CGCC Leaders Profile: Lanier Saperstein, Partner at Dorsey & Whitney LLP

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Born in the U.S. and raised across the pond in London, Mr. Lanier Saperstein’s experiences of moving, living, and working in different countries and cultures have enabled him to bring a unique multicultural perspective and understanding to his work as a litigator.

Recognized as an “international banking expert” by The Washington Post and as a “China specialist” by The National Law Journal, Mr. Saperstein is a member of the CGCC Legal Counsel Committee and currently a Financial Markets Partner at Dorsey & Whitney LLP where he holds a track record of representing high-profile domestic and foreign financial institutions in both litigation and regulatory matters.


INTERVIEW:

CGCC:  Talk a little bit about your experiences working in China. How have these experiences affected how you work with Chinese clients and companies in the U.S.?

Mr. Saperstein: As part of my work with Chinese financial institutions, I started traveling to China where I was able to expand my network and experience the culture. My experiences have given me an important understanding into the cultural and legal differences between the two jurisdictions. They have enabled me to be “bilingual” in terms of understanding the legal and cultural issues that Chinese companies face. For example, the concept of U.S.- style discovery is very alien in China. We have the concept of U.S. broad privileges in terms of attorney-client communication, which is also alien in China. So it helps me on both sides. It helps me speak with the clients about how the U.S. is different and helps me explain to U.S. judges, arbitrators, and businesspeople some of the challenges and differences that exist in China.

CGCC: Were there any notable experiences of cultural shock or specific differences that you noticed?

Mr. Saperstein: In many ways, we are all quite similar. Clients want me to take a problem and resolve it and try to make things easier so they can focus on what they do, which is doing business.

However, there are some fundamental differences that one can lose sight of, and it’s important to keep that in mind. For example, if I’m preparing a Chinese witness for a U.S.-style deposition, I start with the fundamentals and explain what the deposition will look like (who sits where, who asks what, etc.). While it may seem a little basic, I think it’s very helpful because the idea of a deposition is so alien in China.

CGCC: With your years of experience working with Chinese companies, do you have any recommendations for them or things to keep in mind when conducting business in the U.S./working with other non-Chinese companies?

Mr. Saperstein: For Chinese companies coming to the U.S., getting good advisors at the outset is helpful. You want an advisor who understands both the U.S. and China and who has integrated services where they can help you in the U.S.

Patience is also something to keep in mind. The U.S. is an incredibly lucrative market. There is a lot of money to be made here. It’s an important market particularly for financial institutions because of U.S. dollar clearing. So, you want a little patience in terms of how you go about tapping that market.

I find sometimes with Chinese clients who are newer to the U.S. market that there is what we call “sticker shock,” that the prices of both advisors and the cost of doing business can be high in the U.S. I think moving into the U.S. market, Chinese companies should be prepared to work with good advisors, be patient and work through the issues, and be prepared for an upfront investment.

CGCC: Sometimes it takes longer than some U.S. companies expect to nail down a Chinese client, as there will be a long negotiation and evaluation before a decision is made. However, it is also common to say that once a Chinese company chooses you, it becomes loyal and stays for a long time. What do you think about this phenomenon and what are your suggestions in terms of mitigating the expectation gap between U.S. and Chinese companies?

Mr. Saperstein: It does take Chinese companies longer than their U.S. counterparts to agree on a course of action or a decision, but once they do, I have found that Chinese companies are prepared to stay the course. Being clear upfront, on both sides, is incredibly important. I think I have seen frustrations come when expectations are not aligned. If you can adjust expectations at the outset, that makes a huge difference. When I’ve previously been approached by Chinese clients, some of them seem almost shy to say they are speaking to other advisors (whether it’s other law firms or investment banks). My view is there is no problem with that. Open and clear communication from the outset is critical.

CGCC: You work with many Chinese clients and assist them in their legal needs. Based on your observations and experiences, what are the most common issues Chinese clients/ companies face in the U.S.?

