It was a direct question - 'How much do you charge?' - that elicited an equally straightforward reply from Handel Lee. As Mr Lee tossed the hourly rate figure out to the meeting, the eyes of the state company president's face widened, before his entire face contorted into an expression of dropped-jaw disbelief. The year was 1993, and senior cadres, interested though they were in discovering the ways of the outside world, could not quite grasp why American corporate lawyers were able to command fees that seemed, to put it mildly, exorbitant. 'He said he didn't really know what lawyers did, but thought somehow that we could help the company,' Mr Lee says. 'My company's billing rate at the time was US$350 an hour and he looked at me and said: 'That is my salary for four months, you charge that for one hour?' 'I tried to explain that the project itself was a billion dollars and, with proper representation and structuring, we could save huge amounts of money, perhaps hundreds of millions of dollars, in liability and payments and things like that.' Fast-forward about a decade and Mr Lee, the 44-year-old chairman of King and Wood, a Beijing-based practice with 400 lawyers, no longer has to conduct crash courses in the ways of capitalism to the new generation of MBA-toting senior officials. But he readily admits there's a lot of work to do in his own legal back yard before Chinese lawyers have the professionalism, expertise and street savvy that is the norm in New York or London. Mr Lee has introduced a series of programmes at King and Wood that are designed to raise standards, using a combination of work experience, mentoring and hard work. Within 10 years, he wants the company to be staffed by mainland lawyers who can talk the talk, walk the walk and, most crucially, confidently construct the legal framework for billion-dollar deals. 'There are some excellent lawyers at King and Wood and other Chinese firms, but the overall quality isn't as consistent as it should be,' he says. 'Also, Chinese lawyers come from a civil law background and need to be much more deal oriented. It is a different way of practising law.' Currently, trainee lawyers start on salaries of between $5,000 and $10,000 a month - depending on experience, a figure that can quickly rise. After the first round of intense induction, employees will be expected to put in 500 hours in three different areas of the company, learning the finer points of securities, litigation or acquisitions. In addition, the neophyte lawyers are required to attend lectures, go to informal chats by specialists, and listen carefully to advice from senior staff under a mentoring programme. 'Part of the training is being able to put in the hours and work under pressure,' says Mr Lee. 'So far, I have found that people are very, very eager and willing to work hard. We are restructuring the administration of the firm to raise the level of the lawyers and lawyering to that of New York and other city firms.' He underwent a similarly steep learning curve when he arrived in China in the early 1990s to set up shop for an American law firm; being a corporate lawyer at that time meant enduring hours in cigarette smoke-filled rooms with sceptical, hard-bargaining Communist Party officials. 'Back then, China was still unsophisticated in terms of what was allowed in terms of business; there were a lot of restricted industries and, conceptually, things were new to them,' Mr Lee says. 'It was very frustrating. As well as trying to work with Chinese clients, you had to find a way to show them why to do a project in a particular manner is OK.' At that time, Mr Lee devoted his evenings and weekends to a personal project, The Courtyard. The building, next to the moat of the Forbidden City, is a gallery-cum-restaurant dedicated to showcasing striking, provocative and controversial art. Tourists who wandered in expecting to see canvasses of ethereal Guilin mountains, or quaint Beijing hutongs, were confronted with cartoonish Mao Zedongs, ample nudes and bold abstracts. Start Mr Lee talking about art, and its ultimate impact on society, and the words spill out at a frantic pace: if he charged by the word, not the hour, it would be a pricey conversation. 'The Courtyard started out with the art gallery: there was a blossoming of art that was exciting - new and fresh and never seen anywhere before,' says Mr Lee, who acquired his appreciation of art from his mother, Dora Lee, a professional artist whose family were courtiers of the Qing emperors. 'It was only seen in the artists' villages and underground. There were no private galleries. I thought it was very important to give them a dignified public space to display their works. More importantly, this type of art challenges and pushes society and people in a way that traditional art doesn't. This is critical for China: it has been critical for 5,000 years, with the crazy artists and the crazy poets. That is the strength of Chinese culture, not its military or its politics.' As evidence of the new artistic openness, Mr Lee points to the buildings shooting up in the capital city. The play-safe options of faceless office blocks and dull-design malls are largely being built by private companies, with the real pioneering architecture commissioned by state bodies. This modernisation drive has partially been motivated by the central government's desire to ensure Beijing is all shiny and new when the Olympic Games come to town in 2008. 'I think the spending and construction is changing the political and social environment in a big way,' says Mr Lee. 'Just look at the new national theatre and CCTV towers: they are two of the strongest projections of conservative central authority that have commissioned forward-looking and avant-garde western architecture. 'This is right in the heart of Beijing, next to the Stalinist architecture of the Great Hall of the People and the Imperial architecture of the Forbidden City. The theatre is this amorphous, organic French building, transparent and ethereal. The signal it projects is not conservatism, or control, and this is inspiring to a younger generation who ride by it every day. 'CCTV is about information control, and is one of the most powerful symbols in China, yet Rem Koolhaas designed their new headquarters and the building is very experimental. It is way out there, it is crazy and it is designed and built by westerners. It sends a signal to a society to go out and be bold and do things that are new and challenging and thought-provoking.' The Washington, DC native's own rebellious streak, carefully concealed under a besuited and bespectacled lawyerly demeanour during office hours, is let loose at weekends. It is a surprise to find that the slightly built, gallery-owning lawyer has no less than four muscular motorcycles - a Harley-Davidson, Indian, Ducati and Big Dog. It's even more of a revelation to discover he wears a bandana and leather waistcoat when he heads out on the highway to the hills outside Beijing. Not that there are too many opportunities to go chopper-cruising. As well as heading what claims to be China's largest law firm, which represents, among others, the Beijing Olympic Committee, Mr Lee has a cluster of personal projects. The highest profile of these is Three on the Bund, the swish Shanghai colonial-era complex that houses a Giorgio Armani store, gourmet restaurants galore, a spa and a private members' club. For now, at least, in the fast-changing port city it is the place to be seen, preferably in the prime, river-facing table of Jean Georges' restaurant, browsing the French-based menu and fine wine list. Mr Lee flits between both cities, fully cognisant of both their pluses and minuses, ready with a rehearsed reply for anyone who asks him to nominate his favourite. Shanghai has the commercial thrust, driving ambition and louche reputation; Beijing has the history, power concentration ... and the biggest sporting event on the planet coming in just three years' time. Expect to see Mr Lee featured as the resident American talking head by virtually every US media organisation between now and then. The celebrity lawyer is articulate, affable and, after 15 years in China, probably as informed and connected as any expatriate can expect to be. As chairman of King and Wood, and an authority on mergers and acquisitions, energy, and project finance, his expert counsel is still in constant demand, although these days it is possibly a tad more than the US$350 of yore to secure 60 minutes of his time.