The law firms that have resulted from big transatlan- tic mergers can often have their cake and eat it too. In the United States, they’re the same American firm
they always were. When it comes to the United Kingdom and
the rest of Europe, they’re British to the bone.
But what about Asia?
Until recently, DLA Piper, the result of the 2005 merger
between U.K. firm DLA and U.S. firm Piper Rudnick Gray
Cary, followed the model of many British firms in Asia, entrusting management of its offices there to a Hong Kong-based regional managing partner relocated from London.
But late last year, following a strategic review, the firm decided to shift overall responsibility for Asia to a U.S.-led three-partner committee.
San Diego-based cochief executive officer Terry O’Malley, who sits on the new
committee with fellow San Diego partner
Jay Rains and Sydney partner Andrew
Darwin, says the change was driven by
the firm’s recognition that U.S.-related
work had become the single-largest component of the firm’s business in Asia.
“The advantage of British firms in Asia
has decreased as more U.S.-Asia trade
has developed and more U.S. firms have
come into these markets,” O’Malley says.
So firms like DLA Piper, Hogan
Lovells, Dentons and Norton Rose Fulbright that can choose between British and American identi-ties in Asia now have more incentive than before to opt for
For many years, the opposite was true. Owing in large
part to the U.K.’s long colonial history in the region, British firms generally had a presence in Asia much earlier than
their American counterparts. Hong Kong, the region’s main
financial hub, was a colony until 1997, and its legal system is
still based on England’s, as is that of Singapore and a number
of other countries in the region.
In all of the major Anglo-American mergers, the British
side has contributed far more of the combined firm’s Asia roster. Before its merger with DLA, Piper Rudnick had no offices
in Asia, while its British partner already had several. Norton
Rose had more than 800 lawyers in the region when it merged
with Fulbright & Jaworski in 2012; the Texas firm had roughly a dozen. Given such disparities, it’s easy to understand why
the reins in Asia have largely stayed in British hands, even
when those leading the overall firm have changed.
Hogan Lovells recently named Washington, D.C.-based
partner Steve Immelt as sole chief executive officer, replac-
ing American and British co-CEOs Warren Gorrell and Da-
vid Harris. But the firm’s Asia regional managing partner,
Patrick Sherrington, is a Brit who relocated to Hong Kong
from London last May. He doesn’t think the firm would be
helped by trying to give off more of an impression that it is
“I don’t think there’s any overall perception in Asia that
it’s better to be a U.S. firm or a U.K. firm,” he says.
He notes that there is also a significant amount of Asian
money moving into Latin America, Africa, the Middle East
and other places besides the U.S. “So if you’re a global law
firm, it’s not really a case of looking to one particular jurisdiction” to give a firm an advantage in capturing business,
But other partners say the United States’ status as the
world’s largest, most advanced economy does rub off a little
on its law firms.
Chinese business people “always
think America is larger, more advanced,
more open, freer and easier to do busi-
ness in,” says Wan Li, a Seyfarth Shaw
partner in Shanghai who previously
worked for DLA Piper. “So certainly
U.S. firms are the natural go-to firms to
handle this work.”
One former Hogan Lovells partner
said: “I think there is more to be had if
you have a U.S. brand. That plays out
better. In terms of the size of deals, the
companies, the opportunities to take
work out of Asia is better with a U.S.
firm rather than a U.K. one.”
That seems to be the case with Chinese companies. According to Mergermarket figures, total Chinese investment
into the U.S. in 2013 was almost $12 billion, more than double the $5.5 billion that flowed into the European Union.
Robert Ogilvy Watson, Ashurst Hong Kong managing
partner, says English law is still more prevalent in international commercial contracts and in cross-border M&A transactions not involving U.S. parties.
“English law is a much more international product than
New York law,” he says, and “English law is used more for
transactions than New York law.”
But Matthew Bersani, Hong Kong-based Asia manag-
ing partner for Shearman & Sterling, says the biggest deals
increasingly revolve around U.S. law. This year Chinese e-
commerce giant Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. will have the
world’s biggest IPO since Facebook Inc.’s $16 billion listing,
in New York instead of Hong Kong. The past year also saw
the $4.72 billion acquisition of Smithfield Foods Inc. by Chi-
nese pork processor WH Group Ltd.
“If you look at the [Hong Kong] market compared to five
years ago, it’s completely different,” Bersani says. “I would
say U.S. firms collectively play a bigger role, at least in the
capital markets and M&A areas, than English firms do.”
58 | July2014 | theasianlawyer.com
BY TOM BRENNAN
Some Anglo-American firms have started touting Old Glory over the Union Jack in Asia.