While U.S. balks at globalization, Duane Morris looks for new business in Asia and beyond

Making a big splash in the Asia market, a branding ritual for many law firms, was never part of the plan for Duane Morris.

Instead, the Center City-based firm has opted for a contrarian approach that has begun to pay dividends.

In recent years, the firm has opened offices in Vietnam, Myanmar, Singapore, and Taiwan with the idea of finding legal markets poised for growth, but without the frenzied competition that goes with high-profile offices in Mainland China, where the big firms in Europe and the United States want to be.

Duane Morris later opened a Shanghai office, but only after it established its Asia footprint.

If the judgment of the November election was that many U.S. voters now are skeptical of globalization, with its freer flow of goods and people across borders, then law firm leaders might be understandably hesitant to throw themselves into new ventures abroad.

But there is no sign of this at Quaker-founded Duane Morris. It opened its Taiwan office in Taipei in October, amid the bitter immigration and trade debate of the presidential campaign. And now it is focusing on doing more business in Sri Lanka and leveraging its Singapore office for legal work on outbound Asia investment in Latin America.

The bet seems to be that after due deference is paid to the passions and judgments of the electorate, the Trump administration will stop short of a multi-front trade war. The advantages underlying international trade and investment are too enormous to toss out the window.

“It’s a less expensive way to get into important markets,” Duane Morris chairman and CEO John Soroko said of the firm’s Asia plans. “Some commentators have called this our backdoor strategy.”

When the firm opened in Vietnam in 2007, the country was barely on the radar of most American firms, many of them bent on international growth, but in all the usual places: London, Beijing, Frankfurt, and Dubai.

Since then, however, Vietnam has emerged as an Asian economic powerhouse, a significant competitor to China, and Duane Morris has carved out a unique niche in that once worn-torn country. 

Its lead partner in Vietnam, Oliver Massmann, who was born and raised in Germany, speaks fluent Vietnamese, and has ties so deep that he helped the country redraft its civil and commercial codes. He is also sought after by German businesses that want to invest in Vietnam.

The firm’s offices in Asia, London, and Oman now account for about 10 percent of firm revenues, which reached $454.2 million in 2015, the latest data available.

Overall, the 700-plus-lawyer firm has about 70 lawyers overseas. Soroko is fond of saying that when he joined Duane Morris nearly 40 years ago, the firm had a total of 70 lawyers and all of them were in Philadelphia.

Its partners in Asia draw on colleagues in the U.S. to represent overseas clients who want to invest in the U.S. That, says Soroko, is the major part of the firm’s Asia business, and contributes substantially to the firm’s bottom line.

While opening an office in Vietnam was unconventional – only a handful of U.S.- and London-based legal behemoths were positioned there when Duane Morris opened – opening a Singapore office was a more conventional choice.

Soroko said there are now 148 foreign firms in the bustling city-state, and competition is sharp. In recognition of this, the intent always was to leverage the Singapore office for business in other Asian countries that are somewhat off the main route, such as Myanmar, where the firm last year handled the first IPO listed on the Myanmar stock exchange.

The firm’s office in Singapore, which goes by the name Duane Morris & Selvam, has expanded considerably beyond its earlier mission and now that Singapore has become a hub of international arbitration, has substantially developed that practice area.

Taiwan, Soroko said, also is expected to be a growth engine. The country is an industrial powerhouse with robust high-tech, pharma, and bio tech sectors, and trade with the U.S. reached $65.3 billion last year.

Soroko said the Taiwan office will work closely with New York-based partner Richard Thurston, who speaks fluent Mandarin and who retired from his position as senior vice president and general counsel of Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. Ltd. in 2015.

So, for all the talk of trade barriers and immigration controls, it doesn’t seem as if Duane Morris will be pulling back from the international market any time soon.