Jerry K. Clements (Margaret Licarione)
Last year, Locke Lord’s five-year-old Hong Kong office broke even for the first time. In a tough market where many international firms struggle to make money, firm chair Jerry Clements says she find the office’s performance both surprising and pleasing.
“We didn’t expect it. We expected to have another loss last year,” says Clements. “For a relatively new office that has only been up and running in full bloom for about three years, we are very pleased. Clements says she attributes the firm’s success in Hong Kong to two things: finding the right people to do the right work and being cautious in expansion.
“Our brand is better recognized in the community,” Clements says, “which has been really important to us, particularly when we came here as a Texas firm, and no one had ever heard of us at all.”
Legacy Locke Lord opened in Hong Kong in early 2011 with the hire of DLA Piper REIT partner Brad Markoff. But Markoff left the firm after two years for an in-house position at local asset management company Encore Asia Ltd. Clements says the real progress started in 2013 when the firm entered into association with five-partner Cheung & Lee and started practicing Hong Kong law. Name partners Wing Cheung and Alfred Lee had come from K&L Gates where they were consultant and partner, respectively.
Now 19 lawyers strong, Locke Lord’s Hong Kong office focuses mostly on mid-sized capital markets deals and mergers and acquisitions involving Hong Kong Stock Exchange-listed companies. Currently, the firm is advising more than ten Hong Kong listings at various stages. In October 2015, Locke Lord represented Chinese watch maker Time2U International Holding Ltd. on a $36.9 million Hong Kong listing. In December, it also represented cosmetics maker Crabtree & Evelyn on its $175 million sale to Hong Kong-based investment group Nan Hai Corp.
The office is also actively involved in disputes work. So far, the Hong Kong team has advised on 12 wire fraud cases, which involve freezing assets, obtaining judgments and awards from courts and recovering assets for victims. In April, a team led by office managing partner Wing Cheung successfully convinced a Hong Kong court to acquit client Ronald Sin on a charge of unlicensed dealing in collective investment schemes brought by the Hong Kong Securities and Futures Commission.
The firm is also benefiting from the December 2015 hire of energy partner Jack Su, who formerly led the Asia energy practice for Mayer Brown JSM. Su now works closely with the Locke Lord’s energy team in Texas and California on Asia-related projects. The firm has represented several Chinese state-owned energy companies, including China Petroleum & Chemical Corp., or Sinopec, Sinochem Corp., China National Offshore Oil Corp. and China National Petroleum Corp., on acquisitions and other matters in the United States.
Locke Lord’s merger last year with Edwards Wildman Palmer had little impact on the size of Locke Lord’s Hong Kong office, since almost all of the Edwards Wildman lawyers in Hong Kong had left before the merger. However, Locke Lord inherited the Hong Kong law practice status of the legacy Edwards Wildman office, which had integrated with an associated firm, Lister Lo Lui & Choy, in 2013. As a result, Locke Lord can now offer Hong Kong law advice under its own name, instead of via Cheung & Lee.
The Edwards Wildman merger did add one more Asian office for Locke Lord, Tokyo, although only one patent agent (not a lawyer) is permanently based there. Washington, D.C.-based intellectual property partner James Armstrong also spends time in Tokyo.
Locke Lord has lost only a couple of partners in Hong Kong in the last few years, including former Cheung & Lee partners Tejinder Mahil and Balbir. Mahil joined London-based boutique gunnercooke in 2013 and Bindra first went in-house at Canadian company CEC North Star Energy Ltd., then joined Ince & Co earlier this year.
Clements says there isn’t a plan in place to significantly expand the Tokyo office, or to open new offices elsewhere in Asia, such as in mainland China or Singapore. So far, the firm has managed to represent mainland Chinese clients through its Hong Kong and Houston offices, and has gotten referral work from large Singaporean firm Rajah & Tann.
“We are pretty conservative in expansion. We continue to Hong Kong is the right gateway into Asia for us,” says Clements. “We expect to make a profit this year.”