#Asialaw issues

Australian-based law firms are failing to sell Australia as a forum to Asian clients

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Today [29 July] the Australasian Lawyer has a post detailing a recent report by Baker & McKenzie that:

“cross border IPOs in the Asia Pacific region have increased by 75 per cent in the first half of this year.”

 Wow, Capital Markets and Corporate teams across the Region have really struggled since the GFC and seen a lot of layoffs in their teams so this must be music to their ears!

But what about Australia?

Well, it appears the news here is not so good. According to David Holland, head of Baker & McKenzie Corporate Practice in Australia:

“Australia didn’t see much activity and the regional boom is unlikely to have any significant effect on the Australian market specifically”.

Sorry but this is not acceptable.

Australia not only has a robust principal stock exchange in the ASX, but we can also offer traditionally family run Asian companies access to a very friendly IPO forum in form of the National Stock Exchange (NSX) of Australia, pitched as being:

the market of choice for SME and growth style Australian and International companies.”

Listing and reporting rules for both are pitched as being much less onerous than is the case with other stock exchanges across the region.

So, why are we missing the boat here?

To my mind the answer to this question is this:-

Australian law firms and government bodies are failing in their duty to sell Australian law as a viable forum for international business.

Yes we missed the boat on selling Australian law as the governing law for international agreements – the English and Americans (New York) beat us at to that. But in this case we have a very distinct advantage that we are simply not pursuing or pushing.

To be clear, we’ve known for some time that Asian governments (particularly China) have been advocating for their domestic companies to list overseas in order to show transparency. We’ve known for a long time that control remains a massive issue for Asian companies (particularly family run businesses) and IPOs are, as their name suggests, capital raising exercises.

And what have we done about it?

Pretty much nothing. Few, if any roadshows. The occasional newsletter. Maybe the odd seminar.

In short, nothing.

Looking for a silver lining?

Luckily for us there is one in an ABC article from February of this year “China-based companies to list on ASX to avoid Asian stock market costs and free float requirements“, which points out that:

“Smaller Chinese companies are looking to list on Australian stock market operator the ASX to avoid the cost and free float requirements of larger Asian exchanges.”

All we need to do now is get out there and spread the message!

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The battle for Asia’s inbound investment

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I was interested to see that The Lawyer has an article today [27 July] by David Rennick, the head of Pinsent Masons’ relatively new Australian outlet, on the competition between English and Australian law firms for prize Chinese’s infrastructure investment work (‘Never mind the Ashes: England and Australia are battling for the Chinese investment prize‘).

When I first arrived in Asia back in the early 1990s, most of the conversations we had with governments and businesses around “investment” in the region nearly always took the path of inbound [into Asia] investment: in that investments largely moved in one direction, from West to East, and appropriately attractive and protective legislatively schemes around those investments were always being sought.

Possibly due to the GFC, although I would be more inclined to say as the likely result of a progression in time and a growth in Asian economies post the Asian Financial Crisis troubles, a shift has taken place: today when we are in conversations around “investment”, this conversation has taken on a new life and we are just as likely to be discussing outbound [from Asian] investments into the West or into other developing nations/areas (such as Africa) as we are about inbound [into Asia] foreign direct investment.

I love infographics and clear evidence (if it was ever needed) of the shift taking place in the conversation taking place here can clearly be seen in two amazing recently published infographics: one by the South China Morning Herald (‘Chinese outbound investment to rise to another record‘) and the New York Times (‘The World According to China‘).

And while both of these show a massive increase in outbound direct investment by China and Chinese companies (and people) over the past decade, decade and half, what they don’t necessarily show is the different reasons/discussions that are taking place for/around these investments.

To be clear, while Asian (including Chinese) companies and governments are investing overseas for a multitude of reasons, they largely centre around two principal reasons:

On the one hand, the governments – including State Owned Corporations – need better returns on their investments than they would otherwise be getting at home or else they need to diversify this investment. We typically see this type of investment with Singapore’s Temasek and GIC (Government of Singapore Investment Corporation). More recently we have seen foreign pension funds investing in Australian infrastructure in this way.

