not for their connections to high-ranking Communist officials but for their legal and business skills and ability to understand both cultures.

A Cultural and Linguistic Bridge

Mr. Li, chairman & CEO of JP Morgan China, emerged from a very difficult young adulthood during China's Cultural Revolution to find himself studying journalism at the University of Alabama. Although he had every intention of pursuing a writing career, he found the classroom discussions of legal issues such as libel and defamation too compelling to push to the sidelines. "My whole career took a turn," he says. "When I started getting into the law, I liked what I was doing and the challenge of it."

After graduating, he worked for Davis Polk for a few years. At the same time, the business climate of China was heating up, and he wanted to return home. One of his firm's clients, Merrill Lynch, offered him a job heading up the China business. Then, in 2003, after nine years, he joined JP Morgan.

The education Mr. Li received at Columbia has gone a long way in the banking industry, where his clients include Chinese National Offshore Oil Co. (CNOOC), the Chinese Ministry of Finance, and China Telecom. He advised CNOOC in its high-profile attempts to take over Unocal for $19 billion—an unthinkable event for Mr. Li 20 years earlier when he himself worked as an offshore oil driller. Mr. Li sees himself as a cultural and linguistic bridge between Americans who want to invest in China and those who need the capital.

"People like me have split personalities," he says. "One moment you have to think like an American lawyer and banker, but you also have to think like your client—a government official, corporate executive, or academic in China.

At Columbia, the Center on Chinese Legal Studies, headed at the time by Professor Randle Edwards, made Mr. Li feel at home, and he became the managing editor of the Journal on Chinese Law. Among his classes, Constitutional Law had the most profound impact. "As part of the leadership in China and one of the fortunate few, there is a greater responsibility on our shoulders to influence the direction of the country—with huge consequences for the environment and for people's freedom," he says. "Constitutional law gives us a good foundation to think about it."

Winning New Business

For Wei Christianson '89, managing director and chief executive officer for Morgan Stanley in China, a powerful career in banking can be traced to both her steely resolve to become a professional woman and a series of personal encounters. The former chairwoman of China for Citigroup Global Markets met Prof. Edwards in Beijing and spoke with him about the profession of law. When she showed interest, he suggested that she repeat her undergraduate study at a top U.S. college before pursuing a J.D. No stranger to hard work, Ms. Christianson applied and was accepted to Amherst as its first student from mainland China, and she continued on to Columbia Law School.

After Ms. Christianson moved to Hong Kong, she attained a position drafting the regulatory structure that would enable the first batch of People's Republic of China companies to be listed outside China—a unique job that helped pave the way for her investment banking career.

In the years since, Ms. Christianson has masterminded major initial public offerings including Sinopec, China Life, and SMIC, and oversaw the $4.2 billion acquisition of Gas Khazakstan by CNPC, which was the largest cross-border M&A deal ever undertaken in China.

"The competitiveness of the law school environment and the aggressiveness, focus, and attention to detail required of lawyers in the U.S. is perfect training for being a successful investment banker in China," she says.

Grounding an Entrepreneurial Spirit

Lady Lynn Forester de Rothschild '79 was a new graduate working for a law firm when she caught a glimpse of her future. One of her clients, MetroMedia Telecommunications, was entering the brand-new industry of cellular technology. She was offered a senior position. Several years later, when the Federal Communications Commission initiated the first specifications for wireless broadband service, she became the first person in the world, together with her technology partner, Motorola, to be granted wireless broadband licenses.

"Broadband was the most incredible sea change in communications technology since Alexander Graham Bell, and no one was paying attention to it in the mid 1990s," says Lady de Rothschild.

Her attention to this market shift proved enormously profitable for Lady de Rothschild, who today runs ELR Holdings, a private investment company. While ELR once invested mainly in technology, its major holding is now a 50 percent interest in an India-based company called FieldFresh Foods. The purpose of FieldFresh, a joint venture with India's Bharti Enterprises, is to "link Indian fields to the world," she explains.

"We are bringing a new industry to India, where there are 600 million farmers but no infrastructure—such as packaging, cold storage, or European-level quality standards—to allow the produce to be sold in Europe and the Middle East," she says.

While Lady de Rothschild's sizable entrepreneurial spirit and business acumen are crucial to her success, she uses her legal training—particularly her contracts and transactions courses—almost every day. "The challenge is to have a vision and stick to it," she says.