Turning the Tide

Four Law School graduates based in East Asia talk about working in bustling, opportunity-laden centers of the new global economy at a critical moment in time

By Eveline Chao

Fall 2011

For most working at the nexus of business and law, overseeing the stock market debut of the world’s fifth-largest company would amount to a career summit nonpareil. The same could be said of handling the largest cross-border M&A deal in China’s history, or of serving as a catalyst in bringing the first batch of Chinese mainland companies to the international market. But for Wei Christianson ’89, a managing director, and Co-CEO of Asia Pacific and CEO of China for Morgan Stanley, those accomplishments are mere bullet points residing among scores of others on an über-impressive list of professional successes that continues to expand. In July of last year, for instance, Christianson masterminded what was, at the time, the largest IPO in history—the $22.1 billion debut of Agricultural Bank of China, the country’s third-largest lender.

Christianson is just one of many graduates—among them Charles Li ’91, Ron Cai ’87 LL.M., and Marianne Chao ’95 LL.M.—who, after studying at Columbia Law School, decided to pursue their career goals in East Asia, ascending to positions of great global influence. Li, Cai, Chao, and Christianson each came of age during a time when learning English and studying abroad were seen as crucial for large-scale success. But as the focus of the global economy has shifted east, the value inherent in their ties to East Asia has become all the more apparent.

Christianson, as it turns out, wound up at Columbia Law School due to a chance encounter with Professor Emeritus R. Randle Edwards. As the head of her class studying English at Beijing Language University in the late 1970s, she earned an opportunity to meet Edwards when he came to town in 1981. By the end of Christianson’s initial conversation with Edwards, she had decided that she wanted to be a lawyer. She transferred to Amherst College and graduated cum laude before enrolling at the Law School. Following graduation, Christianson spent several years with Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe in New York before moving on to the Hong Kong Securities and Futures Commission, where she helped draft the regulatory structure that would enable the first mainland Chinese companies to be listed in Hong Kong, in essence opening them to the world. This led, in 1998, to a position at Morgan Stanley, where she helmed some of the biggest deals in China, including an IPO for Chinese oil giant Sinopec, one of the world’s largest companies. She also oversaw what had been China’s largest cross-border M&A transaction, the $4.2 billion acquisition of PetroKazakhstan by China National Petroleum Corporation.

Sitting in Morgan Stanley’s Beijing office overlooking the city’s financial district, Christianson breezily tosses out allusions to a schedule that would fell most people. One day earlier, she was in Shanghai speaking at a newly opened securities joint venture that will allow the bank to underwrite Chinese renminbi-denominated stocks and bonds in the domestic Chinese market. On the same day, Christianson led a team effort that resulted in a $3.6 billion placement of Bank of China and China Construction Bank shares for Temasek, Singapore’s state-owned investment company.

Nothing—be it a jam-packed schedule or a layered and extremely complex deal—seems to faze Christianson. Perhaps that is because modern challenges pale in comparison to what she experienced growing up. Christianson lived through some of the worst horrors of the Cultural Revolution, the “decade of chaos” from 1966 to 1976. “I’ve seen a lot of stressful situations,” she says. “I’ve seen deaths, persecutions. I’ve seen the worst situations you can imagine. So after you’ve gone through that, you feel, not invincible, but you feel pretty tough.”

Though she was politically disillusioned by that period, Christianson says old memories inspire her to effect lasting change in the country—a mission she seeks to pass on to the younger generation of colleagues at Morgan Stanley.

“This is where we can make a difference,” Christianson says. “People are very proud to be associated with the privatization of one of the world’s largest banks, or with [some of China’s] largest M&A transactions, because we are really changing things. We are helping China.”

At the same time, Christianson believes in the value of staying connected to the broader world, both at a personal level and for China. “It is important not to turn inward or become closed off,” she says. “That’s why I encourage people to go out and study abroad.” And, through it all, Christianson has never forgotten the debt she owes to the man behind her own foreign studies, Professor Edwards. “I’m eternally grateful to him,” she says, adding that her gratitude is not just because Edwards inspired her to go to law school. Christianson met her husband, Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom partner Jon Christianson ’89, at a brown-bag lunch hosted by the Law School’s Center for Chinese Legal Studies, which Edwards directed for nearly 20 years.

