The Pacific Northwest - The Gateway To China

Thursday, January 1, 2009 - 01:00

Editor: Would each of you tell our readers something about your professional experience?

Willert: I am the Managing Director of Williams Kastner, and I have spent approximately 30 years of my professional practice in the labor and employment law arena. This includes a great deal of counseling on the employer side in addition to litigation.

Aliment: Sheryl and I joined the firm about the same time. I have been in practice for 28 years and, with Sheryl, serve on the firm's governing board. My area of practice is business litigation, and that includes mass tort litigation.

Duan: I am a graduate of The East China University of Politics and Law in Shanghai. We were the first students to attend law school after the Cultural Revolution, and many of my classmates now hold important positions in China. I am among only ten lawyers in the country to sit on the National Senate Committee, for example.

In 1988 I came to the U.S. to study at NYU and went on to the University of Washington, where I earned my law degree. My relationship with Williams Kastner began 18 years ago, when I was hired as a summer associate. I was the first Foreign Law Consultant in the state of Washington.

Editor: Please give us an overview of Duan & Duan and its practice.

Duan: After modest beginnings, Duan & Duan now consists of 11 partners and over 40 lawyers spread across three offices in Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong.

In 1992, at the time Duan & Duan was founded as the first private partnership engaged in the practice of law in China, over 90 percent of the firm's business involved the representation of international clients, including Fortune 500 companies, in China. Since that time there has been a major shift as China's economy has matured, and today more than 30 percent of the firm's business concerns the representation of major Chinese companies, both public and private, in the international area. We represent three major Chinese oil companies in Australia and the Middle East project, for example.

Editor: Ms. Willert, will you give us an overview of Williams Kastner and its practice?

Willert: Williams Kastner is a full service law firm, and we have about 100 lawyers in three offices in the Pacific Northwest: Seattle, Tacoma and Portland. About half of our firm-wide practice is litigation, with an emphasis on commercial litigation, employment litigation and product liability litigation. The other half of the practice is transactional, with a strong focus on real estate matters.

Editor: And the relationship between Williams Kastner and Duan & Duan?

Duan: The relationship grew out of my law consultant position with Williams Kastner. One of my very early undertakings, for example, was to help McDonalds, which was represented by Williams Kastner in Seattle, to open its first restaurant in China in Tiananmen Square. When I returned to China to start my own firm, I was well aware of Williams Kastner's capabilities and its interest in developing international business in China.

Aliment: Our relationship also has been changing in recent years, primarily as a result of Duan & Duan becoming a very significant presence among Chinese law firms. There is also the factor, as Charles mentions, of many of his law school classmates moving into influential positions across the country. These connections are very important as Williams Kastner's international clients are increasingly in need of highly sophisticated advice as they develop their commercial activities in China.

Editor: What is the strategic goal that the two firms seek to achieve with this relationship?

Aliment: Just about anything that involves the largest developed country in the world and the largest developing country is strategic in nature and opens the door to opportunity. As but one example, Charles and I have been discussing the possibility of developing programs to share some of the younger lawyers among our two sets of offices and thereby enhance each firm's familiarity with the other's firm-wide practice.

Willert: Let me add that we believe that there are significant opportunities for the development of business relationships both in China and the U.S. even at a time of economic global downturn. Indeed, in working together, we believe we are in a position to introduce our respective clients to opportunities that, working alone, would simply not be available. Our coordinated efforts, we think, will result in a level of service delivery superior to that which either of us would be able to achieve without drawing upon the experience and expertise of the other.

Editor: I think you are talking about the synergies between the two firms.

Aliment: There are many synergies, and they only increase with the passage of time. There is probably no better firm in China to call upon for approvals and permitting expertise than Duan & Duan, and Williams & Kastner's ability to draw upon that expertise for its international clients is a real advantage. The two firms have a long history of working together in international arbitration and litigation as well, and that is a factor of crucial importance to both firms' clients.

