Leaders in Law: Interview with Lian Lian

Lian Lian is the Managing Director, APAC at Kobre & Kim, an international law firm specializing in cross-border disputes and investigations.  She started out as an associate at international law firms focusing on cross-border transactions and corporate practice, then worked her way up as in-house counsel at Honeywell through various APAC General Counsel roles until she became the Global General Counsel of Honeywell Technology Solutions. For the last decade, Lian has been a leading lawyer in the Chinese legal community. Sherry recently sat down with Lian to talk about Lian’s career development path, her keys for success, the difference between in-house and private practice roles, and her advice for young lawyers.

Sherry:Sherry Xu (Director, Hughes-Castell)

Lian:Lian Lian (Managing Director, APAC, Kobre & Kim)


After graduating from Fudan University, Lian started her career in Otis’s Shanghai HR department the year Otis sponsored the Special Olympics. Lian was given the opportunity to work on the Special Olympics Asia Pacific Organizing Committee. Inspired by her international experience, Lian decided to explore overseas opportunities to broaden her education and experience, and concluded that the United States was the place to go. She initially studied in Boston to obtain an undergraduate degree with a major in political science.  This laid a strong foundation for her later Juris Doctorate study. During her law studies, she actively participated in legal aid activities working with the local Chinese community and also undertook an internship at a law firm in her 2L in the law school. For the next two years, she worked non-stop during the day and then rushed to her study courses after work. Her dedication paid off because by the time Lian graduated, she was already a well-known “practitioner” in Boston’s legal community concerning US/China affairs. She had attained the profile of a professional who knew the Chinese legal system and business culture, spoke Mandarin and English fluently, and had client connections as well as a US law degree and US legal practice experience.

Lian’s profile and background helped her attain an associate position at a regional firm in Boston’s highly competitive legal market. She focused on China practice right after her graduation. As a first-year associate, apart from legal practice, she worked closely with the partners on business development matters. At that time, Lian, who was still under 30, was interviewed by both the Boston Globe and the New England In-house Counsel Journal as a leading China cross-border practitioner. However, Lian worried that staying on her current track would only utilize her China connections and enhance her business development skills, whereas she was keen to get back to the nitty-gritty of practicing law. In 2008, Lian decided to return to China and joined Jones Day’s Shanghai office.  This helped strengthen her track record in cross-border M&A, private equity investment, and related corporate practice.

Although Lian loves business, being in a pure sales role is not something that she enjoys. Lian nevertheless observes the increasing importance of sales as part of a partner’s duties in a law firm. She also realized that, as an external advisor, she was not able to fully understand a client’s underlying business rationales as well as the methodology of the internal decision-making process. She observes that, as an external lawyer, “we tend to offer conservative legal advice rather than offer business driven solutions”. Given this perspective, Lian decided to move in-house and accepted an offer from Honeywell where she would spend the next decade.

Sherry: Lian, you were in Honeywell for 10 years and worked in various positions. Would you share with us insight into your opportunities and career growth in Honeywell?


Lian: When I first joined Honeywell, I started working in Honeywell APAC Corporate Legal Team, assisting the Asia Pacific General Counsel Gerard Willis. He was and continues to be a wonderful mentor to me.

I joined Honeywell at the perfect time. When I started, Honeywell had just obtained a substantial Aerospace contract, to act as a major supplier for China’s first commercial jet, C919 of COMAC. At that time, Honeywell won four supply contracts. Under Chinese law, we had to establish a joint venture under each contract. Gerald asked me to take charge of the Wheels & Brakes joint venture.

