The International Academy of Trial Lawyers China Program Builds Goodwill and Helps Shape Chinese Law

James McManis

Committed to establishing the Rule of Law, the International Academy of Trial Lawyers (IATL) sent lawyers to numerous former Iron Curtain countries in Asia and Eastern Europe in the early ‘90s. After the trip, the group concluded that focusing its efforts on one nation would be the most efficient way to have an immediate impact. The IATL chose to concentrate on China, organizing the China Program in 1994 to assist the development of that nation's legal, economic and financial infrastructure. In a few short years, the China Program became a model for private effort.

Modern law did not come to China until the founding of the Republic of China by Dr. Sun Yat-sen in 1911. In 1949, Mao Zedong abolished the legal system altogether, preferring the Rule of Man to the Rule of Law. After Mao's death in 1976, Deng Xiaoping ushered in the market economy. To gain entry into the world market and in the rush for trade with the West, it was imperative that China quickly develop its own Rule of Law. For this, China turned to the West, especially the U.S., but China was rebuffed by an American public with the memory of the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989. By contrast, Germany, France, the U.K., Japan and other countries jumped to assist China in the hope that this vast nation would pattern its laws after their own.  The IATL established its China Program in part to counter these moves.

The IATL China Program was not immediately viewed as a success, however. When the IATL approached Ambassador J. Stapleton Roy at the U.S. embassy in Beijing about hosting the Program’s first workshop, he was pessimistic, arguing the Chinese would never participate but would avoid the U.S. embassy to protest a capitalistic Western power.  The IATL nevertheless worked with Chinese government officials to create a curriculum that would improve Chinese lawyers’ understanding of the American legal system. On the morning of the first program, the ambassador was stunned to find 30 Chinese government officials lined up at the front gate of the embassy.

What makes the program unique is the cultural immersion afforded Chinese lawyers by observing and actively participating in the American legal system and American family life. Lasting three weeks in total, delegates spend their first week attending an orientation designed to introduce them to the American legal system. After the orientation, delegates travel to the homes of IATL Fellows in various cities, where they live for two weeks, experiencing the life of an American trial lawyer with the Fellows and their families, their law partners and their legal communities. After two weeks in residence, delegates return to share their experiences before traveling home to Beijing. The program is fully funded by the IATL and its Fellows.

Since the Program’s inception, more than 150 Chinese lawyers have participated and returned to China to serve in prominent government positions. The delegates have continued to grow and evolve. Their level of education (many now holding multiple Masters and Ph.D. degrees), their proficiency in English, their job ranks and their openness in discussing political, legal and humanitarian subjects continues to progress. Many of China's laws, such as the Negotiable Instruments Law, Aviation Law, Securities Law, Commercial Banking Law, Contract Law and Electronic Signature Law, have been influenced greatly by the IATL China Program.

The China Program includes regular visits by some of the most respected attorneys in the U.S., offering  workshops, seminars and information exchanges with leading Chinese business, legal and government officials responsible for drafting new laws that will help China emerge as a world leader. The success of the program is already evidenced in new Chinese legal codes governing business and private life.

A China Program alumnus summed it up best: "In all my years of practice, the contribution I make as a lawyer to a better society is by far the most important.”


James McManis is an attorney with McManis Faulkner. His practice focuses on both businesses and individuals in employment disputes, civil rights actions, family law matters and the defense of criminal prosecutions.  For more information, please visit

About the author James McManis

A member of the trial bar for 50 years, Jim has unparalleled experience and skill in preparing and presenting cases for adjudication – whether by jury, judge, arbitrator, mediator or the parties themselves.