Back in the 90s, international business lawyer Randall Lewis ’97 was just another West Coast kid who wanted to break into film. He majored in communications at Cal State - Northridge, hoping to land a job on the business side of the industry. When the offers didn’t come, he speculated that a law degree might be the ticket to better opportunities.
A friend doing his doctorate at Brown University suggested that Lewis come check out Rhode Island – a new law school had recently opened just down the road. Happy for a change of scenery, Lewis enrolled in RWU Law’s second entering class.
Three years later he returned to California, J.D. in hand, passed the bar and jumped back into the job market. There were still no film-related bites, but he got a decent offer from an L.A. law firm. The catch? They needed him to work in their Shanghai, China, office for the first six months. After that, they said, he could “come back to L.A. and choose any practice you want.”
Never much interested in international travel, Lewis reluctantly agreed, counting the days until his return home. At the end of the six-month term, however, his firm said they needed him to stay in Shanghai; there was still no position available in the L.A. office. So Lewis quit. “I had absolutely no interest in International Law,” he says. “As I saw it, being in China was purely an accident.”
Nonetheless, since he was already there, Lewis decided to travel a bit before heading home to the states. “I couldn’t imagine I’d ever get a chance to see China again,” he says.
That’s when another “fortuitous accident” occurred: in an expat watering hole near the border with Nepal, Lewis ran into a fellow American and they got talking. The gentleman turned out to be an executive with a consulting firm that facilitated business ventures between China and international companies. He offered Lewis a job as the firm’s counsel.
For the next six years, Lewis learned the ropes of Chinese business – working with local attorneys and government officials to secure licenses, solve problems and negotiate deals involving everything from Whirlpool appliances to Dutch bicycles to Canadian escalators.
“Basically, I was one of a few idiots who went to China before it emerged as an economic power,” Lewis says. But in 2001, the People’s Republic of China finally joined the World Trade Organization (WTO), and within a few years its economic engines were beginning to roar.
Right Place, Right Time
By 2006, Lewis had gained sufficient experience and professional visibility to merit the attention of Danone, a French food-products multinational (best known in the U.S. as distributors of Dannon yogurt and Evian water). Named associate general counsel at the corporation’s Asia-Pacific headquarters in Shanghai, he was almost immediately drawn into the infamous Danone/Wahaha dispute – a high-profile joint-venture meltdown involving claims that exceeded U.S. $1 billion.
“It wasn’t big news in the U.S., but it was huge in Europe and China,” Lewis says. “For three years I was on the front lines of the largest litigation matter in which Danone had ever been involved.” It played out in courtrooms around the world, eventually drawing the direct involvement of the presidents of France and China and becoming the subject of three books, before finally settling in 2009.
In another “chance” assignment, Lewis found himself in Bangladesh working shoulder-to-shoulder with Muhammad Yunus, founder of Grameen Bank, which had pioneered a widely noted business model of making small loans to the poor. Now Yunus was developing a scheme for “self-sustaining enterprises that tackle social problems” as an alternative to traditional charitable models.
Mainly as an exercise in “corporate social responsibility,” Danone entered into a small joint venture with Grameen, producing yogurt locally and funneling profits back into the business. When legal assistance was required, Lewis was dispatched to Dhaka.
“Nobody else wanted to do it, because there was no money involved,” he says. Lawyers and government officials in Bangladesh were similarly unenthusiastic, and Lewis found it difficult to get anything done – until suddenly a phone call came in from Oslo. Yunnus had just been awarded the 2006 Nobel Prize in Economics.
“Suddenly everyone who’d been putting me off wanted to meet me,” Lewis said. “Again, it was mainly a case of being in the right place at the right time.”
‘Make a Niche for Yourself’
Looking back on his RWU Law years, Lewis sees a right time, right place scenario as well –harking back to the school’s early days, when classes were filled with streetwise, non-traditional law students, intent on making their own breaks.
That can-do spirit still works, he says. “In a market this soft, you really have to look at the practice of law differently. You can’t take the competition head on; it’s too fierce, and pedigree is too important. You have to go where there’s less competition, and make a niche for yourself there. You have to be prepared to seize opportunities when they’re in front of you, and you can’t be afraid to take risks.”
Lewis consolidates his reputation with frequent speaking engagements and publications. In December, he wrote the cover story (“How to Manage a Dispute in China”) for the ACC Docket, the magazine of the Association of Corporate Counsel; several more pieces are in the pipeline, which “will make five separate published legal articles within one calendar year,” he says. “This is very good by anyone’s standards.”
Lewis recently joined ConAgra Foods, based near Chicago, after having spent the winter in Cambridge, Mass., finishing Harvard Business School’s General Management Program (he completed most of the program through distance-learning from Asia). In his precious spare time, he and his wife decamp to their vacation home in the Oregon wilderness – mainly because, he says, “it’s basically the opposite of Asia!”