Clifford Chance's Shanghai story

Lucy Mair finds out why international law firm Clifford Chance expanded into China and about the work trainees could do in the Shanghai office
Commercial awareness

Shanghai is one of the world's biggest and most dynamic cities. Its vibrant, futuristic skyline fuses with peaceful, historic temples. Its bustling, cosmopolitan streets intersect with a rich dynastic culture. Shanghai is the heart of mainland China's vast economy. The Shanghai Stock Exchange ranks among the top five in the world and the eastern Chinese city boasts one of the globe's busiest ports. Shanghai is also home to one of Clifford Chance's three Chinese offices, and business there is booming.

Over the past two decades, magic circle law firms have been eager to expand their operations to emerging market economies, especially China. But international firm Clifford Chance, which has offices in 25 countries worldwide, was a leader of the pack: We were one of the first two or three players to enter the market,Â" says Emma Davies, partner and head of Clifford Chance's corporate practice in mainland China. The firm established its Hong Kong office to handle projects across China and the Asia region in 1980, which was closely followed by an outpost in Beijing in 1985 and another in Shanghai in 1993. Â"We're one of the largest foreign law firms in China and we've been here for very long time,Â" she says.

The foresight of investing in Chinese operations is paying off, now more than ever. In the past year, revenue from Clifford Chance's Asia-Pacific offices accounted for 14 per cent of the firm's turnover. And it makes sense: the legal market, like the rest of the economy, is currently challenging in the UK and Europe, and it's in the emerging markets of Asia, the Middle East, Africa and South America where business opportunities lie. What's more, with a robust economy that's continuing to grow, China is where the firm's British, European and North American clients want to do business, too.

Open for business

Clifford Chance established its offices in China to work with multinational corporations and financial institutions keen to invest in Asia's growing domestic markets. Â"China is important to the firm because it's very important to our clients,Â" explains Emma. Â"As lawyers, we need to follow our clients and we need to follow what they're doing,Â" adds Yinan Zhu, a senior associate in the firm's Capital Markets practice.

The legal environment in the People's Republic of China is dramatically different to that in Europe or the US, where Clifford Chance's clients have traditionally been based. As a result, the firm has taken its core practices in corporate law to China to assist clients in negotiating it. Kelly Gregory, a partner in the firm's corporate practice in Shanghai, says: Â"One of our jobs as lawyers is to advise our clients on the practical aspects of investing in China.Â"

By building up legal and cultural expertise in emerging market economies, such as China, India, Morocco, Russia or Brazil, law firms can help to bridge the cultural divide that may hinder transactions between two countries, whether it's down to language barriers and time zone differences, or conflicting styles of negotiation and ways of conducting business. Â"Many of us have been in the [Chinese] market for over a decade or more, but for our clients it might be their first experience of doing a deal in China,Â" says Emma.

Dual-qualified English and Chinese lawyer Yinan says: Â"When we're talking to clients it's very helpful to say to them, Â'Look, we understand the regulatory regime here [in the UK], as well as the regulatory regime in China, and we can also help you to understand how they would interact.'Â" By doing so, Clifford Chance lawyers are able to help clients do business and achieve their commercial goals across the world.

East meets west

The Chinese economy has accelerated rapidly over the past decade. In 2010, China overtook Japan to become the world's second-largest economy after the US and, although its growth has slowed recently, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) expects China to steal the top spot from the US in the next four years. As a result, the nature of Clifford Chance's work in China has also changed.

Emma says the firm is increasingly handling work for Chinese corporates, financial institutions and investors. This is because the firm's Chinese clients are expanding their businesses internationally and acquiring assets in Europe and the US, rather than the other way around. Â"As recently as five years ago, 95 per cent of our business was for foreign clients. These days, as much as 40 per cent of it is for Chinese corporates,Â" says Emma.

But Clifford Chance also has to continue to change and adapt to meet the needs of Chinese clients and their demand for more complex legal services. Emma says: Â"One of the things we're focusing on in terms of long-term strategy and success in China is broadening our platform. It's no longer the case that if you just provide simple M&A [mergers and acquisitions] services and some banking services that they'll be sufficient for our clients. We need to show that we've got sophisticated legal skills and that we can span all types of legal work.Â"

What could you do?

Part of the firm's effort to expand its Chinese services involves inviting trainees to complete one of their seats in the Shanghai office. A two-year training contract at Clifford Chance incorporates rotations through four of the firm's practice areas to help trainees gain a variety of experience by working with different teams and clients, which often includes working in different places to foster an international career. With an extensive network of offices across the world, the firm encourages all trainees to spend some time abroad, and around 80 per cent took up the offer last year.

Â"Coming to Shanghai as a trainee is a fairly unique opportunity,Â" says Campbell Izzard, a consultant in the M&A practice in Shanghai. From getting involved in cross-border transactions to helping to build new practice groups to focusing on certain China-specific sectors, Â"the breadth of work that you can do from that very early stage is quite impressiveÂ". Not only that, the experience of living and working in another country, and adapting to a new culture, is sure to boost your personal and professional development, whatever practice and office you choose.

And Shanghai is certainly an exciting place to be. Kelly says: Â"Chinese companies will only continue to get stronger and make more investments in markets overseas. With Clifford Chance's offices across the region and all the practice areas we specialise in, I think the future is very bright.Â"