“I am very grateful to Mayer Brown for many things,” says Shanghai-based lawyer William Lu. “Over the dozen years I was with the firm, I really developed as a professional lawyer, advised on a wide range of law and deals, and made many friends. In particular, I really appreciated the opportunity to do some pro bono work which the firm not only supported, it actively encouraged its people to do.”
The opportunity to do pro bono work struck a particular chord with William, since he had long been assisting people on legal issues voluntarily. At Fudan University, where he studied law, he was one of many students who in 1995 set up and ran a law center – one of the first to be set up by a university in China.
This led to William becoming a volunteer with the Grassroots Community, a local non-governmental organization started in Shanghai in 2000. He joined as a volunteer and then later became a board member. The volunteer advisers advise on a range of issues for people who cannot afford to pay lawyers. They are often called upon to help migrant workers coming to the city, since China’s regulations make it hard for migrants to obtain permits covering places to live and to work.
After graduating from Fudan university in 2002, William initially joined a Chinese law firm. But, wanting to learn new skills and to broaden the range of work, he looked for an international law firm to which to move. He chose Mayer Brown (at that time Johnson Stokes & Master), because it was already well established in China and had a good reputation.
Initially, William worked on a wide range of matters, including corporate, employment and foreign investment work – thereby giving him the broad experience he was looking for – but later concentrated on real estate deals, across the whole of China. At the same time as working, William studied for a master’s in international law at the East China University of Politics and Law, achieving his master’s in 2009.
“Mayer Brown was the ideal firm for me,” William reflects. “I was well supported by the partners, particularly Andy Yeo and Billy Ho. They taught me how to handle legal deals from a commercial perspective, that our advice should always put the deal in a commercial context and not be purely legal. That was very helpful, and I always bear that in mind in any deal on which I am advising.”
William has another reason to be grateful to Mayer Brown: it was while he was with the firm that he met his wife.
One notable string to William’s bow is his focus on non-government organizations. After the earthquake in southwest China in 2008, the Chinese government saw the power of volunteers and started to relax the controls on the number of NGOs that it permitted. More and more NGOs then registered, prompting William and others to recognize there was a need for these NGOs to have access to good legal advice. They set up a new organization, ForNGO (its full name being Legal Center for NGO), dedicated to assisting NGOs.
William explains, “China has embraced the idea of NGOs for some time, but it has only been relatively recently that a comprehensive law has been put in place under which NGOs operate. In general, Chinese NGOs are at an early stage of development and are challenged by many organizational problems and financing difficulties. As you might imagine, a lot of it is quite complicated and prescriptive, and so we felt there was a need to provide support for NGOs – a central support operation to which they can come for advice and also as a forum where they can meet and exchange ideas.”
ForNGO has since been instrumental in helping the NGO sector to become better established. Over 7,000 NGOs, both in China and abroad, have benefitted from ForNGO’s programme. Acting as a pro bono clearinghouse, ForNGO refers NGOs to lawyers and law firms for legal services, including contract review and legal support. Since 2016, hundreds of lawyers and law school students have provided over 4,000 hours of pro bono support to NGOs in China via ForNGO’s platform. It also publishes books and guides to assist the NGO sector, including the China Charity Law Guidebook, Study on the Law and Practice of Internal Governance of Social Organizations, the Guide to Legal Practice for Chinese Social Organization and the Handbook of China Charity Law.
In 2016, William left Mayer Brown to join a Chinese law firm, but the real change in his career came two years after that when he, with others started their own law firm. FuGuan, as the firm is called, mainly serves organizations in the not for profit sector. Just over a year after opening, FuGuan is doing well and finding there is plenty of demand for its legal expertise. Ninety per cent of the firm’s clients are foundations or social enterprises. That includes both Chinese and foreign NGOs. Now the firm has three partners and seven associates.
In many ways, having his own law firm aimed at non-commercial clients is the perfect culmination of his personal and professional aspirations. “I am a strong believer in Confucian philosophy, which stresses the importance of contributing to the wider society,” William says. “The changes in China’s legal system and the advancement of society make it possible for me to fulfil those aspirations. I am very happy!”
WILLIAM’S TOP TIPS
What is your number one career tip?
In any job, take full responsibility for what you do.
What advice would you give to your younger self, with the benefit of hindsight?
Live for the present, and follow your heart.