Oregon State Bar Bulletin — DECEMBER 2008

In the 2008 Summer Olympics, China flexed its muscles for the world to see, bringing unprecedented modern attention to a country that was, until recent decades, hidden. The United States’ biggest creditor also has become a partner with an intimidating trade surplus that continues to spiral.

China now is a large trading partner of Oregon businesses, and the state’s courting of the country has paid off for some Oregon lawyers, who have been both catalysts and beneficiaries of that development.

Here, three of them describe how and why they became involved in law practices with expertise in a country that, after opening to capitalistic methods, has become a political, economic — and as the Olympics showed, athletic — heavyweight.

Willamette Opened the Way
James M. Mei, the first lawyer from the People’s Republic of China to be admitted to practice in Oregon, always will be grateful for the open-door policy China established beginning in 1978.

Had that event not occurred, Mei (pronounced "May"), who was "sent to the countryside" by the government from 1973 to 1978, would not have been able to become what he is today: a partner with Davis Wright Tremaine, who helped that firm establish the first U.S. law office authorized to open in Shanghai.

"Most people were very appreciative" of the open-door policy, he says. "It changed the life of three generations of people. Otherwise, I would still be working on a farm as a peasant now."

The open-door policy also marked the beginning of the rise of China to the economic powerhouse it has become today. "Before, it was an isolated country," says Mei, who became an American citizen. "It did not care to do deals with other countries. The last 30 years, the economy has blossomed because of that policy."

He notes that in the first six months of 2008, worldwide merger-and-acquisition activity was down 5 percent. "But in Asia, it was up 5 percent, largely because of aggressive buying by Chinese companies."

That buying extends to Oregon, where Mei has helped large Chinese companies buy commercial real estate, including 40-some projects on Portland’s south waterfront, and in Tanasbourne and the Sunset Corridor.

Prior to 1978, no lawyers practiced in China, he explains. Now the country counts 110,000 attorneys and 9,000 law firms. "I see this as big progress," he says.

After earning his bachelor’s degree in 1984 from Shanghai University and studying law at Beijing University for a year, Mei was sent by the government to teach at East China University of Politics and Law, a new summer program from the United States. He helped James Nafziger, a professor from Willamette University College of Law, by serving as program administrator and guide for Nafziger and his law students.

The summer program, initially co-sponsored by Willamette, Columbia University and East China University law schools, now is the oldest such program in existence, and is approved by the American Bar Association. It has hosted visiting scholars and more than 700 law students and graduates from Willamette and over 120 other schools from the United States, Canada, Europe and Australia.

When Nafziger and the first students departed for Salem that inaugural year of the four-week program, the grateful professor told Mei to let him know if there was anything he could do for Mei.

As it turned out, Mei wrote Nafziger at the end of that year, expressing his interest in studying law at Willamette. Wish granted, Mei entered school in April 1985, where he learned American law and polished his English simultaneously. He has remained co-director of Willamette’s China Summer Program — now run by Willamette and East China University — ever since, a commitment he is proud of.

Two major tasks dominate in Davis Wright’s Shanghai office: helping assist U.S. or foreign companies to do business in China, including joint ventures and wholly owned subsidiaries; and helping Chinese companies do business in the United States.

Mei has seen growing cooperation between the two giant countries. In 2006, Gary Locke, the former governor of Washington who now is a partner with Davis Wright’s Seattle office, hosted Chinese President Hu Jintao at a state dinner given at Bill Gates’ home (Microsoft being one of the firm’s clients).

"It was the first time his home was opened to the media and a public figure, and the first time for a Chinese president to visit the largest capitalist in the world," observes Mei. "It sent a big signal: China will stick with its open-door policy."

Another encouraging development, in his view, was that in July 2008, China sent its first student to study law at Willamette. Every year, Willamette has given one scholarship to a Chinese national. Then last year, its summer program, which sends 50 to 60 students (most from Willamette) to study one month in China, extended the program to a full year for three students annually.

"It’s just so many of those positive things for the two countries that help both sides understand the culture," Mei says.

Building a Practice
Akana A.J. Ma’s personal and professional ties to China are deep and long-standing.

By ancestry, he is part Chinese and part Hawaiian. The focus of his practice, as chairman of Ater Wynne’s global trade and intellectual property group, has roots that go back to his first visit to China, in 1983.

After obtaining his law degree from Boston College, Ma worked for a large Washington, D.C., law firm, dealing with Chinese diplomats about U.S. export laws. He then served as in-house counsel to an engineering and design firm in Boston, which sent him all over the world and especially to China, where the firm was helping "build big things" such as infrastructure and plants, he says.

Ma then was in sole practice in Portland for nine years, where he established himself as an expert on international law, with a focus on China. He joined Ater Wynne in 2005, and now personally represents 25 companies who are active in China. He notes that the firm itself represents hundreds of companies doing international business, a large percentage of which is in China.

His work includes all types of transactions for U.S. companies, including communications, distribution of engines and gas-powered products in the United States and overseas, and representing footwear companies that manufacture, sell and distribute products in China, the United States and around the world. He helped a company in the office-products business establish a factory and office in China.

Ma has observed American companies’ views of China expand. "I’m very aware of an increase in the last decade of U.S. companies seeing China not only as a source of manufacturing, but a place for marketing their goods, as well," he says. Since China joined the World Trade Organization in 2001, the country has become far more accommodating to businesses outside its borders.

