A matter of trust at Withers
Priding itself on its difference from other companies, Withers Hong Kong is the only law firm in the city that places equal focus on wealth and asset preservation, as it does on wealth planning. It has also made significant additions to its Putonghua-speaking team. Managing partner Marcus Dearle explains that this is essential as many mainland Chinese clients wish only to do business in Mandarin.
What is the ‘Wealth Preservation Group’ and why was it set up?
Formed in 2011, the work of Withers Hong Kong Wealth Preservation Group has attracted considerable interest due to the wealth planning industry’s recognition that family discord and divorce is a clear and present danger to family wealth.
It is of great interest to high-net-worth individuals, and this part of the world. In some high-net-worth cases, spouses may lose up to one-half of their wealth on divorce. But, there are steps that can be taken against this.
We provide advice on pre- and post-nuptial settlements and dynastic trust planning, to help restrict attacks against assets.
We also “stress test” existing documentation to check that all is in order – for example, examining if a will is properly drawn up and attested, to avoid hugely expensive and acrimonious scenarios.
How do the mainland Chinese regard wealth preservation?
An increasing proportion of high-net-worth individuals come from mainland China. As with wealthy Hong Kong Chinese clients and expatriates, some have become concerned about the big cases that have recently hit the headlines.
Is Withers trying to expand the idea of wealth preservation into China?
We are trying to push wealth preservation in China, using our intermediary contacts and referrals from private banks.
How important is the mainland China market to Withers?
We have been attracting more mainland clients in recent years, which is the same as other Hong Kong firms. Hong Kong is often the first jurisdiction that mainlanders look to; Singapore is another.
We will be increasing our footprint in Asia when we open our new Singapore office this year.
How many Putonghua-speaking staff do you have, and do you plan to increase this number?
We are certainly looking to hire more mainland Chinese lawyers in the future. Currently, we have six fluent Putonghua speakers in our team.
One of our recent successful mainland recruitment stories is Lian Fang, a registered foreign lawyer brought up on the mainland, who attended Nanjing University and Columbia University School of Law.
Any international law firm that doesn’t appreciate the importance of mainland China risks losing valuable business now and in the future.
Is there a different way of dealing with mainland clients?
I think Hong Kong Chinese clients, like expatriates, usually have a basic understanding, for example, of the concept of what a trust is.
Mainland clients have often become very successful over a short period of time and won’t have come across the concept of a trust – the idea of putting your money in the hands of other people.
This is very unfamiliar territory to them, so this is all the more reason why we need to have people in the office who are able to win their confidence, and explain the intricacies of the law to them.
A lot of mainland clients only want to deal with Putonghua-speaking lawyers.
What is the hiring outlook for Withers in 2012?
We are currently expanding our litigation and wealth planning arm, and are recruiting for our new Singapore office, with a major focus on personal tax and trust lawyers. There is a big demand for wealth planning from clients in this region.
A mainland China office is definitely a future target as well and our first mainland-bred lawyer, Lian Fang, will hopefully be the first of many.