You would expect a man revered as one of the one hundred most powerful lawyers in the world to treat his own opinions like valuable commodities, bestowed sparingly on a select elite. In other words, a bit of a nightmare to interview. To begin with, normally loquacious lawyers have a puzzling habit of losing their touch with words when a reporter enters the room. Conversation usually degenerates into 'yes' or 'no' responses, with not a word out of place. The potential for long silences and stilted conversation with someone who obviously wants to be somewhere else and ultimately has nothing to say is usually pretty apparent. It was a relief, in the circumstances, to meet Jerome Cohen who bounded into the conference room with explosive energy and enthusiasm for someone who had just come off a plane from New York - a particularly grisly 20-hour flight. As if that was not enough, Mr Cohen had just completed a vigorous swim in the hotel pool. It would normally be a bit nauseating, all this energy and fitness, were it not for the fact that Mr Cohen is a month shy of his 70th birthday. He then proceeded to give a synopsis of his life so far, the events that led him to become one of the most renowned experts on mainland law, and with it - although he laughs at the term - among the 100 most powerful lawyers globally. Initially, it was a toss-up between politics and law during his early years. He sees himself as a product of World War II, part of the 'save the world' mentality. A legal career won over politics, and the major turning point in his legal career seemed to be when he hit 30. He decided to specialise in Chinese law. At the time, he was a first-year law teacher at the University of California. It was 1960 and there was a move to recognise the mainland. 'I wanted to go into academic life to teach something distinctive. If we are going to be in academia, we might as well do something unusual.' The mainland was not allowing Americans in at that point and so Mr Cohen came to Hong Kong and spent years interviewing people coming out of the mainland. 'I had read the People's Daily for 10 years, I wanted to know how to fit the pieces together. Human interviewing was the only way to do it,' he said. He had a wealth of opportunity, as it transpired, because 1963 was a good year to be in Hong Kong as the border opened up for about 600,000 people. Mr Cohen made his first visit to the mainland in 1972. 'From my point of view, it was terrific. Between 1960-1972, it had been like studying Roman law, or studying the moon. It was not a live subject.' His interest was, however, met with scepticism by many, particularly the colonial government in Hong Kong. They thought he was a CIA agent. 'I was interrogated by people at dinner parties, what was I really doing here?' Mr Cohen's career path saw him as associate dean of Harvard's law school by the time he left in 1981. 'I had the greatest deal going, and I gave it all up for a term in the Peking Hotel,' he said. After two years, 'I decided I would stay in the practical world.' He thus became more active in the business side of the law. Events had also started to open the gates to foreign investment, and a legal system was created by 1979. 'All of a sudden bells started ringing - phone bells.' His years of study were a scarce commodity to the US corporate world. The first call was from General Motors. 'Major companies finally needed to learn something about China's legal system.' Mainland officials had also started reaching out to Mr Cohen. He had previously been invited by the country's national tax commissioner, in early December 1978, to discuss tax plans. This was the beginning of several mainland agencies reaching out. 'They wanted to learn - what is a joint venture? How do foreign companies do these things? What is international taxation?' Twenty years on, he is impressed with the development of the legal playing field for businesses in the mainland. Yet he readily admits the leading emerging market for foreign investment has its downside. 'We see the warts, there are a lot of problems, but you must not overlook the forest.' He throws out the figures: 350,000 foreign-investment enterprises, US$300 billion transferred through these enterprises, and more than US$600 billion contracted. In his role, advising on joint-venture work, he is pragmatic and he has been critical when needed - even writing a report: Twenty pitfalls in dealing with China. Interestingly, mainland officials translated every word. 'The minister of trade went over every one of the problems. He gave a report, and had solved 12 of the problems. They are very consciously studying this. So you are not going into the wind if you do give a talk.' The exception is in the case of human rights issues. Although Mr Cohen hails the process of foreigners and foreign business as a 'tremendous shot in the arm' for human rights, there is still a major psychological hurdle. 'The Chinese Government is willing to accept many criticisms and proposals for tomorrow if it has to do with economics and business. If you keep them in these terms you will get a hearing. 'If it is in human-rights terms, that makes it very different.' Mr Cohen has been involved himself in a number of human rights cases. He was among lawyers working on the recent release of Song Yongyi, a Pennsylvanian college research librarian, detained for nearly six months on charges of stealing government secrets. 'I do not go looking for them. I think many Chinese, including the leaders, expect this is a lawyer's duty.' One bonus of foreign investment in the mainland, in terms of rights consciousness, is when it is perceived in blackmail terms. 'If you want to get something accepted in China, often the argument is 'if it is good for foreign investment', it makes it all of a sudden untouchable.' He also believes that with increasing prosperity - as people acquire property and other elements of middle-class expansion - rights consciousness will be heightened. Timing, however, is the question. 'Our Congress thinks we pass a few resolutions and the Chinese should keep up. Things are not going to go so fast in China.' The local courts moreover are of questionable reliability. Problems with professional competence, corruption, guanxi (social connections) and local protectionism are tainting the playing field. This applies in particular to foreign businesses. 'The fact is, in real life, even at the Supreme Court we have cases where judges will not abide by their own rules. 'It is well-known you cannot reliably enforce contracts in China today,' he said, pointing out that if you have 350,000 foreign-invested enterprises and more than 10 per cent have problems that is 35,000 companies. If a company wins a case and gets judgment in its favour, there is no guarantee it will be enforced. Similar problems exist with arbitration. A company could spend US$200,000 on arbitration, only to come back two years later with the same problem. The interview, by this time, has overrun and there is barely time to broach the subject of his personal life - a question often posed to lawyers without high expectations. Again, Mr Cohen is the exception. Although he is the epitome of a jet-setter, spending time in Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton and Garrison mainland office, though based in New York, he still keeps up his academic side. And his skiing, tennis and 'passion for sailing'. His family have pursued divergent career paths, and before we part he is keen to find a cutting in the Post which mentions his son's art gallery in New York. Throughout the interview, Mr Cohen has been spirited, engaging and you cannot help admiring his passion for his job. But entering the law offices' library, perhaps the best quality of the high-flying lawyer becomes evident. He approaches a librarian to find yesterday's paper, stretches out his hand and says with a huge smile: 'Hi, I'm Jerry Cohen.'