On the other hand, we see investments in western businesses by Asian companies and organisations looking to purchase technical knowhow in order to up-skill themselves. An example of this can be seen with today’s announcement that: “A major Chinese venture firm has launched a US$5 billion fund devoted to buying up Western technology, internet and biotech firms that are looking to enter the Chinese market.

And it is for this reason that unlike David Rennick I don’t believe English or Australian law firms should be strategically looking at the Chinese for inbound infrastructure investment work (with the caveat that this doesn’t include strategies around the Chinese-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB)), because I believe that type of inbound infrastructure investment work (once Australia can work out a suitably attractive investment vehicle for foreigners to invest in infrastructure) from Asia will more likely come from Korea, Japan and Singapore (under relevant FTA provisions with these countries).

For Chinese related inbound investment work, English and Australian law firms would do far better to be courting M&A and R&D work, and in this field they will find a much hungrier and more sophisticated competitor – the US law firm.

“You actually need to be in Asia to understand Asia.”

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“You actually need to be in Asia to understand Asia. You cannot look at it from a distance, or certainly run a business in Asia from a distance. So, unless you are actually in Asia and focused on Asia and the different markets in Asia, it’s very difficult to understand the different markets, their stages of development, and how you need to run your business in those markets. And certainly you can’t do that from London or New York. That’s a fundamental point.” – Stuart Fuller, King & Wood Mallesons

The above quote, which I couldn’t have put better myself, is from an interesting interview between columnist David Parnell and Stuart Fuller, Global Managing Partner of King & Wood Mallesons (‘Stuart Fuller Of King & Wood Mallesons, On Vereins and Succeeding in China’s Legal Market‘) posted to the Forbes website on 20 July 2015.

A lot can be said about the ‘Mallesons’ strategic approach to Asia (or, probably more to the point, the lack of it) in its days as ‘Mallesons Stephen Jaques’ – when the firm was rumoured to be heavily courted by the likes of Clifford Chance and Linklaters in the UK – but since the tie-up with King & Wood (and the subsequent merger with SJ Berwin), the firm that is KWM, as it is now affectionately known, has certainly turned a corner, got its strategy ducks lined up and come a long way.

To my mind evidence of this is clear in the following two paragraphs by Fuller:

“Secondly, it’s a business model issue. If you come into Asia and run a Western business model, then you are likely to lose money. That’s quite difficult for many of the international firms because they have such powerful and strong business models in their home markets, and they export them to the rest of the world.

Thirdly, some markets are more developed than others, so if you come into Asia and think that because the law firms are younger, that they are less developed, or frankly, in some ways less professional, then you’ll be surprised. There are firms here — us for instance — who have 1200 lawyers and 2000 people across 12 cities in China alone. We have an impressive international business in China operating at an international standard. There are a number of firms across the market like us, and I think that is a surprise to Westerners.”

Absolutely spot on!

Indeed, probably the only thing missing from Fuller is the strength that relationships play in the overall marketplace throughout Asia – both at government level and in many of the region’s family run businesses.

Then again, possibly that’s what Fuller is eluding to when he says:

“And for Western business coming into Asia, the big thing you need to know is how to get things done. The system is different. It’s the lore as much as the law.”

In any event, it is clear that KWM has moved forward a long way since 2012, and I’m not sure the rest of the pack are giving this firm the appropriate credit they deserve.

“Berlin is closer to Beijing than Brisbane is”

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“Berlin is closer to Beijing than Brisbane is. And it will always be so.”

– Andrea Myles, CEO China Australia Millennial Project (CHAMP)

I recently had the great fortune and pleasure to attend the opening ceremony of the inaugural CHAMP. Unlike many other events I attend, this one was driven by a group of young adults looking for ways to improve cooperation between China and Australia, principally from what I can tell in the areas of research and development (R&D).

Leaving aside the fascinating work being done under the CHAMP banner, two comments that Andrea Myles, CEO of CHAMP, said in her opening remarks really resonated with me.

The first was the opening quote to this post: “Berlin is closer to Beijing then Brisbane is.”

