A major international merger involving a Chinese law firm wasn't supposed to happen so soon. The legal, financial, political, cultural, and logistical hurdles were just too great. Yet last year saw the Sino-Australian merger that produced King & Wood Mallesons. For King & Wood cofounder Wang Junfeng, now chairman of the combined firm, it was the logical next step in his long-held ambition to create the first international Chinese law firm.
Almost from its 1993 founding, Wang modeled King & Wood after the U.S. and U.K. firms he admires. Even the firm's Western-sounding name was designed to appeal to multinationals whose investments into China until recently generated the bulk of legal work in the country. To push King & Wood's internal culture toward international standards, Wang hired foreign lawyers, such as Handel Lee, who joined the firm from Vinson & Elkins; Mark Schaub from the former Taylor Wessing; Rupert Li from Clifford Chance; and Meg Utterback from Pillsbury Winthrop.
Now King & Wood has hundreds of foreign lawyers courtesy of its combination with the former Mallesons Stephen Jaques, and it will have many more if reported talks with U.K. firm SJ Berwin move forward. Most other leading Chinese firms, such as rival Jun He Law Offices, have so far ruled out Wang's path. Such firms argue that it's not worth trying to compete with the big international firms when the domestic Chinese market still has so much room for growth.
But Wang believes that Chinese companies are increasingly going abroad, and they will want a Chinese law firm to guide them. His vision of creating a firm ideally positioned to cater to this massive, emerging client base has already brought one of Australia's top firms on board for the ride. But clearly the journey is still far from over.