Altheimer & Gray's taste of eastern promise

On June 26, Chicago-based law firm Altheimer & Gray opened its doors in the ancient Chinese city of Shanghai. It is yet another example of the firm's continuing commitment to emerging markets.

One of Chicago's largest firms, Altheimer & Gray, founded in 1915, is noted domestically for its work in mergers and acquisitions, property development and litigation. And prompted by partners James Carroll and Louis Goldman, it was the first foreign firm to open an office in Warsaw back in 1990.

With business in the US slowing due to the recession, the firm forged ahead opening offices in Prague, Kiev, Bratislava and Istanbul, and is now considering Bucharest.

A key feature in Altheimers' growth has been its ability to recognise and seize opportunities early. “Like any business,” remarks Goldman, “we are looking for new markets and products. In Central Europe, we saw that major markets were opening suddenly, and if you got in quickly you could get top clients and work which would lead to good revenues and profits.”

Several principles have formed the bedrock of Altheimers' approach. The first is that an adequate body of work cannot be secured without a local office. “We're convinced of the depth of the Romanian market, but you cannot succeed in the country without an office there,” says Goldman.

Timing, the nature of work and personnel have also been fundamental to the firm's success. “It was important to get into the markets early and quickly obtain a broad range of work. It is also good to have experienced, senior local people.” Nor are legal skills enough, he cautions. “The key to opening an office in Bucharest will be finding lawyers who are Western in their approach to service,” he says.

According to Goldman, the firm's method of entry into each market differs according to the opportunities. For example, in Warsaw, the practice secured experienced government transactions lawyer Gabriel Wujek to open the office and be resident partner. And the Prague office was established by linking with a local firm.

Providing locals with equal career opportunities to Americans is central to the firm's philosophy. “You cannot succeed here unless the locals have an equal career track,” says Goldman. “You cannot impose a strictly Western approach. You must adapt to the local market.”

He claims marketing conventions differ dramatically in every market. In China, contacts are crucial and, to secure its licence, Altheimers required some political aptitude. “We know people at all levels in China and have been active for some years in facilitating trade between the country and the US,” explains Goldman.

In other countries, however, contacts are less important. Goldman cites Poland as an example of a market where contacts mean little. “You need a high level of professional credibility there, you need to be seen as people who have good lawyers and can get the deal done,” he says.

Goldman is sanguine about the Shanghai office. Although, a Chinese office had been the firm's first ambition, it was postponed because of the Tiananmen Square incident. Now seems a good time to locate there, as Goldman claims: “Shanghai is turning out to be the financial and industrial centre of China.”

Back in Eastern Europe, Goldman feels that the competition the firm faces in the markets is already there, although he notes a level of consolidation. “Some firms are leaving, others are merging,” he says.

While the same may yet occur in China, Altheimers appears to have been very sure footed in Europe and no doubt, has other ambitions in Asia.