Phil Bolton of Global Atlanta reported yesterday that “With its acquisition of a California firm completed and the opening of a new office in Korea, the law firm of McKenna Long & Aldridge LLP will be increasingly committed to international work and focusing even more intently on China, [according to] firm chairman Jeffrey Haidet.”Haidet told Bolton: “He expects that the firm will be even more involved internationally.  There’s lots of international outbound and inbound work to be done.The U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement provided a staged opening of Korea’s legal services market to U.S. law firms, and McKenna Long plans to be at the front of these opportunities as they emerge.”                                                                             

 Asia legal market to double by 2017

McKenna Long’s Asia initiative could not have come at a more opportune time – as Asia’s legal market is set to double by 2017, becoming the second largest legal market in the world by that time.  And Korea is not the only liberalized market in Asia American law firms can focus on. Liberalized markets, double digit growth – all beckon US law firms seeking growth.  Too, America became the largest recipient of Chinese foreign direct investment in 2011 — and Japan is undergoing a renaissance in outbound foreign direct investment focused on energy and M&A.  Just what McKenna Long is seeking to secure from the region.

US lawyers cautious

But as Staci Zaretsky of Above the Law outlined recently: “Due to modest attorney headcount [in Asia] at most U.S. [law] firms, it appears that [US lawyers] still view the Asian market with caution; only global giants haven taken the lead.”

It won’t be easy

Professionals in the legal services market tell me that there is a perception here that US firms are not prepared to make the long term commitment to the region, or spend the money necessary to compete with long term entrenched incumbent law firms.  Incumbent law firm leaders have told me they are generally confident they can carve out domestic niches which cannot be accessed by US law firms as a result of their lack of long term commitment.

Do US law firms have the staying power?

Given the growth in the market – time will tell as to whether US law firms are prepared to work to establish themselves and remain long term in the market. A US base of operations with Asia satellite offices (as McKenna Long’s Haidet envisions) may not be sufficient for success given on-the-ground realities here.

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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