International manufacturing contracts lawyers

In Part 1 of this series, we talked about how the product development stage is the highest risk stage for foreign companies manufacturing overseas and yet also the most neglected stage. In Part 2, we talked about how foreign companies often will use NNN agreements in the factory search stage and Manufacturing Agreements (ODM, CM and OEM) for the production stage, but rarely use Product Development Agreements during the product development phase because they often fail to recognize they are in that stage or because they believe their NNN Agreement will protect them. We then explained why this can be a big mistake, the results we often see from this “big mistake” and, most importantly, how to avoid it.

In this Part 3, I am going to make a slight diversion based on an email exchange I have been having with a European company that started with it wanting our international manufacturing lawyers to review an NNN Agreement and a Mold Ownership Agreement it had paid a Chinese law firm to draft. This company was having a “bad feeling” about the documents and wanted our manufacturing lawyers to make sure they “would work for China” before submitting them to its longstanding Chinese manufacturer, with which it had maintained a “superb” relationship for the last seven years. I very quickly looked at the contracts — they were probably passable — but immediately wrote back to the company to ask whether it had a Manufacturing Agreement with this Chinese manufacturer. The response from the Spanish company was essentially, “no, but why.”

The why is that a Manufacturing Agreement is exactly what this company needed and it could have saved time and money and even credibility with its Chinese manufacturer by getting it. I explained that due to the stage it was in with its Chinese manufacturer, it would have been faster, cheaper and way way better for it to have had its Chinese law firm draft a Manufacturing Agreement with its Chinese manufacturer that included a paragraph with NNN provisions and another paragraph simply making clear that the Spanish company owned the listed molds.

That very recently concluded email exchange got me to thinking of how incredibly common it is for companies to come to us after having spent good money for legal things they either did not need at all or barely needed, especially in comparison to what they truly did need. We see this sort of overbuying/overselling all the time. Just last week, I consulted with a company that came to us after having paid for four trademarks in China when due to its situation it clearly only needed one and another company that had paid for a China employment contract even though it had no Chinese entity, which is one of the most dangerous things any foreign company can do. See American Companies in China without a WFOE and the Impact of Donald Trump and US Tariffs and Why Hong Kong is not the Answer.

Pretty much every day, a client or a potential client will come to one of the attorneys at my firm — and this holds true for every area of law in which we practice, not just international law — saying that it wants to retain us for X when the client actually needs Y. Needless to say, our attorney never would say, “sure, I will charge you for Y and do Y” while all the while thinking “this client really needs X.” No. She would say, “wait a second,” what you need here is not Y, but X, and let me explain why this is the case. Unfortunately, Chinese lawyers — certainly NOT ALL Chinese lawyers have been trained differently and I talked about this in an interview I gave back in 2016 (See On Being a China Lawyer and on Doing Business In China: An Interview):

Dan: I’ll backtrack a little and tell you the problems American companies often have with Chinese lawyers.

An American company will hire a Chinese lawyer and tell the Chinese lawyer, “I want to do ‘A,’” and the Chinese lawyer will do “A.”

Three months later the American company will learn that no one’s doing “A” anymore. They’re all doing “B.” So it will go back to the Chinese lawyer and say, “Look, we did ‘A.’ Now everyone’s telling me that wasn’t a good idea.” The Chinese lawyer will then say, “Right, it was not a good idea.”

“Then why did we do ‘A’?”

“Because you told me to do ‘A.’”

It drives American companies nuts. If you had called up an American lawyer, he or she would have said, “Why do you want to do ‘A’? We do ‘B’ 99% of the time. Let’s talk about it.” When somebody tells me they want to do something, I don’t just say, “Yes.” I ask them 10 questions because I want to make sure that’s the right way to go.

The typical dynamic between Chinese companies and Chinese lawyers is, “I’m the boss. You’re my scrivener.”

One time we were brought in to help a Chinese company. Twenty years ago it had formed an American company, and then that American company had formed a Chinese company. It’s called a “roundtripper.” China once gave all sorts of preferences to foreign companies; Chinese nationals would form American companies, then go back to China to get the preferences. Not legal, but it was very common.

This Chinese company had gotten huge. They had a company in the United States that was formed by somebody’s cousin, had never paid taxes, and maybe had aspirations of going public. They needed to clean up their act. It was hugely complicated, and we brought in an international accounting firm to help on the tax side.

My colleague Steve Dickinson is based in China, and one of the lawyers we work with there invites him out to lunch. Steve is thinking, “That’s weird. This lawyer never invites me to lunch.” Steve goes to the lunch and the client is there, and the client has this idea on how to solve the problem in about 1/10 the time and at about 1/100 the cost of what we have said needs to be done.

Steve tells the client (nicely, I presume), “Are you kidding me? You know nothing about U.S. laws, you know nothing about U.S. taxes, you’re not a lawyer or an accountant in China, and you think you’ve just solved the problem? Give me a break.” Why was Steve brought to this lunch? Because the Chinese lawyer knew it was absurd, but he just was not comfortable telling this to his client because that is not his role.

When Chinese companies come over here to the United States, they often want to tell us exactly what to do. Once we took on a case where as soon as we were paid, the Chinese company told us how we were going to handle it. We told them that what they were asking us to do would be the dumbest thing we could possibly do. (I talked with about 10 other lawyers and they were like, “Seriously?”)

“No, we need you to do that,” the Chinese company said.

