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With their eyes on the future of the legal profession in their own country, a Vietnamese study group spent a week in China visiting national and local bar associations, justice authorities, law firms, legal aid centers and courts. The ABA Rule of Law Initiative (ABA ROLI) worked with the All China Lawyers Association (ACLA) to arrange the September study tour in anticipation of the 2009 inauguration of Vietnam’s first national bar association. The 11-person delegation included Vietnamese legal professionals from Ho Chi Minh City, Hanoi, Dien Bien, Bac Giang and Ha Tinh, and was accompanied by ABA ROLI’s country director in Vietnam, Allison Moore. During stops in Beijing, Shenzhen and Guangzhou, the group visited with their Chinese counterparts to learn best practices and to exchange information about establishing and maintaining a national bar association.
Peer exchange between legal professionals in China and Vietnam provided fertile ground for comparison and contrast. With decades-long reform programs and fairly recent accession to the World Trade Organization, both China and Vietnam have undergone enormous economic, political and economic transformation. Both countries have seen a reestablishment of the legal profession, which had been completely dismantled under communism. Today, both justice systems are introducing more adversarial processes and increasing the emphasis on advocacy, evidentiary techniques and criminal defense. And with economic growth, more citizens are turning to the civil courts to resolve financial and related disputes. In both nations, the legal profession is flourishing: China currently has more than 110,00 professional lawyers, while Vietnam—at one-fifth the population of China—boasts 4,500 legal professionals, and has plans to add another 1,000 each year through 2020.
Despite these similarities, the study trip revealed many differences between the two countries’ legal environments. For example, the Ho Chi Minh City Bar Association and local justice authorities have adopted favorable policies towards foreign law firms, creating one of the most open legal markets in Asia. There, foreign and Vietnamese lawyers can work in the same firms and Vietnamese lawyers can perform their compulsory apprenticeship under the supervision of foreign law firms. Because of this openness, and despite their relatively small international legal services market, Vietnamese lawyers are familiar with international standards of legal practice and professional responsibility. This openness has influenced the Ho Chi Minh City bar, which has advocated for greater professional autonomy.
China’s success in expanding the domestic legal services market made an impression on the Vietnamese delegation. In the past 10 years, ACLA has developed as an institution, in part by encouraging the legal profession to address social justice issues. The bar has cultivated an active membership committed to environmental and labor law, juvenile justice and human rights—legal areas that remain largely academic in Vietnam. Another ACLA accomplishment is the ongoing recruitment and training of lawyers at the provincial and city levels. Vietnam’s bar leaders, who are facing challenges in providing legal services in lesser-developed provinces, took note of each of these successes.
The Vietnamese delegation was also inspired by Chinese lawyers’ increasing role in non-traditional legal services. In Shenzhen, local bar leaders described how lawyers work at municipal offices, providing legal aid to citizens filing petitions against the government. Members of the Beijing Lawyers Association gave accounts of advising citizens, businesses and government officials on more effective public participation in environmental planning, while ACLA lawyers detailed recent efforts to develop intellectual property regulations with government agencies and legislators and to organize related trainings for lawyers, agency staff and judges.
“Lawyers wish we could work with the government like this [on policy] in Vietnam,” one Hanoi lawyer remarked, “What I see from the China experience is that when the bar association serves lawyers, it can mobilize lawyer and law firm resources to serve society, which builds a better reputation for both lawyers and for the bar, and this leads to the legal profession having a voice with government and with society.”
Overall, ABA ROLI’s study trip was a resounding success. The insights gained from collaboration with the Chinese participants will serve as inspirations to those working to establish and grow the Vietnamese national bar association.