This 50/50 joint venture project was not easy to negotiate, especially when many negotiation partners were university professors and scientists. They are excellent in engineering science and technology field, but they had never done any business JV negotiation with international companies like Honeywell. The negotiations were particularly challenging in terms of differences in business and legal concepts, practices and culture. As a world technology leader, Honeywell was quite aggressive in the negotiations, especially on IP matters. Looking back, this was probably the most difficult project I have worked on in my career. I needed to build international bridges between legal, business culture and technical engineering issues to close the gaps that had opened. It was indeed a challenging task and I was very proud of handling and successfully delivering one of the most important projects in China for Honeywell. After this project, my capability was noticed internally and I was recognized as someone of “high potential” at Honeywell, and put into their executive development program.

During my following two years at Honeywell APAC Corporate, I had been working on the joint ventures for the C919 project and was a board director of the Wheels & Brakes JV company. In the meantime, a second key opportunity emerged when Honeywell established its High Growth Region corporate division. I worked with Gerald to provide legal support for new business on all market-entry matters in high growth regions, specifically Asia, Russia and South America.

With my successful track records at APAC Corp, I was promoted to become APAC General Counsel of Honeywell Performance & Material Technologies Group (“PMT”).  The PMT business has many technology components and grew rapidly in APAC.  We had many joint venture projects with Chinese state-owned enterprises, and many significant supply contracts with Japanese and Korean OEMs. During this period, my team and I worked very closely with our PMT business colleagues, who understood that my legal team and I would always try to help them achieve their business goals. We identified and mitigated risks but also came up with creative and innovative solutions. PMT is a tech-oriented business group, with many valuable patents and extensive know-how. During those three years I came to realize how a creative legal professional could help an innovative business. This period was also the peak of our Asia Pacific PMT business.

After accumulating all the valuable experience I have described, another opportunity arose and I seized it. There was a vacancy as Honeywell Technology Solutions Global General Counsel. Taking this role would be a good promotion for me although I was concerned at the beginning that working in this business unit seemed limited to only dealing with engineers. Later, after further study and communication internally, and especially after I assumed the role, I realized that this position actually was the most rewarding and this is the role that also most helped me fully achieve my goal of becoming more than just a typical lawyer. In the past, every one of Honeywell’s products had been developed within Honeywell. We came to understand as a company that if we stuck to this module, our development may not keep ahead of our competitors. Therefore, our Honeywell Technology Solutions (HTS) decided to adopt an open innovation approach — we would collaborate with world-renowned universities, customers and industrial players on innovation and product development. My role was to tailor-design and implement different cooperation structure modules and IP strategies according to each parties’ requirements. I also helped set up the Honeywell In-House Start-up process as an internal incubator to encourage engineers to build their own “start-ups.” During the 3-years I was the Global GC of HTS, we incubated more than 20 projects in China alone, with an adoption rate of 25%, and external venture capitals successfully invested in other projects. Later, we applied this successful model to our operations in the Czech Republic, Mexico and India. My role was to design and implement legal business concept models and train the local engineers to become entrepreneurs, converting their technological innovations into viable businesses.

Sherry: Many of our clients are now ask for relevant industry experience while hiring. You have served various industries at Honeywell, from Aerospace to chemical and then to R&D, without prior relevant industry experience. You thrived in those positions through learning on the job. Could you share your tips for success?


Lian: As long as you are curious enough to learn the business and related industries, and know how to partner with your business team, you will be a good General Counsel in the end. Instead of merely being a lawyer, you need to be a business advisor. So when I had already been with Honeywell for a while and had acquired some institutional knowledge of the company, changing industry focus was not too difficult for me to continue being both a good lawyer and leader for the business. Especially in Honeywell, we had the culture that senior management and business units’ staff are always willing to involve legal in projects and business ideas from an early stage.  It is because the legal team touched every aspect of our businesses, including compliance, transaction structure, and so on. I think the legal team should be the center of the wheel, backed by business trust and thorough communication from other teams. We should certainly build and earn trust from the different business teams when switching roles – I always tell my team that we would not simply say “No” to our clients but instead help find a solution. We should never be a deal killer, but a facilitator, providing the necessary legal structure and facilitating the business to succeed.