The second was this:

“China is Australia’s largest trading partner, but also the largest trading partner of 124 other nations.”

Yep, 124 other nations can claim that China is their largest trading partner.

So if Australia isn’t geographically closer to “Asia” than Europe is (and flying time from the UK to Thailand is roughly the same as Sydney to Bangkok), and if economically (from both a trade and investment perspective) Australia isn’t streets ahead of the rest of the world in the eyes of those conducting business in Asia, why in the world would so many law firms be “Driven here by the lure of Asia” – as the Australian reported last Friday (3 July) [“International legal firms see Australia as a hub for Asia” NB: subscription may be required to read this]?

Personally I’m not 100 per cent sure I understand the need for global firms to be in Australia if the only reason they are doing this is to create a hub for entry into the Asian market more broadly. I rather suspect better cases to that type of strategy could be made for Singapore (which historically it has been) and even Hong Kong.

Nonetheless, Patrick Sherrington, Hogan Lovells’ regional managing partner for Asia and the Middle East and author of the said article in last Friday’s Australian sets out his case for why he thinks this might be so.

These include:

“The Australian legal services market is characterised by its ­concentration, innovation and sophistication. Although globally the sector is generally characterised by low concentration, the market shares of the major players in ­Australia have been and remain particularly high, especially compared with the US, where no law firm accounts for more than 1 per cent of the industry.

This concentration yielded high levels of competition between those leading firms, which spurred innovation and sophistication throughout the market.”

Sorry, but having worked in the English, Asian and Australian legal markets during the course of my working life I can categorically say that the Australian legal market is no more innovative nor sophisticated than any other. While this might have been the case in the 1990s, I would venture that the US market is probably more innovative than the Australian market is at the moment and the stuff that the likes of A&O, Lawyers on Demand, Eversheds, and Riverview Law – to name but a few – are doing in the UK is streets ahead of where the Australian market currently is.

Sherrington then goes on to write:

“More critically, it [the GFC – my comment] affected the faith many leading national firms had in their business models. The hitherto boundless belief in the limitless growth of legal services in a country accounting for nearly 40 per cent of the Asia-Pacific legal services market was lost to the ­existential and strategic dilemma of how and where Australian law firms should operate in an increasingly global market.

Suddenly, market entry became a practical proposition for the major international firms. Since then we have seen the large national firms scramble for Asian and global exposure through ­alliances and combinations of varying intimacy.”

I’m of the view that flat, depressed markets in the UK and Europe more widely made the bigger English firms look up and think of other markets where they could still get growth. The mining boom that was going on in Australia at the time, plus historic highs of almost parity in exchange rates between the Australian and US dollars, meant that the Australian market looked very attractive at the time.

Ironically, a shift in the sands have now made these much less favourable reasons to be in Australia (the Australian dollar has fallen off to somewhere in the region of 75 cents now) and one has to wonder if the internationals would still be clambering to get here if the current market existed then.

Sherrington also notes that:

“We [Hogan Lovells] concluded that not having a focused high-end legal practice in Australia would be strategically detrimental to the ambitions of our long established practice in Asia and would have an impact on our ability to service global clients.

Australia is uniquely positioned to assist international law firms achieve growth in Asia. With the third largest pool of investment funds under management in the world, the largest stockmarket in Asia (ex-Japan) and the fourth largest economy in Asia, as well as being the single largest beneficiary of Chinese foreign direct investment since 2005, Australia is an ­integral part of the Asia region and also a global player.”

I think there is a lot to be said for the second part of this quote. Much less so for the first part. Having an Australian practice is one thing; having an Australian presence as a hub to Asia is a completely different issue.

If you have an Australian practice for all the reasons Sherrington sets out in the second part of the quote above, and you have a core client-base operating in Australia, then I commend you and wish you well.

But if what you are saying is this [Australia] is your hub for Asia, then I ask: “where does your senior Asian management sit?” Because one firm aside, nearly all of the senior “Asian” management teams I’ve seen sit offshore (ie, outside Australia).

A final comment of Sherrington’s is that:

“While the manner and mode of market entry will continue to ­differ between international law firms, it is a trend that will not be reversed.