Things came full circle for Christianson in 2006, when she was awarded the Law School’s Medal for Excellence. By her side that afternoon stood Edwards, who was there to receive the very same honor. 

A glance at the recent dealbooks of Morgan Stanley or any other major investment firm provides a reminder of just how eager international investors are to tap into China’s lightning-fast growth. But on the flip side, legions of Chinese investors are awash in money and hungry for channels for investing capital outside the country. Standing at the intersection of these two trends is Charles Li, chief executive of Hong Kong Exchanges and Clearing Limited (HKEx), the company that operates the Hong Kong stock market.

Like Christianson, Li was steered toward Columbia Law School partly by Professor R. Randle Edwards. Li was making $8 an hour as a part-time journalist in a small Alabama town when he decided to apply to law school. After receiving an acceptance letter from the Law School, he says, “I actually wrote them to decline, because I didn’t have the money.” But the admissions office called Li and asked him to fly to New York before making a decision. The rest, as they say, is history. The Center for Chinese Legal Studies offered Li several assistantships and grants, enabling him to enroll.

Upon graduating from the Law School, Li worked for several years at Davis Polk & Wardwell in New York, before joining Brown & Wood and then moving to Hong Kong to set up that firm’s office there. In 1994, he joined Merrill Lynch, and in 1999, at the age of 39, Li was named managing director and CEO of Merrill Lynch China.

At Merrill, Li was responsible for numerous high-profile IPOs, including that of oil giant China National Offshore Oil Company (CNOOC). The project presented a meaningful moment for the young lawyer, because, for three tough years starting at age 16, Li worked on a CNOOC oil rig in the North China Sea. He credits that period with preparing him for life’s challenges.

“People of my age [from China] tend to be a little bit tougher, and tend to have a little bit more perspective in life,” he says, “simply because things were not easy.”       

That steely toughness propelled Li, in 2003, to the chairmanship of J.P.Morgan China, where he was involved in CNOOC’s headline-grabbing bid to purchase the now-defunct American oil company Unocal. Though the bid ultimately failed, J.P.Morgan China flourished under Li’s stewardship. He moved to HKEx in 2009.

“The exchange job comes at a time when you have China trying to find a way to integrate its overall economic activity into the global economy,” Li says. “You have international forces all wanting to benefit from the growth in China, and Hong Kong is the perfect place for these dual forces to interact.”

In April, HKEx debuted its first stock listing denominated in renminbi, the mainland Chinese currency. At the moment, Chinese citizens cannot invest in Hong Kong. Assuming that changes, the new product sets up infrastructure for those in China to invest abroad with less risk. Considering how active mainland China’s two stock markets are (turnover on the Shenzhen Stock Exchange was 344.4 percent in 2010, the highest in the world), that could lead to a flood of money into Hong Kong. 

Like Charles Li, Ron Cai acts as a bridge between East and West through his work as partner-in-charge and chief representative of Davis Wright Tremaine’s Shanghai office. Davis Wright was the first American law firm approved to open an office in Shanghai and launched the branch in 1994 to assist American and international corporations doing business in China. During his tenure, Cai has represented companies such as Bloomberg, General Electric, Goodyear, Microsoft, and Starbucks, assisting on everything from international M&As to technology licensing to corporate compliance auditing. In recent years, the firm has begun to represent more Chinese companies, helping these clients understand U.S. and international law.

Cai says the desire to participate in the development of a rule-of-law society is what spurred him to enter the legal profession. His father was a public prosecutor in their hometown of Xiamen, on the southeastern coast of China, and when the Cultural Revolution broke out shortly after Cai was born, the family, together with some other public prosecutors and their families, escaped the Red Guards by hiding in a suburb of his hometown. Cai’s family spent almost two years hiding above a movie theater, followed by two more years in re-education camps. When they returned home, things had changed.

“The courthouse, the police, and the state attorney’s office were all consolidated into one single government unit,” Cai says. “So if someone was arrested, there was no prosecution or court trial process. You would basically be arrested and then thrown into jail right away.”

Ultimately, Cai decided to study law at Xiamen University and to continue his legal studies at Columbia Law School. After completing his LL.M., he spent five years as an associate with Tonkon Torp in Portland, Ore. In 1994, driven by a desire to serve his country, Cai moved to Asia. He worked at two Hong Kong firms before settling in at Davis Wright’s Shanghai office. There, he applies both his understanding of China and his knowledge of U.S. and international law to advise on bilateral trade and investment deals.    

