Revenues Up for Chinese Firms; Cracking Down on Rights Lawyers

From The Practice September/October 2016
Highlighting key stories about the profession you may have missed

Revenues up for Chinese Firms

A recent article from the American Lawyer offers new data on the climbing headcounts and revenues of many of China’s biggest law firms. According to the data, the 35 top-grossing Chinese firms had total revenues of $5.5 billion in 2015. Dentons topped the list with over $2 billion in global revenue, following by King & Wood Mallesons, which came in at $1 billion. When it came to China-specific figures, Dentons again topped the list with revenues of around $450 million. King & Wood Mallesons was again second with revenues of $350 million. It is interesting to note that based solely on these China-specific figures, both firms would have been included in the Am Law 100 rankings, were they eligible. While only nine Chinese law firms had revenues of more than $100 million (the same as the previous year), the number of firms topping $200 million jumped from 3 (2014) to 6 (2015). Yingke, the largest firm in China by lawyer headcount recorded $202 million in revenue. Importantly, many firms on the list reported increases in revenues of more than 30 percent, but with head count growth numbers of less than 30 percent. In other words, there is evidence to suggest the revenues are not up simply due to an increase in lawyer headcounts.

Giving their 2015 China-based revenues, Dentons and King & Wood Mallesons would have been included in the Am Law 100 rankings, were they eligible.

Data on revenue per lawyer (RPL) paints an incredibly diverse marketplace. For instance, of the top 35 firms by total revenue, RPL figures ranged from nearly $600,000 (Llinks) to less than $50,000. On this low end, Yingke  reported an RPL figure of just $41,000 (for more on the firm and its franchise-model, see Sida Liu’s lead article). King & Wood Mallesons reported an RPL of just over $450,000. The overall average of the 35 top-grossing Chinese firms was $186,000, less than half of the $895,000 for the Am Law 100 and the $800,000 for the Global 100.

Cracking Down on Human Rights Lawyers

Chinese and international human rights activists are growing increasingly concerned about the country’s crackdown on rights attorneys. Known as weiquan lawyers, their work defending marginalized communities and political dissidents has made these lawyers a prime target for a government that is often intolerant of opposition. It’s unknown how many of these professionals exist, but estimates put their number around 300—a mere fraction of the legal profession in China. According to recent reports, a majority of these lawyers have been arrested or questioned in the past year, and many remain in custody without access to legal representation. One such lawyer, Li Heping, who began as an intellectual property lawyer and transitioned into a rights lawyer, has remained missing since his arrest in July 2015. Like many rights lawyers in China, he had worked with controversial cases, such as those with underground Christians, environmental activists, and Falun Gong followers.

This hostility toward rights lawyers is troubling to many observers, particularly those who view the profession as integral to the development of Chinese rule of law. Teng Biao, a Chinese lawyer and prominent activist, has decried the current crackdown, describing it as “the worst human rights crackdown since the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989.” All of this may be a sobering reminder that the connection between a strong legal profession and a robust system of civil rights may not be as direct or guaranteed as some believe.