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May 6, 2010 9:47 AM

Top Clifford Chance Partner Bolts for King & Wood

Posted by Anthony Lin

Correction, 5/11/2010 at 11 a.m. - In the second paragraph below, the original reference to Li as a member of the firm's management committee was incorrect; in fact, he was a member of Clifford Chance's partnership council. We regret the error.

Top Clifford Chance capital markets partner Rupert Li has left the Magic Circle firm to join Beijing’s King & Wood as international managing partner.

Li, a former partner in Clifford Chance’s Beijing office and member of the firm's partnership council, will lead King & Wood’s efforts to expand its international law capability with a focus on Hong Kong.

“Some kind of epiphany came to me last summer,” recalls Li. “It all of a sudden dawned on me that it’s time to defect to the dark side.”

One of China’s largest firms--with over 800 lawyers in a dozen domestic offices--King & Wood has been among the first to look abroad. The firm last year acquired Hong Kong firm Arculli Fong & Ng and has opened offices in Tokyo, Silicon Valley, and New York.

Li is the second senior-level partner in the past week to join a domestic Chinese firm from a U.K. firm. Last week, former Lovells Beijing managing partner Robert Lewis joined Shanghai ’s Allbright Law Offices as a senior international legal consultant. Such moves point to the growing market strength and prestige of the leading Chinese firms, who are increasingly dominating “inbound” China practices, even among multinational clients.

A spokeswoman for Clifford Chance did not respond to a request for comment.

In Li, King & Wood landed a lawyer who has taken lead roles on several of the biggest transactions involving Chinese state-owned enterprises in recent years. He was part of the team that represented Aluminum Corporation of China (Chinalco) in its unsuccessful $19.5 billion attempt last year to acquire an 18 percent stake in Anglo-Australian mining giant Rio Tinto Group. Had it succeeded, that deal would have been the largest overseas transaction by a Chinese company ever. Li also advised on the multibillion-dollar initial public offerings last year of China Minsheng Bank and China Longyuan Power Group Co.

Li says his departure from Clifford Chance is amicable, noting that the firm and King & Wood are frequently cocounsel on matters. But he says all foreign firms operating in China face significant challenges to growth, including regulatory issues and restrictions that ban foreign firms from local practice.

“It remains very hard for foreign firms to achieve the scale they want to achieve,” he says.

 Li--who joined Clifford Chance in 2006 from the Hong Kong office of Morrison & Foerster following stints at Coudert Brothers and Milbank, Tweed, Hadley & McCloy-- also says he was attracted to the idea of being at the heart of firm management at King & Wood.

“My entire career has been spent somewhere on the periphery of some far-flung legal empire,” notes Li. “Now I’m suddenly at the center.”

Li will divide his time between Beijing and the 40-lawyer Hong Kong office, which King & Wood regards as the springboard for its international ambitions. With a common law system distinct from what is in place on the mainland, the former British colony has been the favored destination for Chinese companies seeking international capital. King & Wood, which frequently serves as those companies’ mainland counsel, hopes to expand its role in cross-border deals.

Li is modest in discussing what the firm can achieve in the short term. He stresses that the Chinese firm is focused on “realistic growth”--building its international capability by adding the right people. He says King & Wood will continue to work closely with international firms and has no plans to compete with them anytime soon for the kinds of high-profile capital markets deals on which he once worked.

“We don’t fish in the same pond,” says Li. “It’ll be smaller deals.”

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