The Talent

April 29, 2010 7:51 AM

Top Beijing Lawyer for Lovells Leaving for Chinese Firm

Posted by Anthony Lin

The managing partner of Lovells’s Beijing office is leaving to join Chinese firm Allbright Law Offices. Because Chinese practice restrictions on foreign lawyers prevent Robert Lewis from being a partner, he will be a senior international legal consultant in the Beijing office of Shanghai-based Allbright.

The move makes the 52-year-old Lewis--a Beijing partner at U.K.-based Lovells since 2001 and before that Asia general counsel for telecommunications equipment maker Nortel--one of the most senior Western lawyers to join a domestic law firm in China.

Lewis says the move is unrelated to the impending merger between Lovells and Hogan & Hartson, which will create an entity to be known as Hogan Lovells as of May 1. Lewis, who has been on gardening leave for the past several months, is to start at Allbright the same day.

“I’m a big fan of the Hogan deal,” says Lewis. “I always was very positive about the idea of Lovells merging with a major American firm. I came to my conclusions about this market and where I wanted to be before the merger came along.”

An 18-year veteran of the China market, Lewis sees it tilting decisively in favor of domestic law firms. Inbound work on behalf of multinationals investing in China has already shifted sharply away from international firms toward their Chinese counterparts, and Lewis believes that trend will accelerate. He is less confident about the prospects for global firms landing outbound work on behalf of Chinese companies heading overseas.

“It’s disproportionately going to areas where international firms don’t have their own offices,” says Lewis, noting the huge number of energy and natural resources deals in places like Australia and Africa. International firms hoping to play a “coordinating” role in such deals often meet with frustration, he notes. “Chinese companies are almost peculiarly focused on whether you have an office somewhere.”

Part of the role Lewis sees for himself at Allbright is working with local counsel on outbound deals in which the Chinese clients have chosen to bypass international firms. He also sees a chance to target what he sees as an underserved part of the Chinese market: Clients who don’t want to pay international firm rates but still want better-quality work than many Chinese firms can provide.

The new job also presents another challenge. Though a leading Shanghai name, Allbright has trailed leading Beijing firms like King & Wood, Jun He Law Offices, and Zhong Lun Law Firm in recent years. “So far, only Beijing firms have been able to build a national footprint of any significance.”

That’s because the capital’s combination of large state-owned enterprises and powerful economic ministries makes it like “New York and Washington combined” in terms of Chinese legal work, he says. To become a major player in China, Allbright needs to be big in Beijing, where it right now employs about 15 lawyers. The firm aims to be among Beijing’s top ten in four years’ time, and Lewis hopes his presence will help attract to Allbright more and better talent, especially among returnee lawyers who have worked at international firms previously.

Such returnees are present in significant numbers at all leading Chinese firms now, though most were previously counsel or associates at international firms. Non-Chinese lawyers are somewhat rarer, but Lewis is not the first. For instance, former Baker & McKenzie partner Stephen Nelson now heads the tax practice at King & Wood.

Despite his feelings on the overall direction of the Chinese market, Lewis is not writing off international firms yet. He will continue to work with his former Lovells colleagues through the Sino-Global Legal Alliance, a referral group he helped establish three years ago. Allbright and 12 other Chinese firms are SGLA members along with Lovells.

In such cross-border practice areas as capital markets, intellectual property, and bankruptcy, Lewis notes, U.S. and U.K. firms are likely to remain dominant. Moreover, even if foreign firms see their market share dwindle, he believes they will still benefit from the continuing growth of the China legal market.

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