Stephenson Harwood formalises Guangzhou alliance

Stephenson Harwood has formalised its relationship with its existing Guangzhou-based alliance firm Wei Tu by establishing an association permitted under a free trade agreement between mainland China and Hong Kong.

Stephenson Harwood first entered into an alliance with Chinese firm Wei Tu in December 2014 following the closure of its Guangzhou office in a bid to continue servicing its clients in Guangzhou and provide clients with access to PRC law advice.

The local firm was set up by the former Stephenson Harwood Guangzhou team, led by PRC-qualified shipping lawyer Xianming Lu, and currently has four lawyers.

Lu joined Stephenson Harwood in May 2010 from the Guangzhou office of PRC shipping firm Rolmax. He specialises in shipping litigation as well as China-focused shipbuilding, leasing and financing.

The formalisation of the pair’s relationship is permitted under the CEPA arrangement (Mainland and Hong Kong Closer Economic Partnership Arrangement). Dubbed Stephenson Harwood – Wei Tu (China) Association, the two are able to offer clients seamless Hong Kong, English and PRC law advice with the PRC advice strictly being offered by Wei Tu.

Stephenson Harwood’s Greater China managing partner Voon Keat Lai said the association was an important step forward in responding to the firm’s needs in the region.

Prior to the association, the firm recently strengthened its Hong Kong offering by adding partner Richard Wilmot from Watson Farley & Williams and a seven-lawyer team from Eversheds in Hong Kong.

Stephenson Harwood is the latest UK firm to take advantage of the CEPA to develop its mainland practice.

In 2013, Clyde & Co formed an association with Chongqing-based Chinese firm West Link and co-branded as Clyde & Co West Link, also utilising the CEPA arrangement.

However, Bird & Bird was one of the first to take advantage of the CEPA framework. In 2009, its Hong Kong office established an association with Beijing-based firm Xiang Kun.

The CEPA arrangement provides an alternative way for localised international firms in Hong Kong to gain a PRC law capacity via association. It is different from the Shanghai Free Trade Zone route that was first used by Baker & McKenzie and its local joint venture partner Fen Xun last year and the Swiss Verein structure adopted by Field Fisher Waterhouse and Shanghai IP boutique Ryser & Associates in July 2013.

A number of international firms, including Linklaters and DLA Piper, are currently weighing up their options to tie up with a PRC firm to offer more integrated PRC legal advice.