FFW enters Asia through Shanghai tie-up under new Swiss Verein

Field Fisher Waterhouse (FFW) has sealed a Chinese tie-up that gives the firm its first major outpost in Asia and ramps up its capacity for fast international expansion through a newly launched Swiss Verein.

Michael Chissick Matthew Lohn Field Fisher Waterhouse FFW
Michael Chissick (left) and Matthew Lohn

The firm’s combination with Shanghai’s Ryser & Associates goes live today (8 July) and sees FFW merge its branding and some operations with the three-partner outfit, which will trade as Field Fisher Ryser (FFR) in China.

The City firm has followed the likes of Norton Rose Fulbright, DLA Piper and Baker & McKenzie by setting up a Swiss Verein, Field Fisher Global, under which FFW and FFR will operate as financially separate partnerships with distinct profit pools but sharing an IT system and know-how.

FFW managing partner Michael Chissick said the firms “might do the full financial thing in the future” but set no timetable for full integration, which would require changes to Chinese regulations on foreign ownership of law firms or an adjustment of FFW’s structure.

Ryser, currently home to 14 lawyers, was set up in 2004 by managing partner Zoe Zhan, a former IP lawyer at Baker & McKenzie. The firm’s main focuses are IP and corporate, providing synergies with FFW’s emphasis on TMT.

FFW achieved the required 80 per cent approval from partners in a vote ending in mid-June, after the proposal was originally pitched to them at its annual partnership retreat in London last November, at which Zhan gave a presentation. Heads of agreement were signed at the time.

The structure of the deal under the new Verein umbrella also gifts FFW the opportunity to expand faster through non-financial bolt-ons, which is not envisaged in Europe but could see it grow in other regions by taking on more member firms.

“It’s not the right model for us in Europe, but we have just set up Field Fisher Global and there are opportunities that will flow from that,” Chissick said.

Alongside this, the firms are also expecting rapid growth on the FFR side, including an anticipated launch in Beijing.

“The obvious next phase if it goes where we hope it will go and Field Fisher Ryser expands – if we catch the right cusp of the wave, we’ll hopefully be [in Beijing] sooner rather than later,” Chissick added.

Prior to the tie-up, FFW operated a single partnership and profit pool covering its six European offices in London, Manchester, Brussels, Hamburg, Munich and Paris and its sole non-European base in Palo Alto, launched last year (3 September 2012). The original model’s contrast with Osborne Clarke’s Verein structure was one reason for the termination of the two firms’ merger talks last year (19 November 2012).

The union is FFW’s first non-organic expansion move since ending its European Legal Alliance in 2007 (26 March 2007) and its first significant Asia play since it shut down its short-lived Tokyo office last year after its sole occupant, corporate partner Teruo Kato, left the firm.

It also follows failed merger negotiations with Lawrence Graham and OC last year, with the year-long discussions with Ryser kicking off before the OC talks started.

FFW and Ryser have a number of shared Chinese clients, with Chissick describing the deal as initially a move to escort its own clients, especially technology companies, during their expansion into the country, with increasing outbound work from China viewed as the next step.

It has also acted for Asian clients such as Samsung and, historically, Korea’s LG, and has long had a focus on the region, including through joint mandates with Ryser.

Chissick commented: “We’ve been looking at China for nigh-on a decade. We haven’t just come across this in an opportunistic way. We’ve come to know Zoe and the firm well over the last few years.”

FFW recently carried out a review of its Asia capacity that looked at opportunities in Shanghai, Hong Kong and Singapore and opted for the former. It is also in the middle of a wider strategic review under the new leadership of Chissick and senior partner Matthew Lohn and is aiming to unveil a rebrand late this year or early next.

FFW has taken on the cost of the tie-up, with a cost-sharing arrangement between the two firms likely further down the line.

Chissick added in a statement: “A key aspect of the two firms coming together was the opportunity to have a credible base in China built on the IP/IT and corporate focus of both firms. We hope Field Fisher Ryser will continue to grow over the next few years and help our clients realise their ambitions and strategic plans in China whilst also enabling us to better service our growing Chinese client base. We have worked closely with Zoe and she understands the needs of a European law firm.”

Zhan said the new-look offering “perfectly complements our Chinese law capabilities”.