Coming Full Circle: Reunion Honors Alumni From China
After many months of planning, they gathered for their first alumni reunion—and celebrated the students they once had been some 6,500 miles away.
Some good-naturedly mimicked the mannerisms of their favorite professors. Yuan Zhao ’01 owned up to calling in “sick” when he knew it was his turn to present in class. Another alum gratefully remembered Professor (now Dean) Jennifer Johnson offering students permission to use English dictionaries during final exams. An evening division student, Guojun (Stanley) Zhou ’05, who juggled the demands of attending classes as a new father with a full-time job recalled joining the Business Law Review—in part because its office couch was a perfect spot to “catch naps.” And as they went around the room, each of these once-upon-a-time students—all now successful attorneys, some practicing with international law firms, others holding key positions with prominent global enterprises—expressed their deep gratitude to Lewis & Clark Law School for the ways it transformed their lives.
The happy occasion was the first reunion of law school alumni from China. Joining them were Dean Johnson and Dean Emeritus Stephen Kanter.
Held April 14–16 in Shanghai, the event brought together 28 people, including 18 alumni representing 11 class years, and was, by any measure, a great success. Johnson told the gathering, “This is absolutely one of the best alumni groups I have been with in my three years as dean. We are very, very honored that all of you came. Thank you to the steering committee, who put in so much work to make this reunion happen.” She was especially grateful to Jun Ge ’95, global vice president of Apple Inc. in Shanghai and the generous host of the Shanghai events, and to Hong Ai ’97, a partner in the multinational firm ZY Partners in Beijing. “Ai graciously hosted us in Beijing, anticipated and met our every need, and escorted us around the city and environs, including to a section of the Great Wall seldom visited by tourists. I am proud to say that I beat Dean Emeritus Steve Kanter to the top of the tallest watchtower.”
The steering committee of six alumni was led by Ge, Ai, and Ron Cai ’90, managing partner of Davis Wright Tremaine LLP in Shanghai. “Reunion means more than people coming back and seeing each other again,” said Cai in his welcoming remarks. “It means that your life somehow comes around, becomes a full cycle.”
Both Cai’s own story and the growth of the law school’s China program exemplify the revolution of that cycle. As a student at Xiamen University Law School in 1984–85, Cai was an interpreter for a visiting Fulbright scholar from the United States. That scholar was Stephen Kanter, a Lewis & Clark law professor with a keen interest in China’s system of legal education. Surely neither one imagined then that they would one day meet in a hotel ballroom in Shanghai to celebrate with friends and colleagues more than 30 years of building bridges between China and the United States.
Kanter was acting dean in 1981 when Lewis & Clark hosted the first dean of a Chinese law school to come to the United States following the thaw in relations between the two countries. As a Fulbright scholar in 1984–85, Kanter not only taught at Nanjing University Law Department but also visited and lectured at several other schools. “At the time,” he recalled recently, “there were only 10,000 lawyers in all of China—approximately the same number as we had in Oregon—and only 14 law faculties at designated key universities.” Additionally, as is the case in much of the world, the degree those universities conferred was more equivalent to a BA than a JD, and their curriculum emphasized rote memorization rather than critical thinking and analysis.
China, said Kanter, had eliminated legal education for a span of 21 years, starting with the Anti-Rightist Campaign in 1958 and continuing until 1979, three years after the end of the turbulent Cultural Revolution. Deng Xiao Ping, as part of his plan for restoring stability to China and opening the country and its people to the world, then began reopening a few law schools and calling for the development of a modern legal system.
After becoming dean of Lewis & Clark in 1986, Kanter was ready to turn that opening into an opportunity. “I believed that Chinese law graduates who also understood the American legal system and values would have greater personal opportunities as well as a solid perspective to contribute significantly to China’s legal system and institutions,” he said. “Our hope was that this would help move the People’s Republic of China toward the rule of law and greater respect for human dignity and legal rights.”
Other American law schools and funding agencies were beginning to bring Chinese students to the United States, but generally only for one-year LLM programs. “I was convinced that the in-depth exposure of a three-year JD program would be substantially more valuable,” said Kanter, “so Lewis & Clark became one of only a very few schools in the United States to regularly admit Chinese law graduates for a full JD education.
I was sure that their presence would give other students and faculty an invaluable, broader perspective on law and culture.”Stephen Kanter
“We provided substantial scholarships as well as supplementary internships with American law firms, legal agencies, and multinational companies, and hoped that with this support our carefully selected Chinese students (two or three each year from a pool of usually 20 to 30 applicants) would be able to succeed. Most of them did. I hoped that they would gain an in-depth understanding of American law, legal reasoning, our culture, and our institutions, and also develop close personal friendships. I was sure that their presence would give other students and faculty an invaluable, broader perspective on law and culture.”
Celebrating Chinese alumni at the reunion, Kanter told them, “The law school is an opportunity place, a place where we bring people with varying life experiences, where there is a tremendous level of intellectual rigor but in an informal, supportive, collaborative environment. That’s been one of our hallmarks to which all of you contributed.”
