Breaking the 'Bamboo Ceiling'

Sandy Jin talks to Xiaowen Qiu about her career at Sidley Austin and the difference between legal practices in the U.S. and China.

For Xiaowen Qiu, China has always been a part of her identity. Wearing a traditional red silk shawl, Qiu occasionally refers to Chinese idioms in our conversation. Her youthful appearance and energy hardly reveals the intense nature of her work as a partner of Sidley Austin, one of the largest law firms in the world.

In the Davenport College dining hall at Yale, Qiu -- who was invited by the China Economic Forum -- reflects on her journey from China to the United States. Born in Shandong Province, China during the Cultural Revolution, Qiu was raised in a family of modest means. She attended Renmin University in Beijing and initially studied economics. After working in the export-import industry for a few years after graduation, Qiu decided to try something more challenging and intellectually rigorous, and law seemed like a natural option. So, she went back to Renmin University to study law. While in law school, she saw her professors drafting law for the Chinese legislature. This became her inspiration for learning about the legal processes in the U.S. and applying those legal practices in China.

In the U.S., Qiu's desire to challenge herself was constantly fulfilled. After earning her JD from Columbia Law School in 2000, Qiu launched her career at Sidley. When I ask about her experience at Sidley as a Chinese woman, she remarked, "I didn't think I was different. I was very open-minded."

Qiu spoke frankly about her success as a woman and as a minority, "I think cultural awareness is crucial. I even watched a baseball game with my colleagues."

When I asked Qiu to compare the difference between legal practices in the U.S. and China, she joked, "China and the U.S. are two extremes: one pays too little attention to the law, one pays too much attention to the law."

In the U.S., lawyers generally "practice law." However, in China, lawyers often have to "practice" many things other than law in order to win cases or survive.

Qiu believes that in China, too many existing laws are poorly enforced. For example, insider trading is banned by law, but takes place in practice. According to Qiu, the poor enforcement of laws in China is not an isolated problem; instead, it is the vested interests of the law enforcement entity that prevents law from effective implementation -- political considerations often influence legal decisions.

"Chinese people lack a sense of legal awareness," she sighed. "But it takes time. We can make a difference in many little ways."

Qiu argues that the future of Chinese law firms is inherently grounded in the future of the Chinese legal system.

"If the society provides a healthy environment as a whole, then the legal system and the law firms should also have a healthy future," she said.

At Sidley, Qiu works at the intersection between law and finance to facilitate business exchanges between the two largest economies in the world. Due to the huge difference in the legal system and legal culture in China and the U.S., many big U.S. law firms find it difficult to operate in China, despite the booming economy and large American business presence in the country.

"What makes it more difficult for American law firms is that there are policy restrictions as to what foreign law firms are allowed to practice in Mainland China," Qiu pointed out. As a result, while Sidley has offices in Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong, it has limited opportunities in Mainland China. Despite its higher quality of service, it does not enjoy the same kind of connections its Chinese competitors have in order to win legal cases.

As more Chinese companies enter the U.S. market and encounter various obstacles, they have come to understand the centrality of quality legal services in their operations in the U.S.

"Chinese companies have a lot of cash to invest overseas," Qiu reasoned. Many Chinese companies do not feel secure in the financial environment in China, so they diversify their portfolio by investing overseas. Chinese companies are also eager to acquire foreign technology and gain access to foreign markets.

However, Chinese companies have little knowledge of the legal environment in the U.S. Companies like Huawei, a telecommunications giant, and Wanxiang, China's largest automotive components company, fail to succeed in their foreign ventures partly because they don't understand the relevant U.S. laws and regulations.

"The right legal advice can be instrumental for a company to avoid or mitigate a lawsuit before it happens, and to best protect the company in the case a lawsuit occurs." Qiu explained. "The right legal advice can also help the company address legal issues which, if not dealt with appropriately, can either increase the cost or even completely kill a deal."

At the end of our conversation, I asked her what her favorite quote is.

"You make a living by what you get; you make a life by what you give," she smiled. "Helping others makes me happy."

Indeed, she has helped me understand the interplay between law and finance, and helps many minority students by setting an example: breaking the double ceiling of gender and ethnicity in the American legal profession.


Sandy Jin is a sophomore at Yale University and the online editor for China Hands magazine. Contact him at

This article also appears in China Hands.