Modern Marco Polos or Victims of a Herd Mentality? Law Firms and Legal Marketing in China

Article excerpt

People have traveled the globe by foot, horse, cart or ship for thousands of years, conducting business between far-away nations. U.S. and UK law firms setting up shop today in Beijing and Shanghai are pioneers only relatively speaking. China as a market has long been known and prized by the West.

As the economic attraction of China's rapid growth brings an ever-rising amount of business and investment from the West, law firms feel increasingly under pressure to open an office in mainland China, Hong Kong or other countries in the region. While a number of the largest firms have had representative offices in China since the early 1990s, the last few years have seen a wave of office openings there. Top U.S. and UK firms are rushing to secure their piece of the huge market, looking to establish a Chinese presence or to increase their existing Asian network, But what works on one side of the Pacific (or the Ural Mountains) might be detrimental on the other side. The reason for this is one of the most powerful forces in the world: local custom and culture. And cultural differences can occur in so many hidden and not-so-hidden ways. Different cultures are partial to different symbols, heroes, rituals and values. They have tastes, preferences, expectations and interpretations we might not completely understand or share. To take a harmless little example: No native English-speakers would be delighted to wave a "red flag." Presenting an abundance of the same red flags to a Chinese client, however, is rather likely to coax a smile on her face. Who wouldn't, seeing such symbols of wealth and happiness merrily fluttering in the wind?

"In China, things can seem so different in some ways and so similar in others to what one already knows that it can be a bit disorienting," says Amy L. Sommers, national partner at Squire, Sanders & Dempsey L.L.P., who is based in Shanghai. "Some of the seemingly 'crazy' things people tell you turn out to be true."

Steps to Cultural Enlightenment

Realizing and respecting that there are differences rooted in thousands of years of cultural evolution is indeed the first step to business enlightenment and success, says Kelvin Chin, chief client development officer at Theodora Oringher Miller & Richman in Los Angeles, who lived for many years in China. There is an old Chinese saying: "ru xiang sui su," which translates to "enter village, follow custom." It's similar to another, more familiar, English saying--When in Rome, do as the Romans.

Success in China evolves through truly understanding Chinese culture, according to Laurie Young. "While Western minds are typically very linear, step-by-step, Chinese have yin and yang and are comfortable with two positions simultaneously, which would drive many of us crazy," says Young, author of "Marketing the Professional Service Firm."

Meg Sullivan, chief business development and marketing officer at Paul Hastings, has been traveling to China since 2003, when her firm opened offices in Hong Kong, Beijing and Shanghai. "When adapting to a new business culture, there is always a learning curve," says Sullivan. "It is important to understand the cultural differences and appreciate how things work. It is all about relationships, especially in China."

Opening Doors to Law Firm

According to the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development and World Bank reports, foreign direct investment into China has been steadily growing since the 1980s, and Chinese activity abroad has just started to reach international significance, with enormous growth potential for the future.

China's open door policy since 1978 has ushered in foreign capital and goods from many multinationals, which resulted in enormous demand for legal services. While the economy developed in leaps and jumps, China's legal market developed at a slower pace, and the profession is still at an early stage with regards to international legal practice. …