Ashurst gets the China bug

Ashurst gets the China bug” />Last month in The Lawyer Global 100 we highlighted ‘the Chinese question’. As we pointed out, the allure of China for the world’s leading international firms has never been stronger. The past year has seen a wave of firms applying for licences to practise in Hong Kong, Shanghai and Beijing, or making raids on rivals to beef up their existing presences in the country.

Now Ashurst has got in on the act, with a complete rethink of the firm’s Eurocentric stance. As the firm’s senior partner Geoffrey Green told The Lawyer: “Asia is the firm’s medium-term objective.”

The increasing internationalisation of a growing number of Chinese companies is increasing the M&A, private equity and capital-raising opportunities. Meanwhile, its increasingly liberal economy, coupled with a projected growth rate of around 10 per cent, means that instructions for lawyers working in China have never been higher.

Of course, it’s the firms that have been there longest that are currently enjoying the boom in China-related work the most. In China, more than anywhere else in the world, contacts matter.

Ashurst has got a long way to go before it catches Baker & McKenzie, which has 200 lawyers in China, more than any other firm. Green will be looking enviously at Bakers’ CV there; over the past few years it has completed more than 100 IPOs in Hong Kong and has handled a string of major offerings, such as China Life, PetroChina and Air China.

To get China right you need senior buy-in first. Linklaters can point to a succession of high-ranking partners such as David Cheyne, Nick Eastwell, Jeremy Parr and Giles White, all of whom have a history of working in Asia. Their presence ensures a high level of support in the business for the Asia practice, not to mention a tasty contacts book.

And Clifford Chance‘s recent fortunes in the region also confirm the wisdom in Ashurst’s decision to join the party. Clifford Chance’s Asia operations turned over £70.4m during 2005-06, a 10 per cent increase on the year before, powered largely by a whopping 25 per cent growth in China.

In a similar vein, Freshfields has slimmed down in the pan-Asia region – downsizing in Thailand and Singapore – to focus its efforts on China. Ashurst’s decision to break away from its traditional Europe-focused strategy is a radical step for the firm, but it is eminently sensible. And not before time. Don’t bet against seeing Ashurst’s nameplate going up in Shanghai some time in 2007.