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Canadian law firms fail to make the China grade

Maybe Prime Minister Stephen Harper should have taken some law firms on his trip to China this week. The China Briefing Magazine and Daily News Service reports that only one Canadian firm has a presence in mainland China. That ranks us right up there with the UAE, population 7.5-million.

Belgian, Spanish, French, Swedish and Brazilian law firms have more offices in China than Canadian firms. Pathetic! Meanwhile, law firms from the U.S. have 90 or more offices. Only Blake, Cassels & Graydon was mentioned on the list as having a representative office. It’s in Beijing.

China is poised to become Canada’s second largest trading partner. Chinese investment into Canada’s energy patch is in the billions. You would think that Canadian law firms might be interested in establishing local relations. Apparently not.

Yet, law firms from foreign countries that are smaller than some of our biggest firms have made such an investment.

Canadian law firms have been reluctant to invest in bricks and mortar abroad, choosing instead to focus locally and fly lawyers into foreign hotspots and build relations with local firms on the ground. That works in a world of independents. But the world of law firms is rapidly consolidating.

The Norton Rose merger with Macleod Dixon and Ogilvy Renault has no doubt prompted many Canadian firms to reassess their international strategy. Expect more mergers. If you’re a Canadian firm, chances are those merger partners will come from the firms on the China Briefing list. They are the ones with vision and the willingness to invest in the future and take on risk. Canadian firms are totally playing a defensive strategy focused on protecting the home market.

Sadly, it’s unlikely there will be many stand-alone Canadian law firm brands in the future. Like many of our companies, our legal industry will simply be branch plants of a bigger organization run offshore. It’s the Canadian way.