We responded, “Nope. Here’s your money back.”

As American lawyers, we can’t have that. Our reputations are on the line. We’re not going to do something that makes us look silly and just wastes the client’s time and money. We’ll do things for clients even if we disagree, but not when it’s absurd or unethical.

What does all of the above have to do with saving your shirt when manufacturing overseas? A ton. Because one of the ways you save your shirt is by getting all of the manufacturing contracts and protections you need and no more.

The below is a typical email I send in response to a company that writes saying that they need legal help with their overseas manufacturing and asking how we would propose to provide them with that help.

Working with our international manufacturing lawyers will in the end always depend on what makes sense for your company and your product, but to give you at least some idea of what we do, I can tell you that we usually do some combination of the following for our clients that are looking to have their products manufactured overseas:

NNN/NDA Agreements. We almost always do these in the language of the country of your manufacturer (the official version) and in English (for you) and they typically take us 4-5 business days to complete. You can learn more about our NNN Agreements here. We draft our NNN Agreements to protect confidentiality and to prevent your overseas manufacturer from competing with you or circumventing you. They make sense before you reveal any confidences. If you choose to have us draft an NNN Agreement, we first send you (via DocuSign) a one page Flat Fee Agreement setting out the fee structure. We next send you a questionnaire and when we have your answers to that we draft the NNN in English for your approval. Once you approve of the English language version, one of our lawyers will translate that into the official language and we then send that to you. You then send the full NNN Agreement to your overseas counter-party and if it proposes any changes we will revise it.

Manufacturing Agreements. Once you have chosen your overseas manufacturer, you need a Manufacturing Agreement (a/k/a OEM Agreement or Product Supply Agreement) in the language of the country of your overseas manufacturer (official) and in English (for you). These typically take us 10-14 days to complete. You can find out more about our Manufacturing Agreements here. Our drafting process for these agreements is similar to our drafting process for our NNN Agreements. If you are already certain who you will be using as your overseas manufacturer you can probably skip the NNN Agreement and go straight to the Manufacturing Agreement as our Manufacturing Agreements contain all the substantive provisions of our NNN Agreements.

Trademarks. If you plan to put your company name or your brand name or your product name or your logo on your product or on its packaging, you need to register those as trademarks in the country in which you will be having your product made (there are some exceptions to this which we can discuss when you are clearer on where you will be doing your manufacturing). This is usually true even if you will not be selling your product in the country where your products will be made. Our trademark fees vary by the country. It also generally makes sense for you to have a trademark in those countries in which you have or expect to have substantial sales and we can help you with that also. It also sometimes makes sense to secure patents or trademarks as well.

In addition to the above (each of which depends on your situation and/or your product) and depending on how your production progresses, there may be other agreements necessary. If you want help finding the right factory, we can help with that also, either with our own people (for Vietnam or Thailand) or by referring you to outside sourcing experts.

Our goal is to provide our clients with customized solutions to fit their manufacturing needs. Towards that end, if you have any additional questions, please do not hesitate. In the meantime, if you can tell us more about your product, your situation, and your goals, we can help narrow down your actual needs. At some point I would be happy to get on the phone with you because in 10-15 minutes of my peppering you with questions I am confident I can figure out exactly what you need and if I can’t, I can refer you to one of our more specialized lawyers who can.

Bottom Line: When manufacturing overseas, what makes sense for you is what makes sense for YOU and that is not usually going to be what you read on the internet nor what some other company tells you it did nor what you tell some law firm you need nor what some law firm wants to sell you.

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Photo of Dan Harris Dan Harris

Dan is a founder of Harris Bricken, an international law firm with lawyers in Los Angeles, Portland, San Francisco, Seattle, China and Spain.

He primarily represents companies doing business in emerging market countries, having spent years building and maintaining a global, professional network. 

Dan is a founder of Harris Bricken, an international law firm with lawyers in Los Angeles, Portland, San Francisco, Seattle, China and Spain.

He primarily represents companies doing business in emerging market countries, having spent years building and maintaining a global, professional network.  His work has been as varied as securing the release of two improperly held helicopters in Papua New Guinea, setting up a legal framework to move slag from Canada to Poland’s interior, overseeing hundreds of litigation and arbitration matters in Korea, helping someone avoid terrorism charges in Japan, and seizing fish product in China to collect on a debt.

He was named as one of only three Washington State Amazing Lawyers in International Law, is AV rated by Martindale-Hubbell Law Directory (its highest rating), is rated 10.0 by AVVO.com (also its highest rating), and is a recognized SuperLawyer.

Dan is a frequent writer and public speaker on doing business in Asia and constantly travels between the United States and Asia. He most commonly speaks on China law issues and is the lead writer of the award winning China Law Blog. Forbes Magazine, Fortune Magazine, the Wall Street Journal, Investors Business Daily, Business Week, The National Law Journal, The Washington Post, The ABA Journal, The Economist, Newsweek, NPR, The New York Times and Inside Counsel have all interviewed Dan regarding various aspects of his international law practice.

Dan is licensed in Washington, Illinois, and Alaska.

In tandem with the international law team at his firm, Dan focuses on setting up/registering companies overseas (via WFOEs, Rep Offices or Joint Ventures), drafting international contracts (NDAs, OEM Agreements, licensing, distribution, etc.), protecting IP (trademarks, trade secrets, copyrights and patents), and overseeing M&A transactions.