China has become "more transparent and more familiar with how the world does business," Ma says. "Every year, (China passes) dozens of new laws and regulations to help make the running of business a little bit more predictable and less subject to the arbitrariness that has been present in the past."

American companies still are learning how to sell and distribute products in China, but could no longer ignore the enormous economic potential of its population of 1.7 billion people.

"Part of the renewed attractiveness is that China has created a very large middle class," Ma explains. "The growing middle class is about the size of the entire U.S. population, so there is tremendous buying power in China."

The majority of the clients Ater Wynne represents are in Oregon and Washington, "but a considerable number of clients from Oregon do business in China," not just the largest companies, but also many smaller and startup companies, he says.

"We are also very actively engaged in and want to expand (in helping) China companies do business in the U.S.," Ma adds. "The Chinese government never restricted (its) companies from doing business overseas, but (companies) didn’t have the sophistication. Now they are able to develop networks overseas."

According to Davis Wright’s Mei, under Chinese regulations, foreign lawyers cannot go to Chinese court — they have to hire a local Chinese lawyer — cannot give legal advice, and cannot write formal opinions on Chinese law, but must engage a local law firm to print it on their letterhead.

Ater Wynne partners with local Chinese law firms in whatever location a particular transaction is pending, which Ma feels can be an advantage: For example, if a transaction is at hand in the southern portion of the country, Shanghai, which is in the northeast, "may not have the right expertise to service the transaction," he contends.

Oregon attorneys say language is never a barrier in working with China. "China looks to the U.S. for legal and business standards and leadership," says Ma. "English has become the de facto business language anywhere in the world. English is a prominent feature in all negotiations and business deals."

Mei, who was born and raised in Shanghai, adds that English as a second language is mandatory from the third grade, and he says knowing English is required in order to get into "good high schools," and into universities.

"All the Chinese lawyers speak English as well as I do," notes Chris Helmer, who chairs Miller Nash’s international practice group. "A lot come to the U.S. to study. One worked four months here without pay. Here, his English improved a lot."

Signs of a New Openness
Change was in the air at the time Helmer and her husband, Portland lawyer Joe D. Bailey, taught for three weeks at Xiamen University in southern China in 1995. The pair taught a class on business sales law and mortgage law, which sparked students’ interest.

"People were hanging in the windows," she recalls. "Every chair was full."

The government was beginning to adopt some aspects of a capitalist economy. "You could make money after that," she says. "There were incentives to do more advanced business. It opened up to skills and imports. We could teach them to make quality products. That allowed us to make our goods cheaper." Now the Chinese are designing and making their own products, including high-tech, she says.

While teaching there, Helmer and Bailey met and befriended a law student, Yan Jiang, who subsequently lived with them for four years while attending Lewis & Clark Law School after the pair sponsored her and helped her obtain a scholarship. After completing her studies and gaining her law degree, Jiang returned to China, married, had a child, and is now general counsel for the Boeing joint venture in Shanghai.

In some ways, Jiang symbolized how China was opening to the world. When she met Helmer and Bailey, Jiang had obtained her law degree at Xiamen University, but in China, as is true in most countries, law is an undergraduate degree, according to Helmer.

After one of Bailey’s and Helmer’s classes, Jiang invited Helmer to come to her dormitory and meet her roommates — all eight of them, "living in a small room with one desk," Helmer remembers.

"I sat and talked to them. I asked her, ‘What is your dream in life to achieve?’" The girl replied, "I want to see the world," but then indicated she knew that wasn’t going to happen. Helmer was inspired by Jiang’s ambition, and the couple decided to help her meet it.

"She was somebody who really fit well," says Helmer. "She is like a daughter to me, and we keep in close touch."

Partnering Greases the Wheels
Joint venturing such as the company Yan Jiang works for is something "you often need to do if you want to do business in China," observes Helmer. "You’re not required to by law, but it’s difficult to be successful if you don’t have a partnership."

Helmer’s work in the international area developed in the early 1990s, and although her practice focuses on general international law, the majority of international business her firm handles is in China. In the late 1990s, Helmer obtained a master of laws degree in international law from Columbia Law School, which "helped my practice quite a bit," she says.

Helmer assists companies that want entrée into foreign countries, and to have an office or sell or distribute a product there. She also helps clients who seek a larger presence in a country or to own and operate a foreign facility, set up sales contracts or establish an office that aids a company with marketing.

She also handles litigation if there are problems protecting intellectual property or if business disputes develop, not uncommon occurrences with multinational companies; and immigration issues such as the divorce of an expatriate couple working for an international company in China.

Like Ater Wynne, Miller Nash doesn’t have an office in China but has developed a network of Chinese attorneys. "We have really good relationships with several law firms in China," says Helmer. Six Miller Nash attorneys in Seattle and Portland do work in China, handling matters such as business acquisition, litigation and tax law.

Oregon exports many products to China, and China imposes many licensing and permitting requirements, depending on the material — a factor that makes legal assistance essential, she notes.

Ater Wynne’s Ma, who has served on the OSB International Law Section executive committee for the past dozen years, says the number of Oregon lawyers who specialize in international trade has remained "a handful."

But as the state has grown, that picture is changing, and more attorneys are including it in their work.

"Better awareness of opportunities in international trade is causing more companies" to get involved, and "as a result, I’ve seen practitioners in all of Oregon involved in international trade — not full time like I am, but advising some

Cliff Collins is a Portland-area freelance writer and a frequent contributor to the Bulletin.

© 2008 Cliff Collins

return to top
return to Table of Contents