Legal Education and the Legal Profession in China: An Interview with Professor Su Xinjian

Su Xinjian is a professor and an associate dean at Zhejiang Gongshang University School of Law in Hangzhou, China. He began his teaching career in 2006 after earning a Ph.D. in constitutional and administrative law. In 2011 he entered the LL.M. program at the University of the Pacific McGeorge School of Law in Sacramento and in May 2012 he was awarded an LL.M. degree. He is currently a visiting scholar studying social science research methods at the University of the Pacific in Stockton. During the summer of 2016 he met with John Schroeder, a librarian at the University of the Pacific, to discuss law schools and lawyers in China.

Q: Tell us about your law school.

A: "We currently have about 1,200 law students including undergraduate, graduate, postgraduate and international students. Our international law students come mainly from Africa. The university has about 26,000 students. My university is supported by Zhejiang province. We accept a certain number of students from other provinces, but give preference to local students. Beijing University, in contrast, is a national university supported by the central government."

Q: You are both a professor and an assistant dean. Do you still teach or is your job mainly administrative?

A: "I both teach and do administrative work.At my university all professors are expected to teach graduate students every year. I am also the advisor of several post-graduate students. I give lectures to the post-graduates and teach them how to do research and write a thesis."

Q: Are professors expected to publish?Do law schools publish law reviews?

A: "We are expected to publish. Failure to publish will harm a career. The most common form of publication is the law journal article. My university publishes two journals. Neither one is specifically about law, but they do publish articles about the law. Some schools publish a journal similar to the American law review. Writing books is also important. I have written one book on the procedures of the National Peoples' Congress and I have co-authored several textbooks. Most authors must pay a publisher to publish a book. Only very famous authors do not have to pay."

"All prospective students must take the gaokao, a three-day college entrance exam. The results of this exam determine which university a student may attend and which subjects the student may study. Students prepare for many years before taking it."

Q: What types of law degrees are offered in China?

A: "There are four types of law degrees: the B.A., LL.M., J.M., and Ph.D."

Q: What is the J.M.?

A: "It is a judicial master.It is for the student who does not have a legal background. For example, a student with a B.A. in English can enroll in a J.M. program, study for two or three years, and qualify to take the bar exam. It is similar to the American J.D."

Q: What is the first law degree and how many years of study does it require?

A: "The first degree is a B.A.It requires four years of study at a law school. This degree qualifies a student to take the bar exam and become an attorney. Currently a student with any four-year college degree may take the bar exam, but this will change. Beginning in 2017 a student must have a law degree or a four-year college degree and at least three years of work in the legal field to qualify to take the bar. Many good lawyers in China do not have a law degree."

Q: Is a standardized admissions test similar to the LSAT required?

A: "There is no special test for law students. The required test is the gaokao, a three-day college entrance exam that all prospective students must take. The exam is very stressful and students prepare for many years before taking it. The results of this exam determine which university a student may attend and which subjects the student may study."

"There is one national bar exam held annually.It is a two-day exam. The pass rate is about ten percent. Those who fail the bar cannot work as an attorney, but they can find work in banks or other businesses."

Q: Are there public and private law schools?

A: "Most private universities are affiliated with a public university. They do not get state financial support so students pay more to attend. Generally the students of private universities have lower test scores and cannot get into the lower-priced public universities. There are, however, some private universities, for example the private division of Zhejiang University, that are better than some public schools.It's a complicated system."

Q: How many classes must a student complete for the first degree in law, the B.A.?

A: "There are 14 required courses. These subjects are required throughout China. Students must also complete about 20 elective courses."

Q: What is a typical law school class like? Is lecture the main method of instruction? What type of test is administered in a typical class? Is the course grade based on a final exam or paper?

A: "The lecture is the typical method of instruction. At the end of the semester there is a test, generally closed-book. The course grade is mainly based on the final test.In some classes the professor considers the daily performance of the student and takes this into account when determining a final grade. There is probably not as much student participation in the Chinese law school class as in an American class. The trend is to encourage more student participation. We now ask students questions in class."

Q: Are law schools ranked in China as they are in the U.S.? Which law schools are at the top of the ranks?

A: "There are several ranking systems, including those of the National Department of Education and some private organizations. The law school from Renmin University of China in Beijing has been at the top in recent years. My law school, Zhejiang Gongshang University, is ranked around number 40. It is difficult to say exactly how many law schools exist in China because some schools offer a B.A. in law, but they are not actually a law school. In 2008 there were 630 schools that could grant at least a B.A. in law."

Q: Is there a national or provincial bar exam? What is the format of the exam and how long is it? What is the pass rate and what type of careers are open to those who fail the bar exam?

A: "There is one national bar exam held annually.It is a two-day exam. As in the United States, many students take a private bar review class for several months before the exam. Most questions are multiple-choice, but there are some essay questions and some cases to analyze. The pass rate is about ten percent. Keep in mind that this includes the results from people who have not attended law school. Those who fail the bar cannot, of course, work as an attorney, but they can find work in banks or other businesses. Until 2002 judges and prosecutors did not have to pass the national bar exam. They had an easier exam.Now they have to pass the national bar exam."

Q: How is legal research performed in China?Which databases are available?

A: "Legal research is most often done on the Internet. The law and interpretations are public information and easy to find.Westlaw, LexisNexis and HeinOnline are available at my law school, but they are used to find information on non-Chinese law for the purpose of scholarship. These databases are not used in Chinese legal practice."

"Chinese provincial laws have less importance than state laws in the U.S. because China is not a union of states. The central government is much stronger in China."

Q: Is there a national code equivalent to the United States Code? Are there provincial codes?

A: "There are both national and provincial codes. The most important codes are national. At the national level there are codes for criminal law, family law, inheritance law, contract law, and others. All of the civil law areas are going to be combined into one code. There are provincial laws, but they are not as important as the national laws. Chinese provincial laws have less importance than state laws in the U.S. because China is not a union of states. The central government is much stronger in China. We have four levels of courts to administer the laws:national, provincial, city, and county.

"The most important laws are those issued by the National Peoples' Congress and its Standing Committee in Beijing. The Standing Committee issues interpretations of some legislation. These interpretations are extremely influential. The Supreme Peoples' Court and the Supreme Peoples' Prosecutor's Office also issue interpretations, either as individual bodies or working together. Sometimes the Ministry of Public Security is also involved in the interpretation. These interpretations are important, but less influential than the Standing Committee interpretations. In recent years the Supreme Court has selected some of its most important cases for publication. These decisions are not binding, but they serve as guidance as to how a future case might be resolved."

Q: Which areas of the law are popular now?

A: "For the past several decades civil law has been popular, especially the fields of business law and company law."

Q: With all of the changes that have occurred in China in the past several decades there must be many changes in the law. Which areas of Chinese law are being, or have recently been, revised?

A: "There have been many changes in real property law. There is now more emphasis on ownership of private property in China."

Q :Are there large law firms in China?

A: "There are large firms in China and they pay better than the government and law schools. There are also many international law offices in China."