- Chris Carr
Title: Senior Associate at King & Wood Mallesons
View Chris's Linkedin profile here
Chris Carr is a Melbourne Law School alumnus who moved to Beijing in the early stages of his career. After 7 years in Beijing, he joined King & Wood Mallesons' Sydney office earlier this year.
MJIL: Regarding your experience in China, what sparked your interest in China?
I was the beneficiary of the wisdom of many who encouraged me in that direction. I also saw at a relatively young age that China was undertaking a massive transformation. I wanted to learn more and subsequently benefitted from a number of scholarships and opportunities. With each one came a better understanding of what was out there, and exposure to more people with experience and know-how in this space. The more I learned, the more I became interested in seeing where this could take me.
MJIL: How was practicing in China different to practicing in Australia?
In China, practicing law and working on cross border transactions can be quite fast paced and ground breaking. It is sometimes tedious, but never dull. In Australia, practicing law is always a delight when you are surrounded by highly capable and skilled practitioners. Australian law firms should be immensely proud of their knowledge management and systems. They are truly world class.
MJIL: Why did you decide to move to King & Wood Mallesons' Sydney office after 7 years in Beijing?
As an Australian educated, qualified and trained lawyer with extensive experience in China, it made perfect sense to come here. There is no other firm that as neatly fits my practice and what I want to be doing. King & Wood Mallesons has got its focus on China right and I certainly hope to contribute to reinforcing its market position.
We are the only international firm in the world headquartered in Asia. I think foreign-based firms face increasing struggles in China and this leaves the space wide open for firms like ours to become the market leaders. We can expect future mergers between foreign and domestic law firms in China but the longer those take to materialise, the further ahead we will already be.
Sydney was a strong choice for me because New South Wales has had a higher proportion of Chinese investment and that is expected to continue. It is also an important gateway for Chinese investors coming into Australia. While I have a growing domestic deal book, I am still heavily involved in cross-border transactions, many of which involve China.
MJIL: What has been the most interesting international deal or case you have worked on to date?
Two in particular come to mind. The first was the acquisition by Geely, a Chinese automotive manufacturer, of Swedish carmaker, Volvo Car Corporation, from Ford. Volvo remains the only major foreign carmaker to be wholly acquired by a Chinese company. It was one of my first forays into the world of China outbound and the first time I ever had to brief the board of a Chinese company.
The second was advising UK retailer Tesco on its joint venture with state-run China Resources Enterprise to create the largest multi-format retailer in China. This was a landmark transaction as it showed a new way to engage with China in what is a difficult sector. Tesco has had its difficulties in recent years but I do feel that they should be tremendously proud of this deal. It created an elegant way for businesses to change their exposure to the Chinese market without being forced to exit. The deal was interesting for me because I had by that stage advised Tesco on a number of matters in China which influenced how the transaction was ultimately structured. It was complicated but a solution was found.
MJIL: How important has your proficiency in Chinese been in your work as a lawyer in China and Australia?
It has been very important. But it's not just language proficiency that is important but also cultural awareness. I always encourage any lawyer going to work in China to get to know their local colleagues however they can so that they can build those skills. Cultural awareness is far more than using chopsticks and passing out business cards correctly. It is about knowing how to put yourself in their shoes. Understanding what makes a Chinese party tick and anticipating what their likely reactions will be is a rare skill. This is important when you work for a Chinese client as much as it is for a non-Chinese counterparty. Language is one piece of that, but only part of it. Overcoming generalisations about China and Chinese investors is especially important.
MJIL: You mentioned in articles published in the Harvard Business Law Review Online and China Law and Practice that regulators need to better understand the dynamics of working with Chinese investors. What do you think is most important for them to understand at the moment?
Understanding what drives Chinese investors. The outbound investment environment is rapidly shifting and as part of that we will see a lot more investments being done by consortia, some containing some level of state ownership. Are the investors trying to influence the investment vehicles or are they seeking to diversify their risk? Are they trying to meet a different key performance indicator internally? Is it simply a question of funding? Sometimes there is a mistaken belief that Chinese investors operate under the notion of "whatever the weather, we must move together". Modern China and Chinese outbound investment is not the Marshall Plan. Every deal is different and regulators should be alive to the very different motivations that drive Chinese investment into markets like Australia.
It's not a black and white matter of state-owned enterprises (SOEs) versus the private investor either. Australia's national interest is not necessarily served just because an investor is a private enterprise nor is it naturally threatened because an SOE is behind it. Regulators need to be alive to that reality as getting it wrong on either account has adverse consequences.
MJIL: In what way will the nature of legal work in Australia change as China reaches the end of its export-driven model of economic growth?
Today, we are seeing just the beginning of Chinese outbound investment. The reasons that lie behind the investments are many and varied. Australian businesses should be preparing for that. However, concurrently they should be looking into investing into China and seeking to benefit from the market there. The notion that it's all too hard will see Australian businesses miss out on the tremendous opportunities that are emerging both as the result of legislative changes in China but also from the recent free trade agreement. You snooze you lose, so to speak and now is the time to be looking at these opportunities.
MJIL: What has been the highlight of your legal career thus far?
Oddly enough, the highlight was only months after I was admitted and was still on rotations. Rotating through dispute resolution, I had the opportunity to work, together with a team of lawyers led by Lex Lasry (now Justice Lasry) and Julian McMahon, to help overturn a conviction and death penalty for Australian man George Forbes who was on death row in South Sudan. I was very junior then, but I was given an active role in what was a whirlwind matter. We can close all the M&A deals we like, but helping a man escape the gallows for a crime he clearly did not commit will always carry a slightly bigger buzz.