Taking a break from her criminal law practice, Jing Heng, a defense lawyer and lecturer from the Sichuan province of southwest China, is spending a year at SUNY Buffalo Law School as a visiting scholar.
Practicing criminal law in China can be problematic. For one thing, private detectives are illegal, so lawyers wishing to pursue an investigation have to knock on all the doors themselves, says Jing Heng, a defense lawyer and lecturer from the Sichuan province of southwest China, who is spending a year at SUNY Buffalo Law School as a visiting scholar.
Most law firms in her country, she says, are generalists. Her firm, Sichuan ZhuoAn Law Firm, is one of the few that specializes in criminal defense, and she has defended clients accused of fraud, drug trafficking and bribery, among other offenses.
“Our lawyers have the right to get more information about the case by ourselves,” she says. “Sometimes it seems a little bit dangerous for lawyers, because if you want to know more about the case and get more evidence, more information, they have to do it by themselves.”
The work takes her to detention facilities as well, to meet with clients. “In most of these cases, the first time I meet them I will try to know their living conditions there,” she says. “And I will give information to their relatives for them; they are eager for that.”
Another challenge that Chinese lawyers face, she says, is that their sworn responsibility is first not to the client, but to the truth. “Lawyers in China always meet the dilemma of how to deal with the lawyer-client relationship and their responsibility to the truth,” Heng says. “That’s a big problem for them. In some cases, lawyers are asked questions by the police.” But, she says, changes in criminal procedure law have afforded attorneys some limited protection when they remain silent.
So the sanctity of lawyer-client privilege and the adversarial nature of the U.S. judicial system is a large part of what she will study in Buffalo. “I want to know something about how it functions here,” she says. She’s looking forward to sitting in on court sessions, noting with appreciation that judicial proceedings are open to visitors here. She also will take some Law School classes in criminal law, criminal procedural law and legal ethics.
In addition to her own learning, the classes will give her a look at legal education in the United States and help inform her own teaching at Southwest University for Nationalities, in Chengdu. (Heng has a bachelor’s degree in biology, a master’s degree in procedural law and a J.D. from Sichuan University.) In China law is an undergraduate course of study, and as a lecturer at SWUN, Heng teaches legal writing and judicial document preparation, and serves a legal clinic. She also presents at academic conferences and to law firms and other law faculties in Sichuan, and has appeared on China’s national television network, CCTV, as an expert in legal forums and debates. Both the university and her law firm, she says, have provided support for her study in Buffalo.
One advantage of studying in the United States, she says, is having access to LexisNexis, which isn’t widely available in China. “When I am in the United States, I have many opportunities to get more information and to use the library and get materials,” she says.
Heng said she had thought for several years about studying abroad: “Many of my colleagues in the law school went to the United States. I thought maybe I can have this opportunity.” When she decided to go, she investigated a number of U.S. law schools, “stumbled upon” SUNY Buffalo, and after Professor Guyora Binder emailed her about some possible classes and books she might be interested in, made her decision.
Another lucky break was meeting a friend-of-a-friend who has lived in Buffalo for about three years. They met when he was visiting Chengdu, and he assured her that Western New York – despite the snow and cold – was a good place to live.
She also has connected with other Chinese students at UB through a Chinese instant-messaging app called QQ. They support each other and share information on topics like how to buy a car.
Heng is in Buffalo with her 7-year-old daughter, Mia, who is engaged in some foreign study of her own, at Dodge Elementary School in Amherst.