Sherry: What have been the most critical moments in your career? What are some of the biggest challenges you have faced? How did you overcome them?


Lian: Since I started as a transactional lawyer, I found it smooth to transfer from the Corporate Legal arena to the PMT business unit, where my primary duty was still transaction-centric. When I moved to the R&D business unit from PMT, I faced some unique challenges. I had to work directly with engineers on innovation processes and technical-driven procedures. The key at that time was to find out a way to leverage company resources. I was glad that I had an excellent Head of Intellectual Property colleague at that time, Jerry Xia, in our corporate legal team. Then I went back to the basics of the in-house legal work: I need to understand my clients, the engineers. I think that I overcame the challenge that is not to confine Legal Department in a technical IP process and function support but instead to guide engineers to connect their innovation with market demands and commercial value and deploy much more proactive and protective IP strategies in a R&D organization.

Sherry: While you were serving in different business units, what qualities were you more keen to see when recruiting? Does each business unit hire for its specific requirements?


Lian: No. First of all, the required legal skill sets are pretty basic. As long as you already are a well-trained and polished lawyer, I would be more concerned with business acumen, even now I am working in private practice.  Even for a private practice lawyer, if you cannot run your business well or cannot satisfy your clients, then you will fail. For an in-house lawyer, internal clients are your business. If your client is trying to avoid you, that means you are not a successful in-house lawyer. On the other hand, if your client takes the initiative to look for your help/assistance, this is a good indicator that you have succeeded in being partners with them. If your clients think of coming to you and asking “is this plan on the right track?” or “does this make sense?” before they kick off any new projects, this indicates that you have been very successful in building a trusted relationship. Second, I think communication skills are vital. Lawyers ultimately serve as guardians for their clients. But how can you convince others to accept your constructive advice and follow your instructions without doubts? It is not easy. You need to use your personality, cogency and influence to convince them take your advice wisely and willingly. Third, high EQ is necessary. If you plan to work for a large company or a leading law firm, you must have high EQ. This will be manifested in various communication channels such as the way you speak on the phone and write emails. You must be part of the team and be likable; otherwise, everyone in the team will suffer. It is essential to make clients and team members feel comfortable with you and your advice.

Sherry: Lian, you have been chosen for many internal promotions benefiting from Honeywell’s great talent development schemes. While nowadays not many young talents they have chances working in a company like Honeywell. Do you have any suggestions for them? How can they fight for opportunities and stand out from the competition?


Lian: First of all, I think you should be willing to speak up, work hard and work smart, and make your voice heard across the table. Don’t be too humble, especially when you are sure you are making the right call. When you are given a chance to shine, you must then seize it, not hide it. But remember not to claim any credit. Credit comes to you; it should not be claimed by you. You should work “smart”, know what exposure you are getting from each project and try your best when you are given an opportunity to thrive.


Sherry: Now you are at Kobre & Kim, having returned to private practice from in-house. Any unique experiences you have accumulated from the in-house world that you can pass on to the associates to be a good client-serving lawyer?


Lian: Firstly, nowadays law firms are no longer doing business in a captive client market.  Therefore, we must reform and should not operate in the traditional model. We should not offer legal services as a commodity. Nowadays you may see negative issues of private practice in the market, such as fierce competition, price “wars”, etc. This is definitely unhealthy. I aim to apply my background and experience to innovate the firm’s operations, making sure the products we offer match our clients’ needs and expectations and upgrading our products through their feedback and changes in market demand. Also, I’d suggest external lawyers be more business orientated and practical. You can talk about millions of laws, but if your advice doesn’t address business issues, it’s useless. This is key advice I would pass onto the young lawyers I can reach.

Sherry:  Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me today.  Your career is incredibly inspiring for all of us.

Lian:  Thank you very much.

Published by Hughes Castell

Asia's Premier Firm for Global Legal, Compliance, Risk and Regulatory Executive Search

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