The regional and global economic case for an Australian presence is too strong. It remains to be seen whether the flood of international entrants will reduce the concentration of the Australian legal service market.”

Sherrington and I will have to disagree on this one. I think it is a trend that could very easily be reversed – and to some extent already is.

And we should always remember that law is a very fickly business – who knows what might happen if you had a downturn in the Chinese economy and a European nation that was refusing to pay its debts.

Oh wait…

A tale of two Asias

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Two separate comprehensive reports on the state of the legal market in Asia have recently been published. While both look to have been very thoroughly researched, that, and the shared (as in, this) week in which they were published, is, however, about all the two appear to have in common.

As to the two publications in question: one was published by the UK’s The Lawyer and the other by The Asian Lawyer – part of The American Lawyer stable. As such, the two publication represent a fairly comprehensive review of how international firms are fairing in the ever competitive Asian market.

The Lawyer

Turning first to the The Lawyer publication, the executive summary of which you can read here and the full report of which you can purchase here.

On reading this publication, “teething troubles aside“, you are left in little doubt that international law firms have positioned themselves well for the uptake in demand in the increasingly important Asia-Pacific legal market. Importantly, those who made the decision to invest in Asia a decade or more ago would appear to be seeing that investment finally paying dividends, with international firms in the region recording 5.7 per cent growth [in headcount] between 2013 and 2014.

In addition:

  • international law firms now make up 16 per cent of the Asia Top 50 (which is the same make up as two years ago).
  • five (six if you include KWM) of the Top 10 Asia firms hail from China – but number two in the list, Dacheng, has approved a merger with Dentons and so arguably is now an “international firm”.
  • no doubt because of the abundance of Swiss Verein these days, Australian law firm Minter Ellison sneaks into Top 10 Asia firms despite not being financially integrated but rather because the firm is integrated under “one brand”.
  • continued prosperity for internationals in the region is seen on the back of robust M&A activity and 5+ per cent growth predications by the IMF .

Overall though, content and opinion in this report can largely be summed by the comment that Freshfields Asia managing partner, Robert Ashworth, “is generally bullish about the region“.

The Asian Lawyer

Turning our attention now to The Asian Lawyer publication (and please do because the graph in this article is fantastic!) and we find we get a very different picture being painted of how the market is shaping up for US firms operating in Asia.

The context of this post, based on results of The NLJ 350 Annual Survey of the [US] Nation’s Largest Law Firms, can be summed up from its title: “Signs of Slower Growth for U.S. Firms in Asia“.

Although the post starts out saying: “Asia has been a powerful magnet for international firms over the past decade” – with the number of Am Law 200 attorneys having nearly tripled in that time, the latest year-on-year stats show a near flat-lining in these numbers.

It is also no secret that a number of US firms have been looking closely at their Asia strategy – the latest of which is Latham & Watkins, but even the US arm of DLA Piper has taken a financial interest in the Asia business in the hope of moving things along following some turmoil in the region.

It should not, therefore, be a surprise that this post finishes on the note: “Are more dramatic cuts to Am Law 200 lawyer counts in Asia coming? Stay tuned“.

So who is right?

I think you’ll agree that the two publications are very contrasting and paint different pictures of international law firms operating in the Asia legal market.

In a world of two Asias, a question arises: “Whose version is right?“.

My answer to that question is – probably both.

There is certainly some – finally some cry out! – positive signs for international firms operating on the ground in Asia (as opposed to those who may still operate a fly-in/fly-out operation). The market looks like it might start to deliver on some of the rich rewards it has promised for a long time. But to do this firms have to come to the realisation that they need to get over two crucial hurdles:

  1. they must have a strategy for the whole of Asia and not just China, and
  2. while staffing maybe cheaper in Asia, headcount doesn’t tell the story of financial size or profitability.

Network ASEAN: Are you plugged in?

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I read with interest a commentary post yesterday (although the post itself was made on 7 February) by Reid Kirchenbauer (on the www.investasian.com website) that outlines some of the economic developments that had occurred in the forty years since The Association of Southeast Nations (ASEAN) and Australia had developed diplomatic relations – ‘Understanding Australia-ASEAN Trade’.