Johnson began teaching business law in 1980. In her reunion presentation, the current dean said, “I think I had more of you in my classes than from almost any other alumni group I’ve met.”
Leading a slideshow tour of the campus today, Johnson also reviewed the law school’s growth and development over the last 35 years, noting that long-standing programs in private and public law have been strengthened while new degree programs, such as that in animal law, and areas of emphasis, such as food law, have expanded the curriculum. In fact, she said, “Our largest new student organization is the Food and Wine Law Society. Everyone wants to attend their events and everyone shows up on time because, yes, the students serve food and wine.”
Noting that the competition for law students is keener than ever, Johnson said, “Our faculty is adamant that we will not lower our standards. We will continue to recruit only the very best students and, in order to get them to come to Lewis & Clark, we need to provide more scholarships.
“We have a terrific group of students,” she continued. “They are very bright, and life moves very quickly for them because they’ve grown up with technology. Teaching them keeps all of us young.”
As alumni shared their stories and memories about the law school, some common themes emerged: resilience, endurance, gratitude, lifelong lessons.
Reunion steering committee member Wen Wu ’98, of Zhongshan Luna Law Group in Chengdu, touched on many of these themes, after acknowledging that his first several months of law school were “a nightmare. My English was very poor, and I would think, ‘I can’t handle this because it’s beyond my ability.’ But after that first semester, I felt better. After that first year, I felt even better. I sometimes still ask myself, ‘What did I learn from law school?’ Legal thinking, legal training, case studies. But the most valuable thing I learned is, we can go beyond our endurance.”
I felt I learned a lot—a totally new style, a new way of analyzing things. These have been very vital lessons for my later work and even my life.”Yuan Zhao ’01
Yuan Zhao ’01, senior legal counsel of ABB (China) Ltd. in Beijing, a global pioneer in industrial digitalization, also spoke of the ways that struggling reveals strengths. “I have to say, you learn more through difficult experiences. You don’t learn anything from easy experiences. Although I did not do well in one professor’s class, at the end I felt I learned a lot—a totally new style, a new way of analyzing things. These have been very vital lessons for my later work and even my life.”
Similar challenges shaped the way reunion steering committee member Guangjie Yang ’96 approaches her work now as assistant general counsel for Alibaba. She entered law school with strong English language skills, but found legal concepts difficult. She attributes her success to the professors who took time to work with her, to the many staff members who helped her, and to the mentor program. “I still keep in touch with my mentor,” Yang said. “She was in practice at Stoel Rives as a litigation lawyer and is now associate general counsel of Nike.” Yang, who handles international corporate matters for Alibaba, says about her current work, “It’s a wonderful opportunity with a very young culture. The average age among the staff is 27 or 28, so part of my contribution to the company’s future is to help train young lawyers to take leadership.”
Today it takes about 13 hours to fly from Shanghai to Portland. When Jun Ge was admitted to the law school in 1988, his journey lasted seven years. “I had my admission letter from Dean Steve Kanter, and I went to apply for a passport and a visa,” he said at the reunion. “I was told that I could not go, that the government policy had changed and I had to work in China for five years before I could leave. That was a huge frustration, but I carried on.” Ge wrote to Kanter, explaining the situation and asking, “Would you continue to have trust and confidence in me?” Kanter’s reply: “The door is always open. When you are ready, get in touch with us.”
I learned: be logical, be balanced, be yourself. Those principles have guided me through all of my career the last 25 years.” Jun Ga ’95
Five years after being admitted, Ge walked through that door—and into Ron Lansing’s tort class. “He called on me and I didn’t know the answer. I sat down and thought, ‘I think the tort is on me.’ But I didn’t give up and I tried very hard. For me, the biggest lesson was really about working hard and being honest. I learned: be logical, be balanced, be yourself. Those principles have guided me through all of my career the last 25 years.” In 2012, the law school honored Ge as its Distinguished Business Law Graduate. Cai and fellow Chinese alumna Ying Chen ’95, reunion steering committee member and cofounder of Chen Yoshimura LLP in Los Angeles, have also been recognized with the award, which was introduced in 2005.
While the law school’s China program did not officially begin until a few years later the young Cai served as interpreter for the visiting Kanter, the bond the two formed then and deepened over the ensuing decades mirrors the program’s own evolution.
“The thing that we gained from the law school,” said Cai at the reunion, “was that through the education, through the opportunities we have, we can go back and contribute to the society here or to the United States. We can contribute to the friendship and exchange of the trade through our talents and the things that we learned. That’s the spirit of reunion that I have in my mind.”
Kanter added, “Our goal was to equip the Chinese students with additional critical legal reasoning tools and knowledge of American law so they would be able to work effectively in both legal systems. I hoped that some would work in the United States, and that many would return to China to help their country develop both economically and socially, and help businesses and government agencies in both countries work more effectively with each other. Now, more than 30 years on, I can say with pride and confidence that they have done so, and have exceeded the most lofty ambitions we held for them at the beginning of their journey to Lewis & Clark Law School.”