If business clients go overseas, it doesn’t have to be goodbye

Robert McMilanWhat do you do if one of your major client calls your office and tells you that he or she has a desire to start a business somewhere off shore from the United States? It would be simple to give up the client and refer the business to another law firm. There are also other alternatives which you should first consider. You may not have to totally give up the client. But keep in mind; you cannot practice law in a foreign country. At the same time, by following these suggestions, you will probably provide better advice to your client and have a better chance of retaining the client for work in the United States as well as providing guidance for a foreign country.
Before getting into the details of what you can do, let me take you briefly through some of the background I bring to this piece. Back in the 1970’s and 1980’s, I held several corporate officer positions at Avon Products, Inc. In those days, I was responsible for opening new operations throughout Asia, including Malaysia, Thailand, Singa-pore, New Zealand and then helped to negotiate the acquisition of the largest cosmetic company in the Philippines. Later (1984), I participated in the opening of China for Avon. All of this was before the ability to “Google” on the Internet.

From those early days, I learned a great deal about starting a business in a foreign country. This piece will reflect a little on the past and will be up to date on key issues to address at this time.

Today, the computer is available for all of us to do research and not just legal research. The research I am writing about relates to knowledge about the country your client is thinking about. It is essential to fully understanding the details about a country and its acceptability to new businesses – particularly from the United States. And the best way to start is to have your client come in to see you – after you have gone through the suggestions outlined in this column.
One of the first things to do, a suggestion which I feel very strongly about, is to go online to https://www.CIA.gov/ library/publications/the-world-factbook/. This is a public site and belongs to the Central Intelligence Agency of the United States. Go to the site and select the country of interest. Now, before you roll your eyes as to why I would suggest the CIA as a starting point, examine with me what is available.

The range of up to date topics available is astonishing. Take China for example. Everything is at the site from detailed geography to full details about population and from the detailed information about the structure of the government to pages about the economy. In addition, there is a great deal of information about transnational issues. Each country’s web-site contains, for the most part, the same material as I have just outlined.

Why start with the CIA Web site? If you do not fully understand the history and current picture of the country of interest to your client, you cannot really help. Back in the 1970’s, I did not have the Internet, and my research started in libraries and at bookstores. Once you have a pretty good understanding of your client’s country of interest, there are numerous other things you or your staff can do before having your client into the office. While you are on the Internet, you should “Google” the country and its businesses comparable to your client’s. It would also not hurt to hit “images” on the Web to get up-to-date pictures of the country.

Time can be a factor, but if possible, there are a number of other resources to explore. Going back to the U.S. Govern-ment, the Department of Commerce and the State Department should be your next steps, regardless of where the country is located.

At the State Department, there are “Country Desk Offices.” The State Department’s web site will give you telephone contacts as a starting point. The information ranges from Country Commercial Guides to Trade Policy Programs, and from the Commercial and Business Affairs Office to a FAQ site which provides Business Support.

Next, the Commerce Department has a similar set up with people responsible for different parts of the world. The interesting footnote on the Commerce Department is that most United States Embassies overseas have a Commercial Attaché who is directly responsible for helping U.S. business interests in each country.

Each contact, like in any activity, depends on the quality of the person you are dealing with. I have found very good people in Washington and particularly overseas at each U.S. Embassy. They are on the “ground” and generally can be very helpful and knowledgeable.
Now, let us take a look at resources in the private sector, which also can be helpful, if not immediately, down the line of the process in starting a business overseas.

Most international banks can be helpful if you are considering a business operation in a foreign country. The large banks are global and can provide references overseas and give you and your client resources to consider.
Then, there are the large global accounting firms. If they are operating in the country of interest, accounting firms can provide valuable insight and information. A little later, I will provide some thoughts about where accounting firms and banks can help the most.

Another source of information and possible support can come from the foreign consulates operating in this country and representing the country of interest. We are fortunate being so close to New York City, which houses a large number of consulates. Before going to one of the consulates, I would have a game plan pretty much in place. Alerting the country of interest too soon can be a mistake for a number of reasons.

Now let’s get down to the bottom line. No matter how much of the above you can grasp before the client comes in to your office, your client will have to have counsel in the country where the business is to be started. The challenge will be how to select that foreign attorney.

That is where banks operating overseas and accounting firms can provide the best guidance. Based on my experience, it is essential that you remain in the picture as your client ventures internationally. It is in your client’s best interest. You understand the business and your client individually. Because of you personal connections with the client, you can also be helpful to the law firm handling the matter in the foreign country. You will provide an excellent channel for communications.

All of this will take a great deal of coordination from your firm. The results, if handled carefully, can be a win-win for all, and particularly for your client, who will have your feet on the ground while plunging into international business.
One other footnote. As you go through the process, make sure you exchange business cards and always write a thank you note after each meeting or even when obtaining information over the telephone. You never know when you may have to call again.

Robert R. McMillan is Of Counsel to Bee Ready Fishbein Hatter & Donovan, LLP