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Ten years after opening a Hong Kong office, Heller Ehrman White & McAuliffe is substantially beefing up its island outpost in an effort to get a piece of the booming market in mainland China. The firm announced the addition of 19 attorneys to its Hong Kong office Monday, bringing over the corporate securities division of local firm Siao Wen and Leung. The group of four partners, 15 associates and six trainee-associates is a big boost to the office, which previously consisted of three attorneys. “For some time now we have looked at what’s been going on in the Chinese economy and felt that it was very important for us to have a strong China practice,” said Heller Ehrman Chairman Barry Levin. “China is plainly going be one of the centers for business development for years to come.” The move comes a few months after other major U.S. firms pulled out of Hong Kong. In March, Dewey Ballantine shuttered its 8-year-old, seven-attorney Hong Kong office. That same month, Cravath, Swaine & Moore announced it would pull the plug on its Hong Kong outpost. And Hong Kong’s economy, which has been in the doldrums for years, has been especially hard hit of late as a result of the recent outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome. Levin acknowledged the ailing nature of the Hong Kong economy, but drew a distinction between Heller Ehrman’s Hong Kong plans and the ill-fated ventures of other firms. “Our business model is different than the people that are pulling out,” said Levin. According to Levin, the firms exiting Hong Kong had offices consisting of transplanted U.S. attorneys doing work with U.S. investment banks, a field of work that has been slow. “What we’re doing here is adding locally licensed lawyers � then using that to do work related to China — and there the business activity has been quite strong,” said Levin. According to Heller Ehrman, the new group has one of the most active initial public offering practices in Hong Kong. During the past two-and-a-half years, the group has completed 19 IPOs; it has 25 pending IPOs. The four new partners are Carson Wen, Michael Phillips, Katherine U and Susan Yu. Heller’s Hong Kong group is practicing out of a newly leased office that opened its doors Monday. While Heller Ehrman’s new group does a lot of Hong Kong stock exchange work, most of its clients are in mainland China. Using Hong Kong as a base for mainland China legal work is not an unusual tactic, since it’s easier to acquire a practice in Hong Kong than in the tightly regulated mainland, said Howard Chao, head of O’Melveny & Myers’ Asia practice, which counts offices in both Hong Kong and mainland China. But, Chao stressed, it’s a tack that’s not without its risks. Hong Kong is “a different jurisdiction, a different legal system,” he said. Heller Ehrman’s Levin, though, maintains that operating out of Hong Kong does not leave it at any disadvantage. All of the firm’s newly hired attorneys have years of experience doing business in the mainland with Chinese companies, Levin said. Still, Levin noted that in the long run, the firm will need to establish a foothold in mainland China, as well. Heller Ehrman has applied for a license to open an office in Beijing and hopes to be there later this year, he said. “This is for us a first, big step in developing our China capabilities,” Levin said.

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