Law Practice Magazine
THE INTERNATIONAL ISSUE
WALTER W. KARNSTEIN is a partner and an intellectual property attorney with the Portland, Oregon, law firm Kolisch Hartwell. He’s also the 2008–2009 Chair of the ABA Law Practice Management Section.
GLOBAL GO-GETTER As a partner and an intellectual property attorney with the Portland law firm Kolisch Hartwell, Walt Karnstein has developed an expansive international practice. With clients in Israel, Asia, Europe and Australia, he has logged a large share of air miles and time zone changes while learning to master the cultural and technical challenges of practicing across borders.
His experience in cross-border work, though, actually extends back to his pre-lawyer days. Walt, who has a B.S. in electrical engineering, worked at various electronics and computer-related jobs as a young man. One of those jobs took him to Germany, where he worked on a monorail conveyor system and, in the process, got his first immersion in adapting and relating to overseas clients.
For this special issue of Law Practice, writer Steve Taylor talked with Walt about his experiences with foreign clients, and also asked him to give some insights into working internationally.
Our firm does a substantial amount of work for foreign clients who want to come into the United States and get patent protection. Sometimes there’s even more of an international overlap. For example, right now I’m acting as a go-between for a Chinese client and a German attorney concerning litigation that’s entirely in Germany. We also work with overseas colleagues in getting protection for our U.S. clients internationally. I first started working globally in the mid-’90s for a German client—but things have really exploded in the past five years in terms of the volume of work that I do internationally. I now work with clients in Israel, Asia, Europe and Australia.
I’ve spent a fair amount of time in recent years in China, including a month in Hong Kong last year. I have to say, Hong Kong doesn’t have the quality-of-life emphasis that we do here in Portland. We worked seven-day weeks, 16-hour days. It’s grueling—but my time there has been a wonderful educational experience and helped me to understand my Chinese clients and their culture. That’s important because that’s the direction our firm is increasingly going. After all, we truly live and work in a global economy.
I’ve learned there are two challenges that are really big in working with Chinese clients. One, of course, is language. I don’t speak Chinese so that is an issue, and it would be helpful to know the clients’ language. Fortunately, the business language in many countries at least includes English. The other issue is the vast difference in time zones. I have to have conference calls at 10:00 or 11:00 at night, which is the beginning of the workday in China.
Traveling through Time
Technology helps considerably with the time zone problems. I certainly use my BlackBerry a lot more than I would if I didn’t have a global practice. I also have remote access to our firm’s system through a secure Internet connection, which allows me to have those conference calls at home rather than being in the office until midnight. It’s critical for me to have access to a lot of information and documents when I’m on those calls. Technology is one major reason why our global practice has taken off.
One thing about dealing with international clients, particularly clients in Asia, is you have to recognize that some of them aren’t familiar with our legal system—at all. They don’t have a true understanding of the nature of a deposition or the disclosure of information. What’s more, they are frightened by the potential costs of litigation in the United States. You need to offer clients a lot of education about the costs of legal representation in the United States and an explanation of why those costs differ so much from what they might see in other countries. They need to understand that fully in order to make a decision about how to approach their business and legal needs here.
Best Bet for Breaking Through
The best way to break into foreign business is through U.S. clients. Many clients have dealings overseas, which lead them to work with other companies. Those other companies ultimately are going to need assistance in the United States. If you serve your clients well and build a good rapport with them, you’ll ultimately be introduced to foreign clients because of your previous work. That’s how we did it.
Steven T. Taylor is an award-winning freelance journalist living in Portland, Oregon, who writes on various subjects in the legal media.