Top Clifford Chance partner defects to the ‘dark side’

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Rupert Li quit Clifford Chance
Rupert Li
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Joining a trend for lawyers from international firms to switch to domestic PRC practices, senior capital markets partner Rupert Li has quit London-based Clifford Chance to join King & Wood as international managing partner.

“Some kind of epiphany came to me last summer,” Li told a US publication. “It all of a sudden dawned on me that it’s time to defect to the dark side.”

One of China’s biggest firms, with over 800 lawyers in a dozen domestic offices, King & Wood has been one of the pioneers in venturing out of mainland China. Last year it acquired Hong Kong firm Arculli Fong & Ng and it has recently opened offices in Tokyo, Silicon Valley and New York.

Li, a former partner in Clifford Chance’s Beijing office and member of the Magic Circle firm’s management committee, will lead the Chinese firm’s drive to further boost its international law capability, with a focus on Hong Kong.

In Li, King & Wood has netted a lawyer who has played leading roles in several of the largest transactions involving Chinese state-owned enterprises in recent years. He was part of the team that represented Chinalco in its failed US$19.5 billion bid last year to acquire an 18% stake in Anglo-Australian mining group Rio Tinto. If the deal had been successful, it would have been the biggest overseas transaction ever clinched by a Chinese company. Li also advised on the multi-billion dollar initial public offerings last year of China Minsheng Bank and China Longyuan Power Group.

Li will divide his time between Beijing and King & Wood’s 40-lawyer Hong Kong office, which it sees as the springboard for its overseas ambitions. The firm, which often serves as mainland counsel for Chinese companies seeking international finance, hopes to expand its role in cross-border deals.

Li stressed that the Chinese firm was focused on “realistic growth” – strengthening its international capability by adding suitable people. He said King & Wood would continue to work closely with international firms and had no plans to compete with them in the near future for the kinds of high-profile capital markets deals on which he previously worked.

“We don’t fish in the same pond,” he said. “It’ll be smaller deals.”

Li told the US publication his departure from Clifford Chance was amicable, noting that the firm and King & Wood were often co-counsel on various matters. But he said all foreign firms operating on the mainland faced significant barriers to growth, including regulatory issues and restrictions that banned them from local practice.

“It remains very hard for foreign firms to achieve the scale they want to achieve,” he said.

Li, who came to Clifford Chance in 2006 from the Hong Kong office of Morrison & Foerster following periods at Coudert Brothers and Milbank Tweed Hadley & McCloy, also said what attracted him was the idea of being at the heart of firm management at King & Wood.

“My entire career has been spent somewhere on the periphery of some far-flung legal empire,” he explained. “Now I’m suddenly at the centre.”

Li is the second senior-level partner to join a domestic Chinese firm from a UK firm recently. Last month, former Lovells Beijing managing partner Robert Lewis joined Shanghai’s Allbright Law Offices as a senior international legal consultant (see Lovells loses Lewis, China Business Law Journal, volume 1, issue 5).

Such moves point to the growing market power and prestige of the major local firms, which are increasingly dominating inbound China practices at the expense of international firms.

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