I figured my first Above the Law post should be something aimed squarely at those who generally read this blog: American lawyers. I also figured I should lead with what I do best and that is scaring the heck out of people.
So I am going to write about four common and egregious mistakes my law firm’s China lawyers often see American domestic lawyers make when representing their clients in doing business with or in China, along with a very brief analysis of what causes American lawyers to make each sort of mistake.
1. Many years ago, a lawyer in the Midwest called us to discuss his client’s desire to form a company in China. This lawyer did not even tell us that his client was in the room. The lawyer asked us the minimum capital the Chinese government would likely require his client put into a Chinese bank to be able to start a business (a WFOE) in China. Based on the nature and size of the business, we estimated $6 to $8 million. The lawyer asked us to confirm that a portion of the required $6 to $8 million could come from factory equipment not cash, and we assured him that it could. At that point, he said, “good,” because his client had already purchased $5 million in equipment and shipped it to China.
We then had to tell him those equipment purchases could not count because they had not been previously designated as going to the WFOE. The lawyer then complained about how his client could not afford to come up with another $5 million and how China was putting form over substance. To which we could say little more than, “yeah”…
This is just one of countless instances where an American lawyer has done poorly by his or her client by just assuming that the rest of the world views the law just as we do. China almost always places form over substance and it does that because it views giving its bureaucrats discretionary authority as also giving them the discretion to solicit bribes to influence the exercise of that discretion.
2. A lawyer calls us with an airtight $2 million dollar breach of contract lawsuit against a Chinese company. This lawyer had drafted a contract calling for disputes between her client and the Chinese counter-party to be resolved in Boston Federal Court and she had already sued the Chinese company in Boston and secured a default judgment against it. She was now seeking my law firm’s help in domesticating the judgment in China, and It was clear she expected us to jump at the opportunity to take the case on a contingency fee basis.
That is until we told her that China does not enforce U.S. judgments. Ever.
She then came up with the idea that we start all over by suing the Chinese company again in China. We had to tell her that could not work because the Chinese court would have two strong grounds for throwing out that lawsuit. First, improper jurisdiction because the contract clearly called for the lawsuit to be in Boston. Second, res judicata because the entire case had already been tried (and won) in Boston (the proper jurisdiction). I have no idea how she explained all this to her client.
American lawyers commonly assume that what makes sense for a domestic transaction necessarily also makes sense for an international transaction. Boston would have made sense in the above instance if the counter-party had been in Los Angeles, but the rules and the issues are different when doing business internationally.
3. Lawyers often call us for “tips” on handling an arbitration in China (usually with CIETAC). We always quickly ask whether the contract calls for the arbitration to be in English or whether the lawyer calling us (or some other lawyer) on the case is fluent in Chinese. This virtually always elicits a really long silence and then they say something about how they had just assumed that their case (usually set for hearing in a month or two) would be in English.
If you do not specify that your China arbitration is going to be in a language other than Chinese, it will be in Chinese. This mistake stems from the American lawyer’s inability to grasp that China is not all that different from the rest of the world. I mean, would anyone ever think that an arbitration in Kansas City is going to be in Chinese even though the contract calling for arbitration there is silent on the language of the arbitration?
4. American lawyers often call us on behalf of their client who has received a product from their Chinese manufacturer, claiming that the product does not meet the contract specified quality. We then determine that the specified quality to which they are referring is “reasonably good quality” in such and such industry. To their surprise, we immediately beg off working on the case and we then have to tell them how there really is no such thing as “reasonably good quality” in a country where you can buy a 30 cent t-shirt that falls apart after its first washing. And/or we tell them of the U.S. company that had us call a Chinese factory from whom the U.S. company received a million dollars worth of laptop bags whose handles were not strong enough to hold a laptop. The Chinese factory’s explanation was that if our client had wanted laptop bags strong enough to truly hold a laptop, our client should have ordered the $6 bags, not the $3 ones.
This mistake stems from the American lawyers’ belief that the U.S. way of looking at the law applies universally, when it does not. China is a civil law country and a phrase like “reasonably good quality” is almost meaningless.
So if you are not familiar with the ins and outs of China law, just be sure to use a China lawyer of “reasonably good quality” to assist you.
Dan Harris is a founding member of Harris Moure, an international law firm with lawyers in Seattle, Chicago, Beijing, and Qingdao. He is also a co-editor of the China Law Blog. You can reach him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.