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Foley & Lardner LLP, a law firm with a practice in Detroit specializing in the automotive sector, has received permission from the Chinese government to open an office in Shanghai.

A few years ago, the firm began to sense a need to open a branch in China as it saw a growing number of Chinese companies interested in doing business in the United States -- and in Michigan -- and heard from its U.S. clients needing legal assistance navigating China's expanding economy and complicated legal system.

The firm's Shanghai license was granted in November, and it already has five people working there with plans to expand to as many as 20 in a few years, a firm official said.

"The rate of change in the legal and regulatory system there is mind-boggling, frankly. Most of it is going on and only getting translated some six to 12 months down the road," said Ken Duck, senior counsel at Foley, who works in the firm's Detroit office.

Having an office in Shanghai will allow the firm to have people on the ground communicating in the Chinese language with government officials on behalf of clients, he added.

Foley, with offices all over the world, opened an office in 2000 in Detroit. The Detroit office has about 40 people in it, and they deal with a wide array of topics.

In the past decade, the firm has been counsel on more than 200 public securities offerings that raised more than $10 billion.

The Detroit office is part of Foley's Midwest region, which includes offices in Chicago and Milwaukee. More than 1,000 attorneys work for Foley.

Foley's clients include JCI and Visteon, and the firm says it has more than $700 million in revenue annually, making it a top law firm in the country.

"Part of the thinking of setting up the Detroit office ... we represent a lot of the automotive industry, particularly in the supplier base," Duck said. "Really around the same time there was a big push for the auto suppliers to head over to China."

Prior to opening the Shanghai office, Foley's Catherine Sun, chair of the firm's Asia practice, already was making inroads in the country on the firm's behalf.

The firm provided international intellectual property counseling to the Chinese government's organizing committee for the 2007 Special Olympics World Summer Games, which were held in Shanghai last October.

While offering a full array of services, the firm plans to specialize in the automotive industry and life sciences.

It also expects to deal with issues surrounding intellectual property matters, a major concern for many U.S. companies operating in China.

"Recent studies indicate that 80% of market capitalization in publicly traded companies is tied to intellectual property assets," Sharon Barner, chair of the firm's intellectual property department, said in a statement. "As a result, businesses are placing more value on their intellectual property assets, making it more important for them to protect and enforce their rights in China."

In Detroit, the Foley office hears from a growing number of Chinese companies looking to do business in Michigan, Duck said.

"There is more discussion and hype than there is real investment at this point. But there are every day more and more companies coming to call ... looking to talk to suppliers and potential customers," Duck said. "With a lot of these investments, not just with China, there is a pretty long lead time in most cases, so you're looking at a couple years down the road before these companies will pull the trigger."

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