With its recent move to bright and modern new offices in Central, U.S. law firm Dorsey & Whitney has renewed its commitment to the city. Simon Chan, Managing Partner of the firm’s Hong Kong office, spoke to The Bulletin about the company’s history in Hong Kong and beyond, and the opportunities arising for the legal sector in an increasingly complex business environment.
Founded in Minneapolis in 1912, Dorsey & Whitney is a global law firm with 20 offices in the United States and internationally, and around 550 lawyers.
“Although we are in 20 locations around the world, we are one firm,” Chan explained. “This is a little bit different to the way some other international law firms operate.”
Dorsey had a long history in the United States before it opened its first Asia office in Hong Kong more than 25 years ago. Chan explained why the firm made the move at that moment in time.
“One of our senior partners opened the firm in Hong Kong in 1995,” he said. “The reason was we followed the Fortune 500 companies from the U.S. that were coming over as China was preparing to become a member of the WTO.”
One of Dorsey’s most famous lawyers was Walter Mondale. The former U.S. Vice President worked for the firm for many years after returning to private practice in the late 1980s. In fact, he played an important role in the firm’s entry to the Asia market, and visited China on a number of occasions. So Dorsey was well aware of the opportunities that were emerging in Asia, especially China, and the benefits of having a base in Hong Kong.
Since then, the firm has added offices in Shanghai and Beijing, Chan said. “So we are growing and finding the sweet spot for Dorsey & Whitney in the China and Asia markets.”
In Hong Kong, the firm focuses on key sectors including M&A and capital markets, intellectual property, and dispute resolution – including arbitration and litigation.
“Another focus is wealth management and asset protection,” Chan added. “That is becoming a really hot area for us and we are receiving a lot of inquiries on a regular basis.”
After 20 years in Admiralty, Dorsey recently moved to new offices in Central. The firm was planning to redecorate and upgrade its technology, and took the opportunity to change location at the same time.
“We wanted to be in downtown, closer to the ecosystem that we interact with, such as the Hong Kong Stock Exchange, the banks, conglomerates and family offices in this area,” Chan said. “If we go downstairs for coffee we will run into clients, opposing counsel – so it does feel like an ecosystem that is now within walking range.”
Flexibility is another benefit of the move. In the firm’s new offices, in Alexandra House, tenants can rent additional rooms in response to demand. This means they will be able to comfortably host visiting lawyers and clients, whatever the size of the delegation.
In 2020, Dorsey marked 25 years in Hong Kong – although Covid restrictions meant that they were unable to celebrate this milestone – and the firm is now preparing for the next quarter century.
“My vision and hope is that I’m here to plan for the next 25 years of our law firm in Hong Kong,” Chan said. “Especially now that Hong Kong is very geared towards the Greater Bay Area opportunities – we want to be a part of that and help our clients.”
Hong Kong-born Chan has lived in Canada and the United States, where he is also a New York-qualified lawyer, and has worked in Mainland China and Europe. From his well-travelled perspective, he believes that Hong Kong is still the best place to do business.
“We are the only bilingual common law legal system on the planet, and we are a common law legal system that has over 100 years of experience,” he said.
Other advantages include Hong Kong’s gateway role, which means the city is the ideal place to negotiate, find business partners, and build relationships between East and West. Chan noted that before the pandemic, he frequently hosted visitors and colleagues from all over the world in the Hong Kong office – and he expects that this will resume as soon as travel reopens.
Being an international lawyer in Hong Kong is clearly a highly demanding job. Lawyers must keep up-to-date not only with changing laws and regulations in multiple jurisdictions, and must also keep abreast of how other industries are evolving amid the emergence of new technology. Despite the pressure, Chan said that he highly recommends law as a career to young people today.
He added that he would advise young people to learn how to code, as technology and AI are now being used in all industries, including the legal profession.
“It is like my parents’ generation needed to be able to use a typewriter, and my generation to use a computer,” he explained. “But for the next generation, they will need to be able to command and teach a computer to do certain things.”
Chan’s own practice specializes in cross-border and multi-jurisdictional matters, and he is known for his skill in handling VUCA issues – that is, volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous. He explained that, in Hong Kong, many business and legal matters are VUCA, due to the involvement of different legal systems and business cultures.
Dorsey sits at this crossroads between East and West. As a U.S. and international law firm, it is in demand from Chinese and Hong Kong clients seeking guidance on their overseas investments and operations. At the same time, the firm serves Western corporates doing business in China and the rest of Asia.
“For example, when clients are doing an international financing or capital markets transactions, we guide them on how to navigate and comply with a complicated web of U.S. and international laws, rules and changing policies,” Chan explained.
Besides the complexity of dealing with different jurisdictions, other factors adding to the VUCA landscape include the current Covid uncertainties and geopolitical tensions.
“VUCA to me is something that I can help clients to measure, prevent and manage,” Chan said. “It involves a multi-disciplinarian and multi-jurisdiction approach – how to solve clients’ legal problems in a very complex world.”
While the increasingly complexity of today’s global environment may be tricky to navigate, Hong Kong’s legal expertise is a key asset in smoothing the path forward and enabling businesses to grasp the emerging opportunities.
Company: Dorsey & Whitney
HKGCC Membership No. : HKD0664
Established : 2004
Website : http://www.dorsey.com
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