Some of the more notable aspects of Reid’s post include:

  • Southeast Asia (SEA) is currently Australia’s second largest trading partner after China
  • Bilateral trade between SEA and Australia was valued at US$67.9 billion in 2013

And yet, somewhat troubling, notwithstanding the multi-billion dollar level of trade between ASEAN and Australia, and even though a free trade agreement (FTA) exists between ASEAN-Australia-New Zealand (the AANZFTA signed in 2010), a 2013 survey by the Australian Trade Commission (ATC) found that the majority of companies in Australia were not aware of the ASEAN Economic Community.

I say “somewhat troubling”, but the reality is that the ATC 2013 survey mirrors a recent Acitas survey, whose major findings were that:

  • 45 per cent of multinationals require legal advice in South East Asia;
  • 34 per cent of Australian multinationals’ legal spend now goes outside their home jurisdiction; and
  • 60 per cent of Australian in-house counsel surveyed said they needed legal advice in South East Asia

but that these needs were largely going unmet – “Law firms are failing to support clients in South East Asia” an article by Felicity Nelson posted to the Lawyers Weekly website on the 19 December 2014.

If we leave aside for the moment the comprehensive recent report by  The Lawyer Magazine on Southeast Asia Legal Elite (the Executive Summary of which can be read here), it seems indisputable to me that ASEAN represents a massive opportunity for Australian law firms in 2015 and that, sadly, a large part of this opportunity is going to be unmet.

Turning back to Reid’s post though, what realistic opportunities exist for Australian law firms in all this?

Well,

  • no doubt assisted by the Thailand-Australia FTA (TAFTA), coming into effect in 2010, Thai foreign direct investment (FDI) into Australia has increased by over 20 times since 2007;
  • with the Australia-Malaysia FTA (MAFTA) coming into effect in 2013, Australia is ranked the third biggest investment destination for Malaysian investors and two-way investment between the nations has doubled since 2010 and now accounts for more than $20 billion; and
  • in addition to being the oldest FTA between an ASEAN nation and Australia (signed in 2003), according to the most recently published data Singapore is currently the largest foreign investor in Australian real estate, making up 28% of all foreign property investments in Australia.

and that’s just inbound work from ASEAN into Australia, let alone any of outbound work the 60 per cent of surveyed Australian in-house counsel said they needed help with in SEA.

All of which leads me to ask:

  • is your law firm plugged into a formal or informal network in ASEAN?
  • if so, do you know what level of inbound referral work you are getting from your ASEAN network partners?
  • and, do you know what level of outbound referral work you are sending out to the partners in your ASEAN network?

Indonesia – the next frontier?

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To those wondering what the next marketing and business development frontier in the Asia-Pacific will be for law firms now that China and India have started to go off the boil, I can say “the hunt is over” – Indonesia will be the ‘hot’ new buzzword of 2015.

An article published in Singapore’s Straits Times today [26 January 2015] – “Foreign law firms eye Indonesia market – Global players drawn in by opportunities as Jakarta pursues investment deals” by Wahyudi Soeriaatmadja in Jakarta, sets out a number of compelling reasons (as well as limitations) as to why more global law firms are looking to try an get active in this rapidly expanding and increasingly attractive market.

Of note:

  • Indonesia is South-East Asia’s largest economy
  • The country has an extremely ambitious 5-year infrastructure (roads and railways) development plan
  • The government of newly elected President Joko Widodo is looking to boost gross domestic product (GDP) growth by 7 per cent over the term of its government

Add to this list that Indonesia has one of the fastest growing middle classes in the world, and setting aside some of the practical limitations in place on foreigners practising in Indonesia, given the close proximity of Australia to Indonesia it is somewhat surprising that Australian firms don’t appear to be having the same tactical strategic business development approach to this market (as outlined in the article) that firms in places such as Malaysia do.

Of course, this very likely will change during the course of the year as ‘Indonesia‘ becomes the buzzword of 2015.