NASA photo.

With all the America-First hype swirling about the country, it’s never been more important to remind lawyers that things simply don’t work over there the same way they work here.  Global commerce isn’t going away, folks.  Tariffs notwithstanding, we still need goods from abroad to carry on our daily lives, so it’s still critical to understand the ways in which foreign systems operate.  We still have to sell our stuff abroad, or our economy will collapse in short order.  We still have to get all the K-Pop we can absorb.

Okay, that’s perhaps a bit much.  But still… we can’t just withdraw from the world.  And that means we have to recognize that other countries operate differently.

Last week, I got an email from a grumpy lawyer asking me if I had a guy in China* who could serve papers on a defendant.  When I told him that it doesn’t work that way over there, he insisted that all I had to do was hire a process server to deliver documents to his defendant.  He just wanted to know if I had a guy.

Again, it doesn’t work that way over there, I said.  You have to involve China’s courts in order to properly serve.   That requires a Hague Service Convention request.

His response: well, the case is in Illinois** so Illinois rules dictate how it’s done.

My counter-response, paraphrased:  c’mon, dude, that doesn’t even apply if you’re serving in Florida.

He proceeded to tell me that he disagreed with my conclusions– after I cited no less an authority than Sandra Day O’Connor– and that I didn’t know what I was talking about.

A Rolodex ™. What we used before phones all came with a “Contacts List”.
ArnoldReinhold via Wikimedia Commons.

Which begs the question… if you know so much, why are you contacting me for help?  Because you just want to use my huge Rolodex? 

Essentially, yes, it seems.  We parted ways– no striving mightily, no eating or drinking as friends.  Sometimes it’s better to simply let a prospective client walk away, no matter how valuable their fees might be.

But lest I let my schadenfreude get the best of me, the only way this thing is going to boomerang on him is if the defendant’s lawyer knows better, but such unfamiliarity is widespread– on both sides of the “v” in a case header.  Frankly, the Chinese defendant likely won’t even appear, so the grumpy lawyer will get a default judgment that can’t be enforced… but that’s another post entirely.  In short, his client will pay out a bunch of fees for naught, and that bothers me, because we lawyers are supposed to know better.

Since the start of our trade war with the Chinese, my friend Dan Harris has recognized that attention is shifting away from China to other developing economies.  That’s great for his firm, which doesn’t focus exclusively on China, but perhaps not so much for the ever-spectacular China Law Blog.  Discussing his clients’ moves to Vietnam, Turkey, Indonesia, etc., he reiterated his mantra last week that doing business abroad–anywhere abroad— requires us to jettison our assumptions.

Things will be different. Very different. Things you take for granted in your home country might not exist in the emerging market country. Things you take for granted in your home country might be the exact opposite in the emerging market country. Things you think will be totally different in the emerging market country may be exactly the same. Things you thought you knew about emerging market countries based on what you know from another emerging market country may be completely different in a neighboring country, or even in another region within the same country.

Heck, that even holds true right here at home.  Things work differently in Florida than they do in Illinois.  Things work differently in Missouri than they do in Kansas.  Trust me– I live two miles from State Line Road.  Those Jayhawkers are a tad bit off-bubble.

But it’s always tough to convince American lawyers that judicial systems– and the rules that come with them– are different in other countries.  As much as it might rankle our sense of superiority victory & pride from having defeated the Nazis in 1945… it ain’t all about us, folks.  The rest of the world marches to the beat of a different drummer, and it ain’t necessarily Buddy Rich.

When an Illinois litigator needs to serve a defendant in China, he absolutely MUST adhere to Chinese law.  Rankle or no rankle.  To do otherwise violates our own law.

Justice O’Connor said so.


* Not actually China.  Names have been changed to protect the innocent obstinate.  If it were actually China, I would have also told him that the guy who tries to serve papers personally in China had better be a court official– or he’s going to jail for a very long time.

** Not actually Illinois.  Ibid.