International firms set sights on Beijing

In recent months a number of international firms have set up shop in Beijing, mainland China’s largest legal market in terms of lawyer numbers and ­revenue. Several other firms are understood to be applying for Beijing licences.

Canada’s Gowlings opened a representative office in the city in September, extending its coverage to Asia for the first time.

Gowlings chair and chief executive Scott Jolliffe noted that his firm has advised a number of Chinese state-owned companies in M&A transactions in Canada, mostly in the energy and natural resources sectors. Being the seat of government and home to hundreds of large state-owned companies makes Beijing a ­natural choice for the firm’s first China presence.

Most recently US firm Proskauer Rose established its first mainland office in the city, an initiative first mooted in 2008.

“We decided to have a Beijing office some years ago, but it took a long time to reach the requirements for the Beijing licence,” said Proskauer chairman Joseph Leccese. “Beijing is an ideal hub for the next step in our global strategy and to serve our clients in the major financial markets around the world. We’re bullish about opportunities in China, even though it’s a competitive market.”

There are two resident partners in the office, both relocated from Hong Kong, while Asia head Yuval Tal will split his time between Beijing and Hong Kong. In the next 12 months the firm plans to increase its number of lawyers in Beijing and focus on integrating the office to its global network.

Fellow US firm Gibson Dunn & Crutcher, which recently expanded its Hong Kong office with two ­partner lateral hires, is also eyeing a Beijing launch. Hong Kong partner Joseph Barbeau told The Lawyer that his firm is filing an application for a Beijing representative office.

“We want to add a dozen lawyers by the end of the year and expand our footprint in Greater China,” he said. “Opening in Beijing will be the first step and Shanghai will be next. They’re equally important, but offer ­different opportunities and have ­different client bases.”

It will be three years before Gibson Dunn can have two offices on the mainland, as Chinese regulations require foreign firms to have a representative office for at least that period before they are qualified to apply for a second licence.

City firm Stephenson Harwood (SH) already has offices in Shanghai and Guang­zhou. The firm has confirmed that it has a licence pending for a representative office in Beijing and that the application is being considered by the Ministry of ­Justice.

If its licence is approved SH will be the second international firm to have three offices in China after Mayer Brown JSM.

UK firm Ashurst will gain a small office in Shanghai after it merges its Asia operations with Australia’s Blake Dawson. Head of Asia Geoffrey Green confirms that an Ashurst office in Beijing is likely in the next 18 months.

There are more than 110 representative offices of foreign firms, including Hong Kong firms, from 16 countries in Beijing. Together, they employ around 900 lawyers and support staff.

According to the Beijing Municipal Bureau of ­Justice, the total revenue generated by these offices reached Rmb2.4bn (approximately £240m) in 2010, up by 25 per cent compared with the previous year.