China Rising: Two Stanford Law Alums Offer Insights Into their Work in China

Liang Tang had his sights set on becoming a judge or law professor in China after receiving degrees from Peking University and Yale Law—until he arrived at Stanford Law School.

“On the East Coast people talk about becoming president, ambassador, or CEO. But at Stanford everyone talks about starting a venture,” he says. “My entrepreneurship was stimulated at Stanford. I realized I didn’t have to limit myself to legal work. Stanford Law School led me to a totally new world.”

Tang received his JSM from Stanford in 2005 and joined Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati as an associate. He started to found companies with friends, leaving Silicon Valley after a few years for Beijing to catch the wave of entrepreneurship happening back home. “It’s amazing. The past ten to fifteen years, with the growth of internet companies from China—and biotech, clean tech, and AI companies—there are so many opportunities here,” says Tang, who serves as president of China Investment Financial Holdings Fund Management Company and chairman of several “fund of funds” and industrial funds in China.

For those on the sidelines wondering if China’s rise as a global business force is sustainable, the wait is over according to Brent Irvin, JD ‘03. “It is unclear how the U.S.-China trade war will play out, but I think regardless China has already shown that it is a global business force.  Actually I think it is more than just China. The global economy is changing, and a lot of important developments will be coming out of Asia over the next decades.”

As the general counsel and vice president of one of the biggest tech companies in the world, Tencent Holdings Limited, Irvin is keenly aware of China’s growing economic significance. During his 10 years at Tencent, he has grown the legal department from 20 attorneys to 350—many of them LLMs from the U.S. and the U.K.

Irvin and Tang met when they were at Wilson Sonsini and the two have remained friends and both are on the board of Tencent Music Entertainment. They are also active members of the SLS Advisory Board for Asia, a group that started in 2011 to advise the dean on Stanford Law’s curricular focus on Asia and to engage alumni in the region with the law school. Over the past decade, Stanford Law has introduced key initiatives related to Asia and China, specifically. But they have been strong advocates for further expansion of the school’s efforts in China.

“Brent and Liang have been telling me for years that SLS should do more to expose its students and faculty to China,” says Michael Klausner, Nancy and Charles Munger Professor of Business and professor of law, Irvin’s former law professor. Klausner has been traveling to China since he first spent a year there from 1984 to 1985; in 2008 he spent a quarter in Beijing as the faculty member in residence with Stanford’s Bing Overseas Studies Program for undergraduates. Over the years, he, Irvin, and Tang have discussed ways in which Stanford Law students and faculty could have more exposure to Chinese law, business, politics and culture—eventually raising the issue with former dean M. Elizabeth Magill and now her successor, Jenny S. Martinez, Richard E. Lang Professor of Law and Dean of Stanford Law School.

China Rising
Illustration by Gary Taxali

The result of the discussions is a new China Strategy Fund, launched in April 2019 to build upon momentum that’s been gaining over the last decade.  While still in the early stages, the fund is expected to further catalyze teaching, research, and programs related to China. It will also bring practicing lawyers, business people, PhD students, and postdoctoral fellows from China to Stanford. And while the W. A. Franke Global Law Program will launch a full-time Global Quarter in Asia in 2020, the focus of the intensive quarter will likely rotate to other parts of the world in years to come. The China Strategy Fund will help maintain China-based offerings and complement the new Global Quarter.

The buildup of Stanford Law’s focus on China has been steady. In the 2009/2010 academic year, Peking University Law School in Beijing was part of the first Foreign Exchange Program, which offered students the opportunity to take a full quarter abroad and brought students from around the world to the SLS campus. There’s been a sharp increase in the number of Advanced Degree students on campus over the past several years, bringing students from Asia and around the globe to campus—increasing the diversity of experiences and perspectives in the community. Students have also been going to Asia through field study trips, including to China with the VC class taught by G. Marcus Cole, William F. Baxter-Visa International Professor of Law, and to Japan for IP study with Lisa Larrimore Ouellette, associate professor of law and Justin M. Roach, Jr. Faculty Scholar. Mark Lemley, William H. Neukom Professor of Law and director of the Stanford Program in Law, Science and Technology, has hosted an IP seminar for Chinese judges on campus periodically starting in 2007—aimed at providing an overview of current issues in U.S. IP law and exchanging ideas about ways of improving the IP laws and procedures of both countries.

And in 2011, Mei Gechlik, JSD ’01, JSM ’99, lecturer in law, launched the China Guiding Cases Project (CGCP), creating a process to analyze a body of China’s guiding cases with English translations provided on its website. The project advances the understanding of Chinese law and is helping to develop a more transparent judiciary in China. Gechlik travels to China often to help train judges, while also working closely with students at Stanford Law on the project and in her China law class.

“We see law developing in China—just look at the Belt and Road-related guiding cases covering maritime issues and the transfer of goods internationally, and more. They pick those judgments to show how open-minded Chinese courts can be and how far they can go to protect foreign companies’ interests. They even recently recognized a Singaporean court judgment in order to protect a foreign company’s legal rights. Wow! That’s a big deal,” says Gechlik.

International issues have also been woven into key courses in the SLS curriculum, and visiting scholars and practitioners from abroad now regularly visit classes to add their perspectives, a key effort that will expand with the fund.

“I invite our distinguished visitors to engage in informal fireside chat discussions in my contracts and bankruptcy classes. These add an international and comparative perspective, which students really appreciate,” says George Triantis, Charles J. Meyers Professor of Law and Business.

Janet Martinez, faculty director of Stanford Law’s Gould Negotiation and Mediation Program and co-director of the Alternative Dispute Resolution Research Initiative, has been teaching classes throughout the world including in China, Japan, Bhutan, India, Israel, Switzerland, and Austria. She also welcomes judges from around Asia and the world as guests in classes at Stanford Law School, where they are typically in residence for several months, attending her classes and others across campus while also designing court-affiliated mediation programs for their countries.

“I find it very helpful to have these scholars here, not just for the students’ benefit but also for my own. I want to hear about what they’re doing and you learn so much more in daily interaction than you can in a quick meeting or even over the course of a conference,” she says.

It is in those daily interactions that deep connections are made. Irvin and Tang hope that a symbiosis develops between students and faculty from Silicon Valley and China and that Stanford Law students will craft their careers in law and business on a global scale. Irvin describes his home in Shenzhen, China, as “the closest thing I’ve ever seen to Silicon Valley. People come here to fulfill their dreams and start their businesses. And it doesn’t matter whom you know, but what you can do.”

“There’s a lot of opportunity here now,” says Tang. “The younger generation is very different from twenty years ago—entrepreneurship is booming.”