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Friday, June 16, 2017, 11:59
Fostering deep trust through crises
By Duan Ting
Friday, June 16, 2017, 11:59 By Duan Ting

Legal firm executive Henry Nassau says one of the secrets fueling the company’s growth is its ability to nurture strong ties with clients through thick and thin. He tells Duan Ting the story.

Legal firm executive Henry Nassau says despite a slowing economy, the Chinese mainland market is growing fast, and mainland companies are looking for better growth rates and opportunities beyond, thus generating huge inbound openings for overseas law firms. (Parker Zheng / China Daily)

Henry Nassau, chief executive officer of global specialist law company Dechert, is a fervid believer in the art of trouble-shooting, satisfied that stronger bonds and rapport with clients would result from times of dilemma.

Shrugging off the challenges confronting law firms, he says “we need a crisis to build up trust, and people only grow when they get scars”.

“Clients would like to have a relationship with someone they can talk to and trust, and exchange ideas with,” he tells China Daily.

The Philadelphia-based company sees the core of its business as shaping up close links with its customers who would take critical issues to Dechert and allow themselves to be partners in thrashing them out.

“Everyone’s talking about the difficulties law firms are facing, and the pressure, I think, comes partly from law services providers, accounting firms and emerging technologies, including artificial intelligence,” says Nassau.

He deplores the fact that technology disrupts business, like Google’s disrupting the news media. Dechert, on its part, has to make sure that good technologies can support the company’s internal communications and fine tools to gain better access to materials in various cases, and that it can keep up with their customers’ fast pace in technology.

According to Nassau, their strategy is to grow in major capital markets and cities worldwide, with their biggest thrusts on New York, London and other cities that meet the legal services in areas like capital markets, private equity, lifestyles, funds, complex litigation and investigation.

The Chinese mainland, irrefutably, can’t be left out of the picture.

“China is part of the world we have to be a part of,” he asserts, noting that although the economy is relatively slowing down, the mainland market is getting more sophisticated, and companies are looking for better growth rates and opportunities beyond, thus generating huge inbound openings for Dechert.

Chinese outbound investments, he’s convinced, are propelled by the need for growth at rates faster than the domestic market, plus the desire to invest in stable governments with established capital markets for lower cost of capital.

Nassau will continue to play its part in helping Chinese mainland companies go abroad and spread their tentacles. “Where China is interested in expanding, we’re happy to be part of that in terms of either capital formation or representing outbound Chinese companies.” 

Eye on mainland

Dechert began its involvement in China almost a decade ago, setting up itself in Beijing in 2008. Its core businesses there include international arbitration, property, securities, private equity, and mergers and acquisitions. The group has added 13 lawyers in Hong Kong and Beijing, including four partners, so far this year.

Existing major clients include Shanghai Shenda Co Ltd, Nanji E-Commerce Co Ltd, Huadong Medicine, China National Petroleum Corporation, Join Me Group (HK) Investment Co Ltd, China Financial Services Holdings Ltd and Talent Property Group Ltd.

“We’re looking at this time to beef up our presence on the Chinese mainland. We also plan to open a branch in Shanghai. If we could find a good capital market team or a private equity team, we would love to do it in line with our business needs,” says Nassau.  

As for Dechert’s perceived share of the mainland market, Nassau is playing his cards close to his chest, saying he doesn’t have an exact figure. What he’s certain is that they now have some 20 employees in Hong Kong and close to 10 in Beijing. Globally, they have more than 900 lawyers — about 50 in Singapore, Beijing and Hong Kong and the rest scattered across Asia.

He gives the thumbs-up for the China-led Belt and Road Initiative, saying that anything that promotes trade and commerce among countries is good for international law firms. While Dechert has yet to join any particular project, it’s confident that its private equity and finance practices will play an indispensable role in financing business ventures related to the Belt and Road.

Impressive start

Founded in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in 1875 by Wayne MacVeagh and George Tucker Bispham, Dechert had represented a number of companies in the railway, banking and coal industries in its infancy.

Pennsylvania Railroad — a pioneer in the US railroad business and one of the country’s largest and most powerful enterprises — first retained Dechert in 1877 and has kept the service for nearly a century.

Nassau explains that Philadelphia is more manufacturing-oriented place and is just 100 miles from New York — the US’ premier financial hub — and thus, Dechert has been doing more business with New York-based financial institutions, including those engaged in mutual funds or private equity funds, through which it has made itself more finance-oriented.

It’s due to these companies’ global operations that Dechert has followed them around the world.

“We’ve shifted the concentration of our business because we would like to do the most valuable and profitable work. Also, we would like to follow the sophisticated work which is the multinational work initially,” says Nassau.

Dechert started going international in the early 1960s, opening its first European office in Brussels in 1968, followed by another in London four years later. Currently, it has offices throughout the United States, Europe, Asia and the Middle East.

The company’s business strategy is always focusing on or figuring out what it’s good at, and it places greater emphasis on transactional capital market work rather than the general navigation and corporate aspects.

“Making mid-market transactions of between US$50 million and US$1 billion is not about just knowing the law, but also plenty of experience and market knowledge ,” says Nassau.

Having been with Dechert for almost 25 years, Nassau has witnessed the company’s change of strategies, as well as its evolvement in staff turnover, with one-third of its lawyers and half of the corporate lawyers now based outside the US at 28 offices worldwide.

‘Being curious is still the name of the game here’

Henry Nassau has been associated with law for nearly three decades — 25 years working at Dechert alone, having headed the company’s corporate and securities units for 14 years.

He left Dechert in 1999 for a five-year stint at venture capital giant Internet Capital Group (ICG) as general counsel, and was later promoted to chief operating officer.

“The rocket ship of internet companies experienced a bit of violent ups and downs at that time. It was a terrifying experience, but you grow up through crises. No regrets,” says Nassau. ICG saw its market share surge to US$500 million six months after it went public before beginning its descent in 2000.

Reminiscing his time with ICG, Nassau responded in jest. “One of the qualities of a good lawyer is being curious.” He says he had joined the company because he was inquisitive and wanted to be a businessman some day. One interesting aspect at the time was that had ICG entered into a joint venture with Hong Kong-based Hutchison Whampoa in Tokyo. “We still maintain a good relationship and we still represent them,” he reveals.

Nassau hadn’t crossed the Rubicon. His affection for the people and the environment at Dechert later prodded him to quit ICG and return to Dechert.

Talking about his management experience, Nassau says: “I’m here to make sure I understand what my partners want, and my colleagues to be successful financially, engaging with clients and getting all the resources they want. Finally, to be sure they have fun. I’m very focused on the quality of experience for the associates.”

He remains tuned to the growth of technology, but he doesn’t think it’s an overnight thing but a gradual process they need to pay attention to.

Nassau’s daily routine is to try to be awake and get online by 4 o’clock each morning to deal with the constant communication — the avalanche of e-mails coming in from all over Asia.

“The biggest thing I do is to ensure that we grow in major markets, and that the other offices are in line with the business we excel in. We also try to recruit the best talents we possibly can, and talk to those who’re not doing so well,” says Nassau.

His advice for the younger generation who would like to follow in his footsteps is to work hard and be prepared to do whatever they intend to do if they fail. On top of all, like himself, they must be curious and honest.

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