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Mayer Brown’s huge presence in China places the agency in the midst of rising geopolitical tensions


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Final fall, democracy advocates pilloried Mayer Brown when the College of Hong Kong, a shopper, bowed to strain from the Chinese language authorities and eliminated a sculpture commemorating victims of the 1989 Tiananmen Sq. Bloodbath.

Jon Van Gorp, Mayer Brown’s chief since final summer season, was already working to meet up with opponents like Kirkland & Ellis and Sidley Austin, partly by emphasizing U.S. development after mergers within the 2000s expanded Mayer Brown’s attain in Europe and opened the door to Hong Kong.

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Now, China—which has lengthy threatened Taiwan’s sovereignty, as Russia has Ukraine’s—is once more out entrance. A festering U.S.-China commerce conflict hurts prospects on the mainland, whereas a crackdown on dissent in Hong Kong, the place most of Mayer Brown’s attorneys in China are based mostly, forces corporations and their expat executives and households to flee.

“It is a difficulty he must work on,” says Jason Kravitt, a former Mayer Brown co-chair and Van Gorp mentor, questioning how a legislation agency maintains its integrity whereas working in China.

Van Gorp says he does not see parallels between China and Russia, the place Mayer Brown has no places of work. “This doesn’t change our technique in China in any respect,” he says.

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However Rachel Stern, a College of California at Berkeley legislation and political science professor who tracks the Chinese language authorized market, contends that, relying on what number of legislation corporations depart Russia, “it might reshape perceptions of the danger of doing enterprise in authoritarian states extra broadly.”

Van Gorp, 52, took the reins when Mayer Brown had began to speed up however nonetheless achieved solely a 3rd of Kirkland’s profitability. Between 2005 and 2020, Mayer Brown slid out of the highest 10, to twenty second, of legislation corporations ranked by income.

Van Gorp was a Crain’s 40 Beneath 40 in 2008, when the monetary disaster turbocharged his profession as a capital markets lawyer. His background in profitable transaction work now powers his development technique, which incorporates increasing in California’s tech sector and New York’s monetary district. Though litigation stays the agency’s single largest follow, its development has been flat since 2017, whereas banking, chapter and actual property added probably the most attorneys.

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“He desires to energise the agency and ensure we’re aggressive in areas which might be scorching,” says accomplice Ty Fahner, who as soon as led the agency.

There are indicators the method is paying off. In a superb 12 months for giant legislation corporations, Mayer Brown, with 1,875 attorneys, carried out higher than most in 2021. Income rose 21% to $1.84 billion, Van Gorp says, in contrast with a mean enhance of about 14% for U.S. legislation corporations sampled by two consultancies.

China is not Mayer Brown’s first bump within the highway.

In 1984, it suffered twin blows with the collapse of Continental Financial institution, a shopper accounting for as a lot as 30% of income, and an influence battle that led prime companions to begin a Chicago workplace for Wall Avenue deal adviser Skadden Arps Slate Meagher & Flom. Mayer Brown rebounded and broadened its shopper base however needed to lay off attorneys within the late 2000s. Tragedy struck in 2018, when Stephen Shapiro, the founding father of Mayer Brown’s appellate follow, was murdered.

As company shoppers clamor for extra range at legislation corporations, Mayer Brown has a status for elevating girls and folks of coloration. It named Debora de Hoyos managing accomplice in 1991. Ladies have led its two largest places of work, right here and in London. Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Yusef Jackson as soon as practiced at Mayer Brown.

Van Gorp joined in 1997 after graduating from Southern Methodist College’s legislation college and spending three years at a Texas agency. The one baby of Denver schoolteachers, he thought-about pursuing an MBA however grew to become intrigued when coping with attorneys as a pupil authorities official. He was wooed by Kravitt, the godfather of Mayer Brown’s structured finance follow, which grew to become an enormous payment generator. In 2012, Van Gorp succeeded Kravitt as co-chair of the follow.

As an alternative of searching for mergers, Van Gorp goals to get the agency on extra “panels”—285 to this point—that huge corporations use to select corporations for recurring assignments. In non-public fairness, he believes Mayer Brown can leverage experience in areas akin to mortgage securitization, insurance coverage, shopper finance, power, infrastructure tasks and fintech.

Since 2017, the agency’s lawyer headcount in California has gone from 60 to almost 100. In January, the agency opened an workplace in Salt Lake Metropolis with 10 attorneys (goal: 25) on the so-called Silicon Slopes of the fastest-growing state. The share of Mayer Brown attorneys based mostly within the U.S. is climbing to 60%.

On his option to the highest, Van Gorp studied administration texts and handed alongside profession steering, akin to enhancing digital physique language on Zoom calls or placing extra heat into emails. He attracts office recommendation from books, together with “The Seven Habits of Extremely Efficient Folks” and “The 80/80 Marriage: A New Mannequin for a Happier, Stronger Relationship.”

“I’ve at all times been very a lot of a soft-touch man, however I’ve labored arduous to be perceived as what I actually am,” he says. To construct rapport, he conducts two inner podcasts—a biweekly skill-building tutorial, “Instruments of the Commerce,” and a month-to-month chat with London-based Managing Companion Jeremy Clay, which Van Gorp calls “two guys speaking in regards to the agency.”

Van Gorp professes no regrets about his function within the mortgage securitization frenzy and meltdown, together with representing subprime lenders, that contributed to the Nice Recession. “I feel attorneys helped clear up loads of challenges that have been created by different means,” he says.

He appears to be taking the identical opportunistic perspective towards China, the place different corporations, like McDermott Will & Emery, withdrew after struggling to earn a living. He stays bullish on Hong Kong: “It is nonetheless the gateway for capital within the U.S. to China. That enterprise has accomplished properly, and it is vital to us.”

China’s effort to pressure home corporations to desert Western inventory exchanges and relist in Hong Kong advantages corporations like Mayer Brown with capital markets experience. However on the mainland, the place Mayer Brown has 15 attorneys, the variety of worldwide legislation corporations shrank to 185 from a 2013 peak of 232 amid a commerce conflict courting to the Trump administration, in accordance with Stern.

“There simply is not as a lot cross-border exercise,” she says. “Even post-Trump, there’s nonetheless momentum behind decoupling.”

Mark Steffensen, a shopper of Mayer Brown at retrenching financial institution HSBC, says, “That is a math downside none of us have discovered to any diploma of certainty,” including that Hong Kong is “a problem for Mayer Brown, as a result of, fairly frankly, it is a problem for us.”

That is Van Gorp’s message, too.

“Doing enterprise in China is advanced,” he says. “Doing enterprise globally is advanced.”

Ann Lau, a Californian who organized protests over Mayer Brown’s function within the Hong Kong statue controversy, says, “It is extraordinarily unhappy that an American agency will kowtow to the federal government of China—an American legislation agency that spoke rather a lot about human rights, particularly within the Black Lives Matter points.”

Van Gorp says, “We ceased representing the college in that matter, however we proceed to signify them as a long-standing shopper.”

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