Jonathan Neff credits his interest in international business to a trip he took around the globe in 1979, which stimulated his lifelong interest in other cultures. In 1990, he put that globe trekking experience into professional practice when he co-founded the International Law Section of the Oklahoma Bar Association. Since then, he’s worked with clients doing business in many countries throughout the world.
As he closes in on his third decade of practicing law, Neff is a well-established counselor for domestic and foreign firms involved in international trade and global business. He recently spoke about his work, the challenges his clients face, and the opportunities that international business present for investment in Oklahoma.
Can you explain how an Oklahoma lawyer becomes an expert on international trade and global commerce?
“I’ve practiced business law in Tulsa since 1985. I’ve always been interested in international business law and obtained a master of laws degree in global business law. In 1990, I co-founded the International Law Section of the Oklahoma Bar Association. Since then, my firm has represented many companies involved in international trade and global business—both U.S. companies doing business abroad and foreign companies doing business here, handling transactions in more than thirty countries.
Recently, we’ve handled several cross-border corporate acquisitions, including representing buyers and sellers of foreign companies and setting up companies abroad. Last year we represented a U.S. company acquiring a Colombian company, set up a Hong Kong subsidiary for a U.S. company, and represented buyers in corporate acquisitions in Canada. Also, we frequently draft and negotiate international agency and distribution agreements and employment contracts.
The more business globalizes, the more need there is for lawyers who understand international business law. Most U.S. lawyers understand the legal concepts in contracts, but it helps to have experience dealing with foreign legal systems and cultures which can be as different as the languages they speak. It’s also helpful to have extensive contacts in law firms abroad who are a great resource when accessing foreign legal systems.”
What are some of the challenges that international clients have had in establishing a working relationship in Oklahoma? Or perhaps what obstacles have they faced in trying to establish businesses or relationships with Okla.-based firms?
“An individual from a foreign culture may speak English, but nuances of meaning may not be the same, giving rise to misunderstandings. Unless that person has spent a good deal of time in the U.S. and understands our business culture, fundamental assumptions may be different. Neither party should assume that they understand the intent of the other party until ideas are thoroughly discussed.
It’s important to get to know the other party on a personal level and spend time together before undertaking a business venture together. Each party should fully understand the goals and expectations of the other party.
And, of course, they should have a well-drafted, unambiguous and comprehensive written agreement. Being successful in international business is difficult enough without misunderstandings between the parties.”
What are the ways you feel the investment environment in Oklahoma could be improved for the international businesses?
“The Oklahoma Governor’s International Team cooperates with the Oklahoma and U.S. Departments of Commerce and other state offices to serve as a crossroads of information for international business activities in Oklahoma. These organizations do a great job of providing educational programs and promoting international investment in our state, but there is still room for improvement in communications relating to global business activities in Oklahoma.
Oklahoma companies have a long history of doing business internationally and are far more involved in international business than many Oklahomans know. For example, few people know that a handful of companies in Tulsa provide the majority of all heat exchangers used in refineries throughout the world. To raise awareness of the importance of international business to our state economy, we need to tell our state representatives that international business is important to Oklahoma. State government should continue to support global trade and international outreach efforts to promote Oklahoma as an excellent place for foreign companies to do business.”
How do you believe improved international trade relations with companies in Oklahoma can benefit both the state and international firms?
“Oklahoma has many advantages for foreign businesses seeking to locate in this country, including a central location, a low cost of living, an educated workforce, and a business culture that is both sophisticated and ethical. Foreign companies often chose to establish operations in a major gateway city like Houston or Chicago, but they would do well to consider the advantages of setting up shop in Oklahoma.
On the other hand, international business and trade offer many advantages to Oklahoma businesses, the most obvious being much larger international markets hungry for the quality of U.S. goods and the U.S. business ethic. It’s interesting to note that many foreign businesses readily accept U.S. courts or U.S. arbitration as the forum for dispute resolution, since they anticipate fair treatment in our justice system. With proper counsel and guidance, there are enormous opportunities for U.S. businesses, particularly equipment manufacturers, to expand through international trade. Growth of international trade can only lead to growth of investment in Oklahoma.”
Are there any success stories you can describe regarding a client you represented in terms of them seeking and investing in Oklahoma?
“It may be more helpful to describe a trend. Thirty years ago in Oklahoma, international trade and global business expansion were seen as the exclusive province for major national and international corporations, well beyond the reach of many smaller businesses.
Over the years, however, with the growth of the internet and global communications, smaller businesses have come to realize that they too can do business on a global scale. In the past decade, more of my clients are small to mid-sized companies accessing global markets and developing sophisticated global business organizations by engaging agents and distributors, opening branch offices, or forming subsidiaries abroad. With ongoing harmonization of trade regulations, in time international markets are becoming accessible to even the smallest businesses.”
If you would like to learn more about doing business or investment in Oklahoma, please visit the Oklahoma Governor’s International Team at www.OKGIT.com. The Governor’s International Team (GIT) is a group of citizens representing private industry, government, education and non-profits from across the state of Oklahoma who are dedicated to help shape a stronger Oklahoma in the global economy.
For more information about Jon Neff’s services, please visit www.jnefflaw.com or call (1) 918-599-8600.