On a recent visit to Hong Kong I met with a number of senior lawyers from mid-sized independent Hong Kong law firms to discuss their business development objectives, and there appeared to be a consensus among firm leadership I met with that they were interested in actively building their practices around either: (1) Assisting Mainland-China companies with their efforts to expand into overseas markets, or (2) Assisting overseas companies with their efforts to expand into Mainland-China.   The practice group that was most often named of key importance to overseas companies seeking to do business in China was Intellectual Property (IP).  The key question I was asked more than once is:  How can we do this?

A Bit of Background

Hong Kong is widely regarded as both a gateway into China, but also a superb conduit for Chinese companies seeking to expand globally, as the China Daily reported yesterday, echoing a sentiment earlier expressed by Deacons Executive Partner Jeremy Lam in an interview in BusinessWeek in January.

The opportunity that exists for mid-sized Hong Kong-based law firms who possess years of local and regional experience, a deep understanding of how to do business in overseas markets, and a wealth of both experience and contacts at the ready to deploy on behalf of both Chinese and overseas corporate clients – is to capitalize on your unique market position and actively seek to assist those potential clients.  But in order to do so, you must go about a business development initiative in an effective manner.

Why time may be limited

With Hong Kong’s oldest law firm Deacon’s planning expansion into mainland China when rules are changed to let overseas firms advise on local laws, to a growing number of overseas-based law firm’s too numerous to mention having established China-focused practices, including Patton Boggs LLP,Hunter Taubman Weiss LLP and Harris & Moure, pllc – China’s policy of giving law firms from Hong Kong preferential access to the country may be an opening you may not want to miss as the international legal community continues to focus on China.

Indeed, since 2010 Hong Kong has attracted at least 14 U.S. law firms to offer advice on local law. These include Milbank, Tweed, Hadley & McCoy LLP and Davis Polk & Wardwell LLP.

It is possible that the opportunity window for independent mid-sized Hong Kong law firms, while certainly not closing, may be becoming limited, due to increasing competition from well funded overseas firms, and local firms who have established formal tie-ups with overseas firms – all who will be focused on capturing new clients seeking both China mainland and overseas clients for inbound and outbound advisory assistance. 

A road-map to becoming the bridge

Below I provide what I believe is a solid guide for any Hong Kong-based independent mid-sized law firm to build a solid stable of new clients among Chinese companies seeking to do business overseas, as well as securing new client companies from around the world — who are seeking to enter the China market, which includes:

  • Directly contacting new potential clients and effective follow up

Identify ideal prospective new clients by sector, geography (and other criterion you deem most important in a pool of new potential clients) – matching your firm’s saleable services to those potential clients in order to make a commercial pitch to these new prospective clients.  Approaching new potential clients on the basis of their commercial interests makes it much easier to establish a line of communication with them.

It is advisable (but not strictly necessary) to use a Customer Relationship Management (CRM) database which maintain global or region/nation-specific information on companies based on location, revenue, sector and other important criterion – while listing contact details of CEO’s, CFO’s and other decision makers within those companies.  A database of this kind is cost-de minimis and can make it much easier to identify and contact ideal potential corporate clients on a global basis.

Maintain a lead list of all active leads resulting from this effort – and work to move each active lead along the sales process to close.  Establish the discipline of conducting bi-monthly business development meetings within your firm – to review active leads and next steps (this can have the added bonus of encouraging active participation in the business development process among everyone at the firm).

  • Identifying and engaging a larger pool of referral sources

Identify who your ideal referral sources would be,  then work to identify, contact and begin to engage in discussions and arrange conference calls and/or in person meetings with these groups.  They would include but not be limited to law firms,  private equity groups, investment banks, accounting firms, management consulting firms, trade associations and others throughout the world.  Essentially, parlay your unique position in Hong Kong while remaining independent and mid-sized.   Other firms are benefiting from formal-tie ups and large multinational presences.  One way for a mid-sized firm to compete with this is to establish a robust international referral network of numerous sources and engage with that network consistently and often.

  • Establishing and maintaining an active social media presence

It is increasingly important for law firms – as we enter a more digital economy, to establish and maintain a presence on social media.  This active presence would increase the number of potential clients and referral sources from throughout the world that will learn about your Hong Kong practice.  Additionally, it will allow legal and commercial media from throughout the world to find you and seek your commentary for stories that are important to key audiences such as potential clients and referral sources.

The central focus of this effort would be the establishment and maintenance of a blog dedicated to your ideal potential client base, then secondarily the distribution of that content across social media platforms used in China and overseas markets.

Who is already doing this?

At the moment, the lawyers from Harris & Moure pllc actively blog about the China Market at China Law Blog, as well as maintaining a robust LinkedIn Group of the same name, with 5,790 members as of today.  This is in my opinion the most effective China-focused social media presence I have found among law firms.

Focus on social media platforms used in both China and overseas 

Keeping in mind your audience is both in China and outside China, I would also recommend a presence on Twitter and Weibo, Facebook and perhaps Renren, as well as Google+.  This will make your content more easily found by a larger audience of potential clients and referral sources globally, as search engines like Google more quickly pick up and list content distributed by them.  Weibo, similar to Twitter, is widely used within China and will help to build your brand awareness on the mainland.

Over time, this effort will exponentially amplify knowledge of your firm globally.

The relative importance of each of these initiatives

Importantly, any law firm social media effort is subordinate to a law firm sales and referral generation effort.  Social media can and will expand your exposure, but maintaining an active sales and referral generation effort is what will ultimately bring in new clients – as follow up and maintaining an active sales pipeline is key to closing new business.

Next steps

The market opportunity for Hong Kong-based mid-sized independent law firms is clear.  The marketplace has spoken and law firms from throughout the world are concentrating around the gateway to and from China concept as a business model.  Were you to parlay your years of local knowledge and subject matter expertise into an efficient business development initiative aimed at providing assistance to Chinese and overseas clients –  a Hong Kong mid-sized independent law firm would succeed in building a new client base via the methods I’ve described above.

Posted by John Grimley

John Grimley edits and publishes Asia Law Portal and is the author of A Comprehensive Guide to the Asia-Pacific Legal Markets. He specializes in providing writing, editing, research and strategy services to the corporate and professional services sectors. Between 2002 and 2008, he established and directed the European representative business development office of US AmLaw 100 law and public policy firm Patton Boggs LLP. At the inception of his career, he served as a writer to the President of the United States in the White House. A licensed American lawyer, he holds a Juris Doctor from the University of San Diego School of Law.

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