The Australian practice of Baker & McKenzie is attempting to pick up more Chinese outbound work as part of as firm-wide China strategy.
Bakers' Australia national managing partner Chris Freeland spoke to Lawyers Weekly after spending last week in Beijing at the firm's annual partners meeting. He said a particular focus of the five-day conference was the increasing levels of outbound investment from Chinese firms.
"We spoke about challenges and issues Chinese firms need to think about when investing outside of China," said Freeland. "Post-integration issues, the challenges that arise from employment issues such as safety laws, and regulatory issues and foreign investment regimes in other jurisdictions were all discussed.
"What interested the Chinese was how much of a level playing field there is [for outbound investment] and whether Chinese companies are treated the same way as large companies from other countries ... The answer is they are."
The importance of China to the Australian and global economy is continually increasing. According to the Allen & Overy Q32011: Asia Pacific Index released last month, China is the sixth largest acquiring country, with Australia its second most popular target. The number of Chinese companies in the Fortune 500 leading global companies by revenue has grown from 15 in 2004 to 61 this year. It is also estimated that the proportion of global GDP emanating from China and India will increase from its current rate of 11 per cent to almost 35 per cent in 20 years.
In Australia, Bakers has had a long-standing presence in Sydney and Melbourne. While much of the Chinese-based outbound investment in Australia has centred on energy and resources work, Freeland said the firm acted on "a reasonable amount of work" emanating from China, despite not having a dedicated office in Perth.
"At times it would be an advantage to have a Perth office," he said. "Our experience is that it hasn't had a material impact on us, as we can still support our clients with WA work from Sydney and Melbourne, which is where the crux of those deals is from a financial side, and to the extent there is a jurisdictional issue in WA, we will call on a local Perth law firm to help with that."
Bakers has a joint steering committee comprising Australian and Chinese partners, with the committee meeting in Beijing last week to talk about cross-border opportunities for both offices.
Freeland nominated agribusiness and renewable energy as particular focus areas for the firm as it seeks to act on Chinese outbound work into Australia. He said the recruitment last month of the former North America general counsel of Mars, David Watson - who was also a partner at Minter Ellison previously - to the firm's Sydney office represented a push to increase the firm's capabilities on the global food and retail side.
"Agribusiness is a real growth opportunity and we are certainly seeing some interest from the Chinese in that space," said Freeland. "On the renewables side, Paul Curnow (a Sydney-based partner) spends quite a bit of time in China and there is a lot of interest in renewable energy coming from both China and South Korea."
Freeland also nominated private equity, with Sydney-based partner Mark McNamara the head of the firm's global private equity practice, as providing further opportunities for regional work.
Around 700 partners from the firm's 70 offices attended the conference, including 40 partners from Australia. Spouses and clients of the firm also attended, with the program including a reception in the Great Hall of the People in the Chinese Parliament.