Becoming an international trade lawyer in the Chinese market, with Akin Gump


In an ever-shifting geopolitical landscape between east and west, Akin Gump's international trade lawyers navigate the legal waters.

Chambers Careers: How would you define an international trade practice? 

 Savio (partner):
 At a broad level, an international trade practice is geared toward helping clients participate in international business transactions – whether that involves the import or export of goods, the acquisition or divestment of a company, or the overall functioning of a company’s global operations in a manner that is consistent with applicable trade laws. To that end, we provide advice covering a range of substantive areas – export and import controls, sanctions, foreign investment laws, and anti-corruption laws, among others.  

Functionally, our trade practice consists of both compliance counselling and investigations. In the former, we help companies proactively to understand and comply with applicable law. This may involve discrete advice on changes in law and analysing the impact of regulations on specific transactions. It may also involve training companies and assisting with the design and implementation of compliance programmes. In investigations, work is more reactive – we assist companies in addressing and mitigating potential violations of law, internally and in the context of enforcement proceedings.  

A large part of our practice involves advising Chinese companies on their US law obligations, and US companies in their business dealings with Chinese counterparts. 

Alasdair Kan (associate):
 It might be helpful to see the practice as being comprised of various interrelated specialties. Akin Gump’s US-law based international trade practice advises on export controls and sanctions, trade litigation, customs, and trade policy. The firm also has a Europe-based practice that focuses on similar issues under EU law. 

Another way of looking at it is the international aspect. Our trade lawyers are based in the firm’s offices across the US, Europe, Middle East, and Asia, and there is a great deal of collaboration between these offices on any given day. 

Chambers Careers: How would you describe your role as a partner/an associate within the international trade practice? 

 I’ve been hugely fortunate to have spent my entire legal career at Akin Gump. I was a summer associate in the DC office and worked there for nine years before relocating to Hong Kong to lead the Asia trade practice. I’ve been in Hong Kong almost seven years. Our Asia trade team covers three offices – Hong Kong, Beijing, and Singapore. We serve clients throughout the region, including in China, Hong Kong, India, Japan, Singapore, and Taiwan, and we also support our US-based clients with their operations or business activities in Asia. For all of these clients, we provide assistance with understanding the extra-territorial jurisdiction and applicability of US trade laws on international transactions and activities in the region.  

As a partner, I continue to do the substantive work that I have done throughout my career. The difference between my role now and my role as an associate is that I have responsibility and oversight for the final analysis and work product that goes to our clients. In looking after the Asia practice, I also train and mentor junior attorneys to ensure that they have the tools and feedback they need to grow in their careers and serve our clients effectively. In addition, I manage relationships with our clients to make sure that we are meeting their needs and providing the highest quality services. I also work continually to build our practice, which involves doing great work for our existing clients, looking for opportunities with new clients, speaking at conferences and other events, and hiring great talent to build our footprint and capabilities.  

AK: For smaller assignments, I work directly with a partner or counsel. My role typically involves preparing the first draft of any outgoing work product, such as email responses to day-to-day export compliance questions, formal memos on the extraterritorial effect of sanctions laws, Visio charts that explain the latest regulations on encryption items, or appeal submissions in respect of an application denied by US government agencies. On the other side of the spectrum are large scale internal investigations that could involve well over 30 attorneys, firm-wide, on a single project. For those projects, associates are commonly involved in document review work. 

Trade lawyers are generally frequent flyers, but now we have to adapt to Zoom like everyone else! 

A large part of our practice involves advising Chinese companies on their 
US law obligations, and US companies in their business dealings with Chinese counterparts. This is where my bilingual proficiency and cultural knowledge come into play.

Chambers Careers: Who are some of the main players you interact with day-to-day? 

 I interact regularly with in-house legal teams at a variety of Fortune 50 companies, as well as start-ups in the technology sector. I also regularly interact with various US government officials at the agencies with jurisdiction for export control, sanctions, and CFIUS matters, such as the Department of Commerce, the Department of the Treasury, and the Department of State. Finally, I have a huge amount of interaction with our Asia international trade team, as well as our colleagues based around the world. On any given day, I am working with lawyers in our Asia offices, as well as in Los Angeles, DC, London, and Dubai.  

Chambers Careers: What impact is the current political/economic climate in Hong Kong having on the market?  

AK: There have been quite a lot of developments affecting Hong Kong. First, there has been a raft of US regulatory developments directly impacting Hong Kong over the past year or two, including Hong Kong-specific US legislation and executive action, and others indirectly affecting Hong Kong by virtue of its status as an international financial centre (e.g., sanctions programs targeting certain securities of Chinese companies).  

TS: It has been extremely busy in the face of these changes. Our clients include companies that are tracking and navigating changes to the legal landscape on a daily basis, and we advise and assist them where they require assistance.   

Chambers Careers: How has Covid-19 impacted the International Trade practice? 

 We have been hugely fortunate that Covid-19 has not impacted our practice in a negative way. The pandemic certainly did not slow down the Trump Administration’s increased enforcement actions against Chinese companies, and the Biden Administration has continued to implement many of these changes in US-China policy. Rather, the pandemic has changed the way in which we deliver our services and advice. 

AK: Trade lawyers are generally frequent flyers, but now we have to adapt to Zoom like everyone else! A silver lining is that the practice is making more effort to bring people together, so we now have more regular events between offices. 

TS: On the whole, I would say that it has worked well, notwithstanding the challenges. Of course, I look forward to the day when I can meet my colleagues and clients face-to-faceI have missed those personal interactions!   

Chambers Careers: How has the appointment of the Biden Administration impacted trade relations between the US and Hong Kong?  

