Wintell & Co’s October merger with Gong Cheng Law Firm in China’s northeast is merely the beginning of a national push to extend the reach of the newly combined entity beyond its Shanghai headquarters.
“We’re not simply Shanghai looking favourably on the northeast market, or incorporating the northeast market into Shanghai … but rather sticking to a ‘nationalised’ route for the bigger picture,” said Wintell & Co’s director Mervyn Chen. “Priority is now being given to the two most important locations: Beijing and Shenzhen because the Shanghai and Changchun offices have been developed.”
Gong Cheng, a prominent law firm in northeast China, and Wintell & Co completed their merger on 17 October. This was the first time two Chinese law firms in two separate regions joined forces, creating a new entity named “功承瀛泰律师事务所” while retaining the English name Wintell & Co.
Chi Rida, Gong Cheng’s founding partner, and Wintell & Co’s Chen were co-chairs when the new firm established a 10-member national conference of partners. The merged firm now has more than 400 equity partners, partners, senior advisers, practising attorneys, paralegals, business secretaries and operational staff.
Chen is confident about setting up an office in Beijing because of Gong Cheng’s deep commitment to the northern legal market and Chi’s strong faith in Beijing’s business environment, which is built upon the foundation of the rule of law. Chi is a member of the National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference and retains a high role in the political environment in Beijing.
“Most Shanghai law firms that have gone to Beijing to open an office have faltered. Frankly speaking, if we didn’t merge with Gong Cheng, we would not tap this area,” Chen said.
Traditionally, law firm mergers in China involve those headquartered in the same region, from the same city, or are both in the same province.
But in this merger, the firms are not only geographically far apart – Gong Cheng is a local firm from the tier-two city of Changchun, Jilin province, while Wintell & Co is from tier-one city Shanghai – but also have different governance models. Gong Cheng adopts a corporate and points system, while Wintell has a special general partnership model.
Chi said that following the merger, the firms had set a two-year “integration period” where the existing management systems and profit-sharing models would remain unchanged. Ultimately, a gradual and orderly shift to one model would mean the whole combined entity would be greater than the sum of its parts, he said.
A more competitive organisational model will be established for the team to achieve positive and efficient communication between the firms.
Chi added that Gong Cheng is the dominant player in the local legal market and thus expansion has been limited. “Gong Cheng’s share of the local market has far exceeded the industry average, which is abnormal,” he said.
Gong Cheng has attracted many outstanding legal talents, but at the same time lacks sufficient space to unleash their effectiveness. “Rapid growth has prompted us to push ourselves from outside and seek larger regions and larger market spaces to support,” Chi said.
Chen said changes in the international arena had also meant the original Wintell & Co needed to tap opportunities from the national policy in recent years. The firm’s northern line of business reached as far as Tianjin, which was insufficient to cover northeastern China, he added.
Shanghai is the firm’s headquarters, and after the merger it now has 13 branches in the city’s Lingang special area, Changchun, the Changchun new area, Shenyang, Tianjin, Qingdao, Dezhou, Linyi, Ningbo, Zhoushan, Guangzhou, Shenzhen and Haikou. In addition, the Beijing, Wuhan and Nanning offices are being established.
The announcement of the Shenzhen Ocean Development Plan (2023-2035) in May to build a global ocean centre fits into the original Wintell & Co’s maritime business, particularly in insurance finance and data. The new Shenzhen office will provide diverse services, combining Gong Cheng’s strengths in dispute resolution, M&A, tax, insolvency management and real estate construction, which will add to the appeal among clients drawn to the maritime business.
Wintell & Co’s national push involves opening in Beijing to gain a foothold in China’s political centre and respond to the demands of many clients, including central state-owned enterprises. “Many major projects and companies have the requirement of localisation, and many Chinese central state-owned enterprises bidding for tenders in Beijing will also require law firms to have a branch in Beijing nowadays,” said Chen.
The new firm will also actively develop foreign-related business while retaining the English name Wintell & Co. Holman Fenwick Willan, affiliated with the previous Wintell & Co, will maintain its affiliation with the newly formed combined entity to uphold the branding impact.
“Wintell & Co still has a very good brand image abroad and the name itself is very memorable … our goal is to continue to expand the entire foreign-related market so that foreign customers can see that we will also have a more stable and sustainable development on the road to internationalisation,” said Chen.
Chi added that “We do not rule out the possibility of contributing to the development of justice and the rule of law in Northeast Asia in the future and breaking into a world of our own with the help of Wintell & Co’s foreign legal services experience. The chance of ‘going outside’ will bring about changes throughout the organisation and the Changchun offices will see positive returns.”
The merger provides clients with more flexibility in cross-border services. After news of the merger emerged, Gong Cheng, which originally served its client electric vehicle company NIO in the northeast region, referred some of its data business from its Shanghai operations centre to Shanghai’s team.
“We used to develop clients and could only get regional service commissions. Our association means a wider choice for the client,” said Chen. “The merger will expande the range of services offered for repeat and new clients.”
Some law firm mergers have stumbled. However, Chi firmly believed that the key to success lies in the core partners’ ability to work harmoniously and collectively to revitalise the new organisation. “We have complete confidence in our team,” Chi said.