Cai’s dual perspective is also crucial in his role as an arbitrator with the China International Economic and Trade Arbitration Commission (CIETAC), which mediates and arbitrates economic and trade disputes, mostly between Chinese and foreign counterparts. Hot-button issues like differing stances on intellectual property in China keep CIETAC one of the busiest international arbitration centers in the world. They also tend to ensure that life is extremely busy for Cai, who says he has mixed feelings about how far China’s legal system has come since his youth. “On the one hand, I’m disappointed, but on the other hand I see gradual progress,” he says. “And I can see that the younger generation of Chinese officials now understand the world better.”

Unlike Cai, Li, or Christianson, Jones Day Partner Marianne Chao grew up in Taipei, Taiwan, which was never closed to the world. Yet for Chao, studying at Columbia Law School was no less of an eye-opening dose of internationalism.

“It was very good for me,” she says, “to know friends from different parts of the world, to see the big city, and to be very small in a big city.”

That exposure has been essential to her success at Jones Day’s Taipei office, where she has worked since graduating from the Law School. At Jones Day, Chao leads the firm’s dispute resolution practice. Her work centers on helping international companies with business disputes in Taiwan and assisting Taiwanese clients with disputes in other countries.

In that capacity, Chao has developed a reputation for her adroit handling of contentious construction matters. She represents every  major player in high-speed rail, telecommunications, and power plant projects. In one highly publicized case, she served as lead counsel for the French company Matra Transport and successfully countered court actions that the Taiwanese government brought to sidestep a $69 million arbitral award. Other clients have included HSBC, Nippon Steel, Lockheed Martin, and Alcatel-Lucent. Chao credits the Law School with developing within her the ability to analyze and cycle through the tenets of multiple legal systems simultaneously.

“My study at Columbia [helped] me understand the common law system and other legal systems, so I can advise clients on what action to take in different countries,” she says. “In Taiwan, we have a civil law system, so there are a lot of differences with respect to substantive law and procedural law.”

Chao adds that her training abroad helps her analyze opposing arguments. “You have to look at [things] from a wider perspective, and see the different legal systems and court systems and laws of different countries, to decide what action to take,” she says, “instead of only reacting.”

To be sure, Chao makes many important decisions—and not just in the legal sphere. She is a commissioner on the national government’s Referendum Review Committee, which approves or rejects proposals to put some of Taiwan’s most important policy issues up for public vote. Chao also recently served as an executive director of the Taipei Bar Association and is currently the youngest president ever of the Taiwan chapter of the International Federation of Women Lawyers, an affiliate of the United Nations. In November, she will travel to Nigeria for the organization’s biennial convention.

“I like international environments,” Chao declares proudly.

It is a worldview that led her to the Law School and New York City, and one that continues to drive her work today. “I’m still learning,” she adds. “Life is a process of learning. And I hope that I can now use my connections to help the world and
society improve.”

Eveline Chao is a freelance business writer based in Beijing and New York City.

"Turning the Tide" Sidebar
Leadership & Tradition

For the past three decades, Columbia Law School has maintained an unparalleled reputation as a world leader in Asian legal studies. Professor R. Randle Edwards helped establish Columbia Law School’s Center for Chinese Legal Studies in 1983, shortly after the restoration of diplomatic relations between the U.S. and China. Edwards served as the director of the program until he retired in 2002, when Professor Benjamin L. Liebman assumed the post. The center hosts programs in Beijing and Shanghai, sponsors fellowships, and organizes events at the Law School each year that bring together leading practitioners and scholars.

Columbia was the first law school in the United States to offer a course on Japanese law. Building on that history, Professor Walter Gellhorn ’31 helped found the Law School’s Center for Japanese Legal Studies in 1980. Led by Professor Curtis J. Milhaupt ’89, it continues to be the first and only center of its kind in the United States.

Founded nearly 20 years ago, the Center for Korean Legal Studies is the only center of its kind dedicated to studying the legal systems of both North and South Korea. Professor Jeong-Ho Roh serves as the director of the center, which offers cutting-edge courses on Korean law
and policy.