 I do not think we have seen a substantive impact, as the Biden Administration has thus far largely continued along the same track laid down by the Trump Administration in terms of China policy. The Biden Administration has shown a greater willingness to focus on democracy and human rights in setting foreign policy, which could flow through to US policy on Hong Kong. At the same time, Hong Kong has remained a significant trading partner of the United States, and we do not see that changing any time soon. 

TS: During the latter part of the Trump Administration, we saw a flurry of activity related to actions targeting China, with the US export control rules and sanctions rules being leveraged against Chinese companies in new ways. The Trump Administration also instituted a sanctions programme targeting Hong Kong and changed Hong Kong’s status under the export control rules so that it is now considered as part of China for export control purposes. The Biden Administration has not undone the changes instituted by Trump.  

Chambers Careers: Describe an interesting matter you’ve worked on. 

TS: I’m lucky. I find all my work interesting! We advise on trade law and policy issues that are often on the front page of newspapers, so the work is all timely and relevant to world events. In particular, we have been in the thick of helping clients navigate the very complicated issues surrounding US-China relationships, and the US government’s prolific use of denied and restricted party lists against Chinese companies. We have worked with numerous companies to avoid or obtain removal from these denied and restricted party lists and to manage compliance around the restrictions to which they are subject. We also broadly advise both US and non-US clients on risk considerations associated with engaging in transactions with particular parties (such as Huawei) and help them seek authorization from relevant US government agencies, to the extent necessary. In addition, we work on trade issues that arise in the context of cross-border investments and IPOs on the HK and Shanghai Exchanges. Finally, we defend companies in enforcement actions and assist them in meeting their compliance obligations and requirements under settlement agreements with the US government.  

AK: We represented a client engaging in a high-stakes negotiation with the US government, which involved working day and night with our DC colleagues on multiple rounds of submissions. These negotiations culminated in a development that was subsequently reported in headlines around the world – it was a truly eye-opening experience. 

Chambers Careers: Given the enormous size of the Chinese marketplace, how do you advise clients to best tailor their market entry strategy? 

TS: My primary advice is to go in with eyes wide open, with a recognition that there are risks but knowing that there are ways to manage and mitigate them. In this regard, it is critical that companies understand the US government policies and priorities that are leading to the trade restrictions we have seen. It is also important to understand the ways in which these different measures overlap, intersect or, in some cases, are completely different from one another.  

As a junior member, my personal schedule inevitably gives way when fixing a call with DC or Los Angeles, which happens several times a week. 

At a granular level, this means screening and carrying out other diligence on transactions to evaluate, for instance, whether US jurisdiction applies and whether a particular counterparty is subject to US trade restrictions. These are key questions that can drive risk exposure – where US law can have a tremendous impact on a transaction or none at all. 

Chambers Careers: What are some of the challenges and/or opportunities you have encountered working in the Hong Kong legal market?  

 There have been an abundance of opportunities, particularly as a result of the Trump Administration’s focus on China and the US-China trade war. The export control, sanctions, and US foreign investment laws are highly technical and have been subject to numerous updates in recent years. For this reason, companies are often hungry for advice on how to assess US jurisdiction over particular transactions and how to navigate a multitude of overlapping rules under various regimes. 

In terms of challenges, I wish that I spoke Mandarin, so that I could better engage with my clients in China. I’m lucky that they all speak English and that our Asia trade team includes native Mandarin speakers, but it would be great to have the language capability. I was taking lessons before the pandemic, and I’m planning to resume them.  

AK: A challenging part is dealing with time zone differences. As a junior member, my personal schedule inevitably gives way when fixing a call with DC or Los Angeles, which happens several times a week. On the plus side, Hong Kong is perfectly placed to access clients in China and other parts of Asia. 

Chambers Careers: What is unique about Akin Gump’s practice in this area? 

 We are one of the largest global international trade practices. As many US international trade laws apply extra-territorially (e.g., export control and sanctions), we made the decision many years ago that we wanted to internationalise our international trade practice and to be located where our clients are doing business. This allows us to provide real-time advice to our clients in the time zones in which they operate and gives us the opportunity to engage with our clients more directly and regularly, including by conducting training and assessments on-site, among other activities. Our trade practice has nearly 70 professionals based in the US, Europe, the Middle East and Asia. Notably, more than 25% of our trade practice is based outside of the United States – which is certainly a differentiating factor and one that I really enjoy.  

Another unique aspect is the fact that many of our colleagues have served in US government positions, including at very high levels in key agencies with jurisdiction over trade matters. In addition, we have international trade alumni who have taken on new roles within the government, which further enhances our connectivity with government agencies.  

I’m convinced there is no more interesting place to be a trade lawyer in the world right now than Asia. 

AK: Because our team is based in Asia, clients in this region can easily get on the phone with us in their own time zone. We are also able to leverage the much larger trade team in the US and our market-leading public law and policy practice in DC as and when necessary. 

Chambers Careers: What advice would you give to associates looking to practice in the international trade area in the China market?   

 There are definitely a lot of opportunities for attorneys interested in and prepared for practising on this side of the world. The legal and cultural divide between the United States and China shows no sign of narrowing anytime soon, so there will be a constant demand for attorneys with the right skills. 

TS: I’m convinced there is no more interesting place to be a trade lawyer in the world right now than Asia. The US-China trade tensions have been front and centre of US policy toward China, and US enforcement actions against major Chinese companies, such as Huawei, have challenged both US and non-US companies in their international and commercial operations. Tensions have not completely abated in the Biden Administration, and US issues and priorities vis-à-vis China will certainly dominate Biden’s foreign policy going forward. This will continue to be an interesting, challenging, and complex area of practice for years to come – especially as China continues to develop its own export control and sanctions regime, which, in many cases, may prohibit compliance with US laws.