Executive Talk

Time to spread his wings

Ulf Ohrling has worked as a lawyer for more than 30 years – 15 of them in China – but he decided last year to enjoy the freedom of being a consultant and business advisor for his own firm.

TEXT: Jan Hökerberg
13 MARCH, 2019

One night in the Sinai desert in Egypt in 1979, 22-year old Ulf Ohrling started to think of what path he should choose for his future life. He had been sent there as a warrant officer in the Swedish battalion of the United Nations Emergency Forces, which was tasked with supervising the redeployment of Egyptian and Israeli forces after the October war of 1973.

Should he continue with economics, which he had studied at Linköping University in Sweden before joining the military services, or should he do something different?

“I’d found economics to be a bit boring. So when some of my old friends started talking positively about their law studies at Uppsala University, I became interested. When I returned to Sweden I followed their advice and I felt immediately that this was for me. Law involves components that I’ve always liked, such as reading a lot and solving problems. What’s more – even though I didn’t realise it at the time – it also involves negotiations and interactions with people on many levels. It also has a political element since politicians are lawmakers,” says Ohrling.

“When I arrived in 2004, China was very much the ‘Wild East’,” says Ulf Ohrling.

When Ohrling – who was born in 1957 in the small Swedish historical town of Vadstena on the shores of Lake Vättern – graduated in Uppsala with a Master of Laws in 1984 he found himself standing at another crossroads in life when serving as junior judge at a Stockholm city court.

“I’d watched, and admired, defence lawyers in TV series but, after sitting through a number of real trials, I felt that this wasn’t something for me. Family law and tax law didn’t attract me either. Proceeding with a career as a judge wasn’t too tempting, as much of the work deals with criminal and family law matters. That left becoming a business lawyer,” he says and that is what he did.

Ohrling’s first job was for the Alf Lindahl law firm in Stockholm, which, among other things, had the job of auditing the biotech company Fermenta, which in the mid-1980s had gone from being the darling of the Stockholm stock market to bankruptcy.

“It was a good start to my career as a business lawyer. I spent three months working day and night on this case” he says.

After one year at Lindahl, he received an offer from the Vinge law firm in Gothenburg and began working there in 1987 after having been interviewed by two of Vinge’s resident partners, Björn Aschan, who had two years earlier established a Vinge office in Hong Kong, and Thomas Lagerqvist, who five years later would take over responsibility for the Hong Kong office.

Ohrling spent 17 years at Vinge in Gothenburg, where he also got married and had two children.

In 2004, Vinge needed to strengthen the team at its office in Shanghai, which opened in 1999, and Ohrling was presented with the opportunity to move there with his family to become the head of the office. “I had been to both Hong Kong and Shanghai a couple of times before, but only on short visits so it was very exciting to move there,” he says.

2006

The year when Ulf Ohrling, together with Thomas Lagerqvist, decided to leave Vinge law firm for Mannheimer Swartling.

Meanwhile, however, a major Swedish Vinge competitor, Mannheimer Swartling, had also set its eyes on the China market.

“About half of Vinge’s turnover in Greater China came from clients that Mannheimer Swartling sent to us since they didn’t have a presence in the region,” says Ohrling.

But in 2006, it was announced that Vinge’s most senior lawyers in Greater China, Thomas Lagerqvist and Ulf Ohrling, would both join Mannheimer Swartling, which was acting on a plan to establish itself in Hong Kong and Shanghai.

It created tensions between the two law firms. Says Ohrling: “Personally, it was a rather tough time because I had been with Vinge for almost 20 years and Thomas had been with them for 27 years. But Mannheimer Swartling presented for us a long-term strategy for Greater China and that convinced us to make the move.”

Working as a foreign lawyer in China involves restrictions as to what you can do and what you cannot do. Foreign lawyers are not allowed to engage in local legal business but can act as advisors for clients from their home market. Examples include establishing businesses, managing cross-border mergers and acquisitions, intellectual property issues and providing general advice on the legal and business environment.

“When I arrived in 2004, China was very much ‘Wild East’. Much of the business sector was unregulated and that allowed people to do more or less what they wanted. However, over the years, legislation has improved and is rather similar to that of Sweden today,” says Ohrling.

In 2009, he moved with his family from Shanghai to lead Mannheimer Swartling’s business in Hong Kong, where he was also engaged in the Swedish Chamber of Commerce, where he was elected chairman. He held the position for six years until 2017.

What has surprised me is that there are still so many Chinese entrepreneurs who are utterly corrupt and dishonest.”

Mannheimer Swartling’s rules stipulate that a partner must retire at the age of 60, which Ohrling did, taking on the role of senior advisor in 2018. But he then decided to leave the law firm and work as a consultant for his own firm, Ohrling Advisory Ltd (see separate text).

“It’s exciting to be on your own and it gives me more freedom and flexibility,” he says.

He has also written a book about being a business lawyer which will be published later in 2019.

Ohrling has previously, together with his colleague Thomas Lagerqvist, summarised their insights and experiences of doing business in China in a book called Quotations from a China Practice, first published by Mannheimer Swartling in 2011 and then in a revised edition in 2015.

Lawyers are legally bound by confidentiality, so Ohrling can’t really disclose much from his many years of doing business in China.

“What I can say is that there are both honest and dishonest business people in China. What has surprised me, however, is that there are still so many Chinese entrepreneurs who are utterly corrupt and dishonest. When you do business in China you have to know whom you’re doing business with and whom you employ. Trust is good but control is better,” he says

Ohrling’s best lawyer joke

Jokes about lawyers have been popular for hundreds of years. Here is one of Ulf Ohrling’s favourites:
“A doctor and a lawyer were talking at a dinner party. Their conversation was constantly interrupted by people describing their ailments and asking the doctor for free medical advice. After an hour of this, the exasperated doctor asked the lawyer, ‘What do you do to stop people from asking you for legal advice when you’re out of the office?’ ‘I give it to them,’ replied the lawyer, ‘and then I send them a bill.’ The doctor thought that was a great idea and agreed to give it a try. The next day, still feeling slightly guilty, the doctor prepared the bills. After sending them, he checked his own mailbox and found a bill from the lawyer.”

Facts about Ohrling Advisory

After having worked more than 30 years at leading business law firms – 15 of those years in China – Ulf Ohrling felt it was time for a new career, this time as business advisor with a focus on China.

The scope of his work will include being involved with boards of directors and advisory boards, taking on various roles in projects such as acquisitions, acting as a temporary manager or as a project leader in relation to investments and divestments in China, giving guidance in difficult and sensitive corporate issues and providing second opinions on business structures.

“Confidentiality, independence and integrity are fundamental for me and will continue to guide me in the future,” Ohrling says.