Chinese checkers

During an autumn lunch with a magic circle managing partner I was party to a bit of a confession: aside from King & Wood, his knowledge of Chinese firms was seriously lacking.

Chances are he was being a little disingenuous, but he had a point: when it comes to the Chinese legal market, ignorance, it seems, is bliss.

Given the clamour from international firms to step up their offerings in China, and in Asia more generally, such a stance seems outmoded. But, as readers of Zhong Lun international managing partner Robert Lewis’s excellent series of blogs on TheLawyer.com will know, it is hardly unusual.

As Lewis wrote last month, many international lawyers in China are “still stuck in the 1990s in terms of their views of Chinese lawyers” and are transmogrifying into dinosaurs as a result.

But it’s not just Chinese firms they’re unsure of, it’s the PRC itself. As revealed by The Lawyer last week (27 February), the now-live merger between King & Wood and Australia’s Mallesons Stephen Jaques faced some last-minute wrangling after the Aussie partners got spooked by the thought of having to pass client secrets to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

The combined firm has blocked partners in China from its information management system, but King & Wood partners say the idea that the CCP would run roughshod over international firms in a quest for confidential information is absurd.

Still, the misunderstanding has already benefited some UK firms. Fresh from its merger with Australia’s Blake Dawson, Ashurst has picked up a Mallesons partner for its Beijing launch, while Simmons Beijing and Clydes Hong Kong have each gained a partner from King & Wood Mallesons.

Confucius said that “real knowledge is to know the extent of one’s ignorance”. It’s just as well, then, that Lewis is on hand to impart some of the wisdom he’s gained over two decades in China.

How’s this for starters: Fangda, Haiwen, Grandall, Global, Jingtian Gongcheng, Fenxun, Hylands, Commerce & Finance and Llinks are all seen as leading players in the PRC market.

If knowledge is power, you should probably get to know them.