Rupert Li, previously the Beijing chief representative and partner of Clifford Chance, has swapped his partnership at the magic circle firm for a senior management position with domestic powerhouse King & Wood.
Li (pictured) joins King & Wood as international managing partner to lead the expansion of the firm's international business, including its Hong Kong office, and both in-bound and out-bound work for the firm. He will split his time between Hong Kong and Beijing.
Apart from bringing additional technical expertise and market connectivity to King & Wood's capital markets and M&A practices, Li's previous experience as the sole representative for Asia on Clifford Chance's partnership council will also benefit King & Wood's management and governance.
For Li, the single most important motivation behind his decision to leave the top-tier international firm and join King & Wood is the opportunity to be at the centre of the firm's management and decision-making function.
"It's a choice of professional development. I benefited from my tenure as a member of Clifford Chance’s firm-wide partnership council, but it dawned on me recently that the sensibilities and perspectives are very different from the centre of a large firm. So I’ve aspired to operate at the centre of a firm-wide executive management, where I can gain a much wider perspective of a firm's business and operations and develop different sensibilities,” said Li. “From my point of view, the most pronounced difference between my current and previous position is not 'local' versus 'international' but 'centre' versus 'outskirt'."
Although a certain level of competition exists between leading international and domestic firms, Clifford Chance and King & Wood have fostered a collaborative relationship through co-counselling on a number of transactions for the same clients. Li noted that his appointment with King & Wood will certain increase the collaboration between the two rather than reducing it.
Li also made the point that although international firms' being restricted from practising local law for many years has constrained their growth in China, they are still and will remain market leaders.
"In general, international firms are still leaders of the market in term of products, service standards and institutional relationships with clients. They've been in the market for much longer than PRC firms, and institutionally they still have great advantages over PRC firms," said Li. "Twenty years is a short period of time for the development of the PRC bar, so the legal industry here is still nascent. International firms will remain to be market leaders for quite some time."
It's arguable whether local firms will overtake international firms as market leaders any time soon. However, the pattern of recent lateral partner movement, which has seen senior partners from top-tier international firms taking up leadership roles in PRC firms, definitely suggests that domestic firms are not only winning more important mandates on cross-border transactions but are also becoming increasingly attractive as places for senior partners to work. ALB