Having grown up in a small city in China’s Hunan Province, Ling Li, JSM ’01, had a vague idea about the law as she headed to university.

“I thought it might involve solving social problems,” she says. “But my mom, who was a primary school teacher, worried that it would be a ‘dark’ career that involved working with criminals.”

That was in 1992. Li was 18 years old and had been accepted to Beijing University—“the best university in China,” she says.

“In China, you have to pick a major before you enter university,” Li explains. “At that time, the legal system was not very developed, and there weren’t many lawyers—just judges and prosecutors.”

Li trusted her instincts and chose law.

“The idea of law was something new. It sounded quite practical. But I really didn’t know what a legal career would look like. We were quite isolated. We didn’t have computers.”

A lot has changed in China since 1992.

“After I started studying at Beijing University, there was a boom in legal practice, particularly international law,” Li says.

“I became very adept at bridging cross-cultural conflicts. I could help ease tensions, facilitate communication, and smooth the transactions. This was something that I greatly enjoyed.”

– Ling Li, JSM ’01, Partner, Allen & Overy

So, six years later, after earning two law degrees—a bachelor’s and a master’s—Li took advantage of the growing legal landscape and entered Hong Kong University for a postgraduate program in common law.

“In 1997, China took back Hong Kong. This created an opportunity to expand my horizons and ride the wave,” she says.

It was at Hong Kong University that Li met faculty members who were alumni of Stanford Law.

“Being in Hong Kong fueled a strong desire to go overseas—particularly to the United States—to study law,” says Li, “and I knew that Stanford was a great law school. I also knew there was more sunshine at SLS than at Oxford!”

At Stanford, supported by a generous Asia/Pacific fellowship, Li focused on intellectual property and corporate law, writing her JSM thesis on IP law enforcement in China. She was considering an academic career, so continued studying toward her JSD.

“But after so many years in school, I needed to earn some money,” she says. “And I was fascinated by U.S. legal practice in the private sector.”

Li spent the next six years as a corporate associate with Sullivan & Cromwell, first in New York and then in Beijing, where she helped Chinese state-owned companies, including the Bank of China, with IPOs.

“It was incredibly challenging, but I liked it,” she says. “The whole world opened up for me. This was a very exciting time for Chinese lawyers. I was very hungry to learn. We were catching up with the developed world and making headlines.”

ling Li: Bridging Cross-Cultural Divides
Illustration by Stuart Bradford

Li left the firm in 2009 to become general counsel of international business at China’s State Grid Corporation, a state-owned business and the largest power utility in the world.

“It was considered unusual for a private practitioner in an international law firm to go in-house with a state-owned company,” Li explains. “But this was a chance to expand my role. In the law firm, my work was more technical and service-oriented. At State Grid, in addition to performing legal functions, I initiated and executed decisions and focused on the rationale behind international strategies.”

Li traveled worldwide for State Grid in pursuit of international investment opportunities, and one year made the 60-hour round trip to Brazil six times. As a result of her extensive international contacts, she found that she had developed another invaluable skill: “I became very adept at bridging cross-cultural conflicts,” Li says. “I could help ease tensions, facilitate communication, and smooth the transactions. This was something that I greatly enjoyed.”

After five years of constant travel, Li left State Grid. In 2014, she joined the prestigious London-based international firm of Allen & Overy as a partner in its Beijing office, where she now uses her experience and expertise to help Chinese companies invest overseas.

“I still travel a lot, but it’s not as intense as it was with State Grid. I function like other lawyers on the technical side, but I do a little more hand-holding and cross-cultural bridging,” Li says.

Victor Ho, the Allen & Overy partner who recruited her to the firm, says that “she is indeed rare not only to have gone in-house into a Chinese state-owned enterprise from a leading Wall Street firm but also to have flourished and stayed for the time she did. Many wash out within six months.”

Another Allen & Overy partner, Jane Jiang, echoes Ho’s praise: “Ling has quickly built up an enviable practice and won trust from both her clients and colleagues. She has a rare combination of being positive yet realistic and being empathetic without losing good judgment. She laughs often and deals well with the inevitable stress arising from our line of work. Her joining the firm was one of those watershed moments when people started realizing what we were missing.”

Li also is aware of what she was missing before she joined Allen & Overy. Now, Li says, she has a more balanced travel schedule and is able to spend more time with her 11-year-old daughter and her husband—whom she met at a Stanford social event he organized for Chinese students while studying for his physics PhD. She also is a member of a very active running group of Beijing University alumni.

Belying her mother’s concerns, Li’s career has been anything but dark. As Jiang says, “I always feel that, with her ability and resilience, Ling can achieve absolutely anything!”