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CHICAGO-Midwest law firms are taking hold of the trend of opening branch offices in China, with Kirkland & Ellis as well as Mayer, Brown, Rowe & Maw opening offices in Hong Kong this month, and Foley & Lardner planning to open one in Shanghai later this year. The firms are latching on to the world’s fastest-growing economy in various practice areas, from private equity to intellectual property and general legal work. All of the firms are following their clients to the region, where manufacturing, investment and trade interests are increasingly requiring legal services. Rivals DLA Piper, Jones Day and Sidley Austin already have offices in Hong Kong, Shanghai and Beijing. While foreign firms first began opening offices in China in the early 1990s, the trend has accelerated since China joined the World Trade Organization in 2001. “We couldn’t learn enough without being here,” said Kirkland’s David Patrick Eich, who oversaw the Chicago-based firm’s Hong Kong entry and is now the head partner there. The ‘China price’ Kirkland is part of the recent wave of firms coming into the market with a niche focus, said Eich, who is leading the firm’s private equity practice expansion in Asia. It was a natural outgrowth from the needs of clients such as Bain Capital LLC, CIVC Partners and Vestar Capital Partners, Eich said in an interview. The practice in Hong Kong is providing private equity fund clients counsel not only on investing in China, but also in understanding the impact of China on investments outside of that country, he said. The firm realized it needed to be in the country when clients started routinely referring to the “China price,” or the impact a given Chinese industry or company could have on the global economy, he said. “Wherever they were investing, suddenly China was important,” Eich said. While the firm will have only three attorneys in the office to start, there’s room for 10, and Eich expects that some of the Korean, Japanese and Chinese law students that Kirkland recruited in recent years will come to the office, he said. The firm is also considering practices in restructuring and related distressed-asset work, and real estate private equity, for the Hong Kong office. Foley & Lardner, founded in Milwaukee, is planning to open a Shanghai office later this year, although it must still receive approval for a license, said partner Sharon Barner, who chairs the firm’s intellectual property department. The office will focus on intellectual property work for manufacturing and technology clients, such as Cummins Inc., that have facilities or joint ventures in the country, she said. Foley & Lardner is getting to the market too late to get in on the deal-making that other firms are targeting, so the firm chose an area where it saw a “competitive edge,” she said. “China is, from the IP perspective, a very important market,” Barner said in an interview. In addition to counseling clients outside China on IP work there, she said the firm expects to provide legal services to some Asian clients, such as those in the auto industry, on investments they’re making in other regions of the world. Chicago’s Mayer Brown hired Jeffrey Chen from the Jones Day Hong Kong office last year to open its own office in the city, initially with a focus on securitization and structured finance, the firm said in a November release. Ultimately, Mayer Brown said it expects to provide a range of legal services to Asian companies seeking counsel on business in the United States and Europe and to foreign companies operating in Asia.

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