The Dragon enters the global legal market

Mandarin-speaking Western lawyers become hot property as Chinese firms aim for international expansion

Chinese law firms are moving up a gear internationally, with several exploring ways to increase exposure in overseas markets and hiring high-calibre lawyers who speak the language of commerce in both English and Mandarin.

Beijing-headquartered Zhong Lun, one of China’s largest law firms, is one of the pioneers and has recently launched an office in New York. The office, Zhong Lun’s fourth abroad and 10th firmwide, is headed by two New York-qualified partners, Philip Zhang and TK Chang, who have extensive experience practising in US firms.

Coinciding with the New York launch, the firm added the first Western partner to its London base, with the appointment of former Norton Rose and Linklaters lawyer Tom Fairley. The appointment came a year after the firm opened in London.

Beijing-based Yingke is another firm expanding rapidly overseas, although it has pursued a different path to Zhong Lun.

Its international expansion kicked off in 2010 when it launched in Budapest via a joint venture. In 2011 it launched offices in Verona, Italy and London. Most recently, it expanded into Brussels, Tel Aviv and Milan through tie-ups with local boutiques. It now has 16 bases outside mainland China, mostly small and servicing clients through local joint ventures, associations or referrals.

Yingke plans to project-manage Chinese clients’ investments and transactions in jurisdictions that are not dominated by global firms. To avoid direct competition with large global firms, it will target the middle to lower end of the market.

Both firms are increasingly reliant on foreign and internationally trained Chinese lawyers to spearhead expansion.

“Until now, the overseas branches have been a facilitating function and a referral point in serving clients on inbound and outbound matters,” says Zhang. “We aim to develop them into meaningful local players that can win local instructions on their own merits. To achieve that we need to hire more Western lawyers as Western clients are still more comfortable dealing with them.”

Although they will not take on global players on their home turf and they want to work with foreign firms around the world, the move shows that Chinese firms want to be more serious players in key global financial centres.