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Two Decades after Trailblazing Journey to Cornell, Beijing Lawyer Forges Opportunities for Colleagues

In Ithaca this February, while visiting her son, a junior at Cornell University, Bai Tao ’88 recalls her journey from China to Cornell Law in 1985. “It was really a dream to come to study in the U.S.,” she says. “Now, students in China have more choices. Back then we were very closed to the outside world . . . I was very lucky.”

Anne Lukingbeal, associate dean and dean of students, remembers it was much more than luck that brought Bai to Cornell. As a student at Peking University Law School, Bai caught the attention of a recruiter for Columbia Law School’s Committee for Legal Educational Exchange with China. “He called that summer and said, ‘We have found this phenomenal student, but we think she’d be happier at Cornell than Columbia,’” recalls Lukingbeal. “She’d been at the very top of her class at what everyone thought was the best law school in China. I think the people at Columbia thought that our smaller, more intimate environment would be more enjoyable for her.”

At the time, few U.S. law schools were willing to admit J.D. candidates from the People’s Republic of China, where the LSAT was not available. In 1982, however, Cornell Law had slowly begun welcoming Chinese students. Bai was among the first, and at nineteen years old, she was one of the youngest Chinese law students to come to the States during that period. “At the time she did this, it was such an extraordinary thing,” says Lukingbeal. “She really was one of the groundbreakers.”

“Everything was so foreign and exotic to me,” Bai remembers. “I grew up in Beijing. It’s a big city, but it was very different then. When I came here in ’85, it was my first time using a refrigerator.” It was also her first experience with immersion in an English-speaking culture and her first encounter with the Socratic teaching style. “The first semester was pretty difficult,” she recalls, “But I had a great time learning the basics in my first-year classes. I think the fundamental themes and concepts are really important for everything in the future.”

Equipped with her Cornell J.D., Bai returned to China in 1988. In 1989 she began practicing at C&C Law Offices in Beijing, and in 1992, she became one of the founding partners of the Commerce and Finance Law Offices. For the past decade she has been a partner at the Beijing offices of Jun He Law, specializing in the areas of corporate law, inbound investment, intellectual property, real estate, anti-dumping, sports law, and dispute resolution. Over the years, Bai has helped many prominent U.S. and European clients navigate the Chinese legal system, among them Coca-Cola, IBM, and Microsoft. With the American legal background she acquired at Cornell, she says, “it’s much easier to understand what they really want.”

Bai hopes to make such a background accessible to more of her fellow lawyers in Beijing. In addition to serving as the standing director of the Beijing Intellectual Property Protection Association and a member of the All-China Bar Association, the Chinese Society of International Law, and the Inter-Pacific Bar Association, Bai is the vice president of the Beijing Bar Association. Responsible for the organization’s continuing education initiatives, she arranges visiting scholar programs between Beijing lawyers and American law schools.

More than two decades after her own education in the States, Bai still vividly remembers a particular small negotiations seminar at the Law School. Initially satisfied with their performances in a hypothetical negotiation, the students were astonished to discover how differently their classmates had handled the same scenario. The lesson for Bai: “It could always be done better.”

“It’s easy for lawyers to feel pretty good about themselves,” she chuckles. “You have to be hard on yourself, think of different ways to handle the problem.” Even after over twenty years in practice, she still adheres to that rigorous approach. “I always tell myself I have to try to do my own best.”

 ~ Owen Lubozynski