Mr. Saperstein: It really runs the gamut. I’m a litigator and I do some regulatory work as well. Broadly I think some of the bigger issues that impact Chinese companies are the reach of U.S. courts and U.S. regulators. Whenever I go to China and do a presentation on long-arm jurisdiction, I get a big turnout because I think Chinese companies are fascinated and worried about the length and the breadth of U.S. litigants and the U.S. regulatory authorities.

CGCC: On an unrelated note, we heard that one of your grandfathers was influential in the development and growth of basketball. We definitely have some basketball fans among CGCC member companies. Can you briefly elaborate more on this?

Mr. Saperstein: My grandfather was Abe Saperstein who is famous for having found the Harlem Globetrotters, which eventually led to the integration of African Americans into the NBA. From the 1920s when they were founded to the 1950s, the Globetrotters were one of the best teams in the country.

My grandfather also innovated the three-point rule that you see in the modern game today. It’s fascinating, my grandfather wanted an NBA franchise in California but the NBA had approved various teams to move from their homes to California, i.e., the Minneapolis Lakers (Now the LA Lakers) and the Philadelphia Warriors (Now the Golden State Warriors) moved from their original homes to California. My grandfather was devastated. But rather than complain or sit on the sidelines, he started his own league to compete with the NBA and that was the American Basketball League (ABL). To distinguish the ABL from the NBA, my grandfather came up with the three-point rule to make it a more exciting game for the viewers. The ABA, another league, adopted the rule as well, and later when it merged with the NBA, the rule became an integral part of the game. The modern game, in terms of the integration, and how it is played was directly impacted by my grandfather.

CGCC: How do you think your grandfather’s experiences affected you?

Mr. Saperstein: I think there were a number of things that I learned from my grandfather. The first is commitment. My grandfather, a small Jewish man, traveled with an all-black basketball team through the country during the height of the depression in a time of brutal discrimination and racism.  Even though they faced incredible hardships and didn’t make money for many years, he stuck with it. I also learned many other attributes from him such as persistence and drive, creativity, and patience. I like to think those are the attributes that I show when representing our clients.

CGCC: Many industries have faced challenges throughout the past year due to COVID-19. What challenges did your industry face? What about in your specific line of work?

Mr. Saperstein: On a personal level, we moved fairly seamlessly from in-office to virtual and we were able to continue our legal work without too much effect.

The hardest part was not being able to see and visit with our clients. I have been doing WeChat video and Zooms, but there is something valuable in my opinion to be able to sit across from a client, sit in their office and speak with them about the things they are facing and their challenges.

We also saw a spike in litigation. In terms of transactions, our firm has stayed relatively busy. Our Chinese clients have continued to look at opportunities in the U.S.  I think market-wide, we’ve seen Chinese companies understandably reluctant to come into the U.S., which is unfortunate.  My hope now is that the pandemic is behind us and Chinese companies will be a bit more comfortable coming into the U.S.

CGCC: You recently rejoined Dorsey & Whitney after some time at Jones Day. What are you most excited about and what are you looking forward to during this new chapter at the firm?

Mr. Saperstein: I’m excited to work with my colleagues in Dorsey’s U.S  – China group. We really built a unique operation here. Our U.S.-China group is very well integrated with lawyers across China and the U.S.  We are a close-knit, collaborative, cooperative group of lawyers.

There is this concept that the kids talk about these days, which is a “weaver,” somebody who weaves together the fabric, and that’s incredibly important. I think this concept is even more important now with the pandemic and that we are still in this hybrid environment. I have nothing but tremendous respect for my colleagues at Jones Day. But in terms of what I am looking forward to, it really is the U.S.-China group and working closely again with my friends.

CGCC: You’ve been a member of the CGCC community for many years. What initially attracted you to join CGCC?  

Mr. Saperstein: CGCC is about connecting people. I really view CGCC as a “weaver,” a group that brings people together, fosters relationships within the business community, encourages Chinese and U.S. businesspeople, to meet, cooperate, and talk about ways that they can develop business, and learn from one another. CGCC also provides valuable content. I hold on to the webinar materials and the presentations because I refer to them afterward. CGCC also puts on a great bash, particularly the in-person ones. I love the events, I love the networking and I especially love the Annual Gala.