Taiwan: Smart island
20 January 2014 | By Yun Kriegler
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International law firms are moving in to exploit the global hi-tech hub
The Taipei 101 Tower is a landmark Taiwanere skyscraper, located in the commercial heart of the island’s capital city Taipei. It is well-known as Asia’s tallest building and for its dazzling New Year’s Eve fireworks displays. Increasingly, it also plays host to international law firms.
Seattle-based Perkins Coie and Atlanta’s Morris Manning & Martin are among those with offices in Taipei 101. But neither firm has any permanent lawyers in the jurisdiction, staffing their offices only with office administration managers.
“Our Taipei office doesn’t practise local law,” says Chun Ng, Perkins Coie’s Taipei office managing partner, who resides in Seattle but travels to Taiwan frequently. “It’s there to provide a base for our US lawyers to advise Taiwanese clients on US law. We have US lawyers working there on client matters almost every week.”
The firm’s 4,000sq ft office, opened in 2011, focuses solely on IP matters, with 95 per cent being US patent litigation work and the rest patent prosecutions.
Smartphone and tablet manufacturer HTC and computer brand Asus are two of its top Taiwanese clients. Although the Taipei office is small, it is understood that clients from Taiwan contribute about $20m (£12m) each year to the firm’s revenue.
“Demand for high-end US IP legal services has risen sharply as Taiwan’s hi-tech companies started building global brands,” Ng adds. “And Taiwanese manufacturers continue to be leaders in the global supply chain for electronics products.”
Apart from globally known Taiwanese brands such as HTC, Asus and Acer, Taiwan-based companies are also top suppliers and contract manufacturers for other global technology companies. Some 90 per cent of all the laptops sold worldwide are made by Taiwanese companies such as Quanta, Compal and Wistron – all in the Fortune Global 500. In addition, Hon Hai – trading as Foxconn – and Taiwan Semiconductor are the world’s largest contract electronics manufacturer and contact chip maker respectively.
Taiwan’s position as a pillar of the global technology industry has also attracted Chicago-headquartered Winston & Strawn. The firm plans to launch an office in Taipei soon, headed by Washington DC-based partner John Alison, resident managing partner of DC IP firm Finnegan’s Taipei office for a decade.
“Taiwan has a robust technology sector and an innovative culture – it’s a major IP hub,” says Alison.
Winston & Strawn is advising HTC and chip maker Macronix on a number of International Trade Commission litigation matters.
While IP is an active and promising practice area for local and international firms, top-end corporate and transactional mandates have been harder to come by in recent years. Revenue growth in large domestic firms remains largely flat. However, there are some bright spots.
Taipei-based Tsar & Tsai is a leading force in the domestic market. Partner CY Huang indicates that antitrust is a new area of growth. The firm has assisted a number of companies, both Taiwanese and global, in investigations initiated by Taiwan’s Fair Trade Commission.
“Taiwan’s domestic legal services market is small and concentrated,” says Huang. “Growth has mostly stalled for large Taiwanese firms, but things started improving last year.”
Antitrust matters apart, increasing cross-border transactions between Taiwan and Japan and other Asian countries are providing steady work for law firms. The increase over the past year is a result of a series of economic co-operation and free trade agreements Taiwan has signed with Japan, Singapore and New Zealand in a bid to forge stronger connections in the Asia Pacific region. This strategic push started in 2010 with the signing of a landmark trade pact with mainland China, Taiwan’s largest trading partner.
“Unlike treaties that are market-opening, the treaties with China and Japan simply formalised what had been occurring informally for many years,” says James Chen, K&L Gates’ Taipei office managing partner. “They provide political confirmation and verification for economic relationships.”
While the treaties provide more confidence for foreign investment in Taiwan, they will also encourage Taiwanese companies to invest abroad.
“In the past year we’ve seen quite a lot of acquisitions by Taiwan companies elsewhere,” Chen observes. “At the same time, Taiwan has become more attractive to hi-tech companies from other countries to raise capital through IPOs. These two areas have been driving our growth in the corporate area.”
K&L Gates’ strategy in Taiwan – to focus on Taiwanese clients and their outbound regional work – has paid off.
Unlike mainland China, Taiwan is a small but mighty market where success demands a focused and tailored strategy for law firms.
Key figures: Taiwan
Life expectancy at birth: 79
Source: The Directorate General of Budget, Accounting and Statistics, Republic of China