Thursday November 7 2013 | the times
Where far legal jungles are day-to-day business The world’s largest law firm with Northern roots is the exporters’ go-to guide, says Mike Cowley
hen Sir Charles Lupton qualified as a solicitor in 1881 and went on to become a partner in Dibb Lupton in Leeds, he would have had no idea he was founding what was to become the world’s largest law firm, DLA Piper – where the L stands for Lupton. DLA Piper now employs more than 4,200 lawyers in 30 countries and has an annual turnover of around $2.4 billion, but remains true to its roots in the North of England, retaining offices in Leeds, Sheffield, Manchester and Liverpool. Here in the UK, DLA Piper takes particular pride in not being London-centric. In part, this is no doubt due to the fact that the current chief executive, Sir Nigel Knowles, is from Sheffield and was instrumental in transforming what was then a regional firm into a global entity. Built through a complex series of mergers, the vast spread of its offices worldwide gives the firm an unrivalled grasp of the intricacies of global trading law and ensures that it is the legal adviser of choice for exporters. There is little doubt that a number of Northern managing directors can rest easier at night because DLA Piper has helped them to avoid the sanctions minefield through which exporters must pick their way. To ensure this happens, DLA Piper set up a dedicated trade team a dec-
ade ago – and the head of this also comes from Yorkshire. The team, based in the UK, works closely with its network of specialists based in key trading hubs including Washington, Dubai and Hong Kong. This trade team offers a complete service to aid companies – from product conception and the associated regulatory requirements, through to labelling, export and transacting with consumers. Sometimes, the DLA Piper team joins clients on the entire journey, while at other times it is called in when an issue occurs and where the company has not been fully aware of the complexity of export and of putting goods to market in a jurisdiction. The firm also differs from most of its rivals in that it not only opts for lawyers with backgrounds in a variety of countries (see panel on Chinese specialist Josh Wong), but also those who have other business-related qualifications. Typical of these is Emma Thomas, a key player in the 10-strong trade team. She is not only a lawyer but also an economist, which enables her “to appreciate there is a cost to everything”. The advice she gives is often based on the ever-changing sanctions legislation driven by political and military turmoil around the world. The changing scenarios brought about by the Arab Spring have kept people on their toes, while Iran – where sanctions mean that exporters are in constant danger of falling foul of the law, often with criminal liability, even when goods turn up there “by accident” – is a priority on the DLA Piper radar at present. The way the trade team operates – and their level of expertise – is reflected in the work they have handled for a client in Not-
We are able to guide the whole process
tingham, where DLA Piper has provided advice over the launch of a new software product into 41 jurisdictions. “From regulatory checking through consumer terms to privacy agreements, we have been able to guide the whole process,” Emma Thomas says. “All they have had to do to make sure they have full compliance is to contact
An essential link with China
osh Wong has not only managed to straddle the cultural divide between the UK and China – he has made a career out of it. The son of a first-generation Chinese economic migrant who arrived in the UK in the early 1960s, Mr Wong grew up spending his weekends helping out at the family’s Lotus House restaurant. His earliest recollection is of eating true Chinese food in the kitchen – simple dishes of steamed chicken and vegetables – while customers tucked into somewhat more exotic if not so authentic cuisine. Now, just as the Chinese restaurant scene has changed over the years, so too has the business relationship between China and the UK – and Mr Wong has played a role in making this happen.
A fluent Cantonese and competent Mandarin speaker, he studied law at the University of Warwick before joining a London firm as a trainee and being seconded to their newly opened offices in Beijing and Shanghai. Marriage to Polly from York and the arrival of three small children prompted the decision to head to the North, to access family network support for his wife while he was jetting between the UK and the country of his origins. He joined the Leeds office of DLA Piper in 2006 and has since built a formidable reputation as a China specialist, helping more than 50 local companies to set up in China and advising more than 50 Chinese companies on investment in the UK. And the two-way traffic has moved up several gears in recent times.
When Josh Wong first took up his role, setting up a company in China would take 12 months and the applicant would have to negotiate with 10 different departments. There was also “discretion”, where companies could be refused a licence without a reason always being given. Now it takes around three months, there is only one department to deal with and there are no longer any instances of discretionary refusal. Today, if you meet the rules, you get in. “The regulations have relaxed and the cost has dropped,” Mr Wong says, “which means establishing a presence in China is in the reach of smaller companies as well as the large businesses that we are used to acting for.
Emma Thomas: a key player in DLA Piper’s team dedicated to international work
“It used to be one-way, with China being the factory of the world. Now there is the opportunity for UK businesses to sell to the burgeoning middle classes in China – luxury goods, British design and technology services, legal, finance and education are all very much in demand.” Despite the new-found ease of access to the vast Chinese market, however, Mr Wong has a word of warning for British businessmen who are in the departure lounge. “Some experienced business people seem to forget common business sense when they are in China because they are so mindful of the difference between cultures and practices,” he says. “They make business decisions they would never do in this country. “It is right to respect the Chinese way of doing things, but you should never leave common sense behind. At the end of the day, what is wrong in the UK is likely to be wrong in China as well – and you should
one point in the UK. Software can be classed as controlled goods, so companies need to be aware of export restrictions – any licensing obligations and transaction currencies and end users.” DLA Piper works on a range of exportrelated matters, and the focus is not simply on export itself. The firm also assists on regulatory product launches, compliance, privacy issues, trade licences and export licences, controlled goods and IP (intellectual property) issues It is undoubtedly the wide reach of DLA Piper that ensures it keeps ahead of its rivals. “The benefit of having a global law firm with experts in each jurisdiction means we are able to act very quickly for clients to mitigate any harm and liability,” Emma Thomas says. “We also often advise concerning more efficient ways to conduct business globally.” But she maintains that being the largest does not equate to being the most expensive in real terms. “There is a misconception that a global firm means global fees,” she says. “We do these sort of transactions on a day-to-day basis, so there is a lot of efficiency there. Whereas if you go to a smaller firm without the experience, it is going to take them a lot longer.” And time – as Northern firms know – means money.
Josh Wong always be on your guard if someone tries to persuade you to do something or to take a deal simply on the basis that ‘This is the way we do things in China’.”
Business insight North and Midlands