Duan: Almost all of Duan & Duan's attorneys have studied in the U.S., the UK or Hong Kong, and we differ from many other Chinese law firms in having English and French language expertise almost completely across the board.

Let me add that while we cannot have joint ventures with foreign law firms - Chinese law does not yet permit such arrangements - our contractual cooperation with Williams Kastner permits our Chinese clients to address their litigation and transactional matters in Seattle - or Chicago or New York, for that matter - with a real sense of confidence. We have a longstanding and reliable relationship here that enables them to address a variety of issues across a variety of U.S. jurisdictions. Cutting the other way, we have represented many of Williams Kastner's clients from the Pacific Northwest - including Microsoft - on referral, and I believe they are very comfortable with our work, particularly in the IP area, which was the first practice area in which we represented international clients.

Editor: Please give us an overview of the emerging legal issues in China.

Duan: I think the protection of IP rights on the part of international corporations in China continues to be a major issue, although after all these years one can hardly consider it an emerging issue. The European Union and the U.S. government have pursued discussions with the Chinese government for a very long time, but what is giving these discussions some momentum now, I think, is the increasing interest of Chinese companies in the protection of their own IP.

Let me add that Duan & Duan handled its first IP case for 3M in 1994, which resulted in a successful criminal prosecution. This has become a leading case in China, and the resolution of IP matters through recourse to criminal law is increasingly common. I have been working with the central government and with various local governments and police authorities in well over 100 criminal procedure cases in recent years, and I do not believe there is another firm with comparable experience.

Aliment: Another emerging area in China is insurance. I think both the general public and the corporate community, to say nothing of the government, are coming to realize what can happen if insurance is not in place and disaster strikes. Some of Williams Kastner's significant clients are looking to the Chinese insurance market for opportunities and considering licensure requirements for writing coverage. In addition, many Chinese enterprises doing business overseas are beginning to assess their exposure across a wide range of risk, from product liability to directors' and officers' liability. I think Duan & Duan is going to see a considerable increase in its insurance practice.

Editor: What about the future? Where do you see the issues in international trade between China and the U.S. in, say, five years?

Willert: In light of the events of the past decade, e.g., 9/11 and the decline in global economies, there has been widespread and tacit attitudinal embrace of protectionism. We must become more open-minded in terms of worldwide trade and supportive of its long-term benefits in light of a global economy and approach the issue in a more balanced manner. I think this is the key to success in the global arena, and those countries functioning in the international arena with the right mindset are going to do well. Everyone must adapt to the mandates of globalization. As a practical matter, this means that a Chinese employer is going to have to know what is required vis-à-vis its employees in order to compete in the U.S. and the EU, and I think this process is underway so far as the emerging Chinese international enterprises are concerned. I am not sure, however, that their American counterparts are quite receptive of that imperative as yet.

Aliment: I agree. One of the things that is helping the Chinese investor in this regard is that the U.S. is a buyers' market at present, and they have money. Compliance is always easier in such circumstances.

Editor: And where would you like to see the Williams Kastner - Duan & Duan relationship in, say, five years?

Willert: For all of the reasons we have discussed, we have chosen not to have a representative office in China but rather to work alongside a strong Chinese firm in representing our clients there. Accordingly, we would like to see the relationship we have built with Duan & Duan continue and become even stronger than it has been over the past ten years or so. The decision was the right one when it was made, and it continues to validate itself.

Duan: Our three offices permit Williams Kastner to connect with Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong. Going in the other direction, the firm's three offices in the Pacific Northwest gives Duan & Duan and its clients with a window on the U.S. economy. The relationship is between China and the state of Washington, and if that relationship continues to grow - and I think it will - the relationship between the two firms is only going to continue to grow. It is useful to remember that every Chinese head of state since the Cultural Revolution has made Seattle the first stop on his initial U.S. itinerary.

Please email the interviewees at swillert@williamskastner.com, railment@williamskastner.com or charles@duanduan.com with questions about this interview.