During China’s Cultural Revolution, it could be deadly to admit you were a lawyer. Yet today, less than 40 years later, law is a huge and growing industry in China, with more than 920 Chinese law schools and 787,000 law students, and at least 1,000 Chinese law firms of more than 200 lawyers, including powerhouse King & Wood, with 1,000 attorneys in 13 Chinese cities as well as New York and Silicon Valley. And the number of foreign law firms with offices in China also has exploded, from 12 in 1992, when China first opened its borders to them, to nearly 200 in 2008.

Globalization and rapid economic growth have fueled this astonishing transformation of the legal profession in China, as well as in Brazil and India, among other nations now producing or hosting unprecedented numbers of lawyers, both foreign and domestic. It’s a trend that carries significant opportunity as well as serious challenges, explained experts duing a panel discussion, “Globalization, Lawyers and Emerging Economies,” at the FutureEd 2 Conference at HLS last month.

In many countries, including China and India, the quality of legal education is often very poor and professional standards are lacking, panelists noted. India has over 1,000 law schools but only 14 are considered quality institutions. There is a similar problem in China, so there are strong incentives for Chinese lawyers to get an American law degree and pass an American bar exam.

“That’s why there are so many Chinese lawyers coming to Harvard Law School and other American law schools,” said Sida Liu, assistant professor of sociology and law at the University of Wisconsin. In Brazil, many law faculty searching for elite credentials head to Europe or the U.S. to obtain advanced degrees, noted Fabio de Sá e Silva, a researcher at the Institute for Applied Economic Research, a prominent think tank in Brazil, and himself a PhD candidate in law, policy and society at Northeastern University.

Yet at the same time, these countries seek international approval and acceptance of their home-grown lawyers, spurring state-led reforms of their legal professions, including shutting down schools that are sub-par. China is aggressively supporting high-quality legal education with the goal of producing lawyers who can not only handle business deals in China but compete with international law firms for business in other nations. To make that happen, it is eager to attract top foreign academics—most notably, Jeffrey S. Lehman, former president of Cornell and former dean of Michigan Law School, who is now chancellor and founding dean of the School of Transnational Law at Peking University in Shenzhen, China. There, students are taught in English, and the school is seeking accreditation by the American Bar Association in the hopes that graduates can sit for American bar exams to become part of the “legal elite” who land the biggest and best corporate clients around the world.

But there’s another important role for lawyers in these emerging economies besides making business deals, panelists noted: They must assert themselves as leaders in establishing the rule of law in nations where that concept is on new or shaky ground. They should use their growing prominence to insist upon government accountability and transparency, and work to right injustices including human rights abuses, panelists said. While today there are few lawyers in top positions in the Chinese government, Liu said it is important to train law students to become politicians in order to advance the rule of law there. “Looking to the future, I think there is potential for lawyers to play a major role in the Chinese government,” Liu predicted.

David Wilkins, faculty director of the Program on the Legal Profession at Harvard Law School, which co-hosted the conference, said that HLS is deeply committed to an ongoing conversation about globalization and the legal profession, and is in discussions with a university in China to present a conference on that topic there in June, with other events to follow in India or Brazil in 2012.