From Giant Swans to English Gentlemen: naming conventions for English law firms in China

05 July 2017

May 2017 marked an important moment for RPC – our London and Hong Kong offices now operate as a single entity, boosting the firm's promotion of its brand in the Greater China area.

However, this part of the world is not new to English law firms. Over the past decade, a number of English law firms have set up their offices in China. Interestingly, such moves involve registering their official Chinese names. This article considers the conventions for English law firms to "re-brand" themselves in China.

Beyond the traditional legal services hub of Hong Kong, some of our peers have launched offices in Mainland China. According to the list published by the PRC Ministry of Justice, 15 English law firms currently have offices in Beijing and 13 have offices in Shanghai.

Although the Chinese market offers boundless potential, there are various restrictions on the work of foreign firms. These restrictions, combined with the pressure on fees and bureaucracy, mean it is challenging for foreign firms to turn a profit.

The first challenge comes when a foreign firm is starting its business in China: it must submit its Chinese name to the authority. Since making up law firm names out of thin air is not prohibited in China, foreign law firms are free to pick any name which may resonate in the market. Such freedom has witnessed a booming of English creativity.

Broadly speaking, the following three strategies have been adopted by law firms:

Simply the pronunciation

Perhaps the most straightforward way to get Chinese clients to know an English brand is to use a combination of Chinese characters which carries little meaning but accurately reflects the pronunciation of the brand.

This is a very popular choice as it is less likely that a Chinese name would be subject to trade mark infringement or misunderstanding. Herbert Smith Freehills, Pinsent Masons, Hogan Lovells and Norton Rose Fulbright appear to have adopted this method.

Similar pronunciation plus some meaning

Other firms prefer using some Chinese characters which not only represent the pronunciation of their English names, but also carry some positive meaning. For example, Ince & Co is called "Ying Shi" (英士), which means "English gentlemen" whilst Clifford Chance calls itself "Gao Wei Shen" (高伟绅) – "tall and great gentlemen".

Others emphasise financial success - Freshfields is called "Fu Er De" (富而德) – "rich and moral" and Linklaters is "Nian Li Da" (年利达), which may be translated as "annual profit reached".

Just the meaning

A relatively bold move, but one that arguably pays off if done well, is to take a name which appears to have no link to the pronunciation of the firm's English name, but one which carries a deeper and cultural-related meaning. This would require extensive research into the local culture and industry practice.

A classic example is Bird & Bird. Its Chinese name is "Hong Hu" (鸿鹄) – both characters have their right half as "鸟", i.e. bird. The name derives from an ancient book of Confucianism and means "giant swans capable of flying high and long distances".

DLA Piper uses a different approach and is called "Ou Hua" (欧华), which simply means "Europe and China". Apparently, the name symbolises a bridge between Europe and China to attract more cross-jurisdictional work.

Although the capability of foreign law firms in China has traditionally been constrained, the recent liberalisation may in time open China's professional services sector to meaningful overseas participation, making the branding strategy of foreign law firms particularly important. With more English law firms entering this market, it will be interesting to see how they re-brand themselves so as to better entwine the world's second largest economy with global legal services.

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