Hannah Cao ’03 has quickly risen to become one of China’s most respected legal counsels. She was recognized this year on the list of China’s Top 15 General Counsels by Asian Legal Business Magazine, which applauded her work with the country’s Silk Road Fund, a state-owned fund that was created in December 2014 to invest under China’s new strategic initiative—the Silk Road Economic Belt and 21st-Century Maritime Silk Road Initiative (often referred as the Belt and Road Initiative).
Cao joined Silk Road in May 2015 to serve as deputy general counsel of the fund, bringing with her 12 years of private practice experience in New York and Beijing at international law firms including Coudert Brothers LLP, Schulte Roth & Zabel LLP, and the Beijing offices of O’Melveny & Meyers, LLP and Steptoe & Johnson. Cao explained that her current role combines compliance, strategy, and transactional work for the fund, which is implementing the Belt and Road Initiative, aimed at promoting economic collaboration with parts of Europe, Asia, and Africa.
“The overall objective of my position is to ensure that the firm’s investment activities and daily operation receive solid legal support,” she said. “Many countries on the Belt and Road are emerging markets and have very diverse cultures and religions. Good business opportunities and heightened risks, including legal ones, coexist in the region. As in-house counsel, I need to be sensitive to the legal risks and also have good business sense.”
Cao grew up in Chongqing, a city by the Yangtze River in the southwestern part of China. When she was 18, she moved to Beijing to attend Peking University, where she developed an interest in the field that would become her life’s work—international business. “At the time, the nation was continuing to open up and integrate its economy with the global economy,” said Cao. “Studying Western economic theories and practices was fascinating to me and many of my peers.”
After college, she joined the International Department of the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China (ICBC). It was at the time the largest domestic bank in China with little international presence, but it has since greatly expanded its global network, with more than 400 offices or subsidiaries all over the world. Over her four years at ICBC, she focused on planning and management of the bank’s overseas expansion, drafting strategic plans and preparing for the establishment of offices in New York, Hong Kong, Tokyo, Seoul, and London.
It just feels good to be part of the historical changes that are unfolding now in China.”
In 1998, Cao moved to the United States to pursue her master’s degree in international relations at Yale University. An interest in the law was sparked, leading her to Brooklyn Law School, where she was executive articles editor of the Brooklyn Journal of International Law and an International Business Law Fellow. She was also a research assistant to Professor Roberta Karmel for two semesters and she was a member of the Safe Harbor Project, which she credits with helping to hone her legal skills.
Cao, who graduated magna cum laude, recalls her time at the Law School with a deep sense of gratitude. “I am in great indebtedness to so many professors—Professors Joel Gora, Arthur Pinto, Stacy Caplow, and Claire Kelly ’93 (now a U.S. Court of International Trade judge) —who provided me with personal attention and guidance.” She also praised Professor Michael Gerber’s efforts in recent years to promote exchanges between Brooklyn Law School and law schools in China.
While Cao misses New York, she is happy to be back in China. In the spring, she hosted 25 students from the Law School in Beijing, where they visited the Silk Road Fund. “During the years I was away from China, the country emerged as the second-largest economy in the world. Along with the rapid economic growth, there were increasing needs for legal professionals with solid training, international experience, and local knowledge. It just feels good to be part of the historical changes that are unfolding now in China.”
—Andrea Strong ’94