Covington & Burling attorneys watching Ed Norton and Naomi Watts romance each other in “The Painted Veil” probably thought they were relaxing, not recruiting. But Ellen Eliasoph, who played a production role on last year’s Oscar bait pic, is the latest piece in the firm’s China strategy. On September 5, the newly named Senior Of Counsel brought her bags and 25 years of experience in the Far East to 1201 Pennsylvania. Bisnow got a tub of popcorn and headed out for a meeting.
First step in decorating the office: choosing fabric for office chairs. Ellen hasn’t gotten too settled—she’s already returned to China once since starting at Covington. United’s new non-stop route from Dulles to Beijing makes things a tad more manageable.
Ellen began her career blazing Far Eastern trails for Paul Weiss; she ran its Beijing office in the early 80s and helped open outposts in Shanghai (‘85) and Tokyo (‘87). She later moved in-house at Warner Bros.’ Asia Pacific arm and helped form Warner Bros.’ Chinese film unit (the first for a Hollywood company). Now she’ll be helping Covington clients crack the Chinese market from D.C.
A quarter-century ago, Ellen tells Bisnow, China was “completely closed” and multinational clients like Sheraton Hotels and IBM had to do business against a barely existent legal framework. (China didn’t have a copyright law until 1992.) The economic boom has lent stability, but Covington clients will be counting on Ellen’s insights. One of them: Contracts don’t mean the same thing there. “They’re regarded as a necessary evil,” and finding legal recourse for breach is an uphill task. “You have to rely on choosing a good partner,” she advises investors.
After nabbing Ellen, Covington had to find her the right support. Enter Chun Ye, from Guangdong Province in mainland China and just graduated from the University of Virginia. Ellen told Bisnow that Chun is more than a secretary (“Special Assistant” was the term she coined on the spot) as the pair posed against some not entirely-fitting Japanese art.
Clients may also be calling on Ellen’s negotiating skills. Being a female Westerner doesn’t make that job more difficult, she says, as her Chinese counterparts tend to respect her for mastering the language. Good thing, because business negotiators “don’t leave money on the table.”
Covington set its sights on Ellen after her husband, career diplomat Ira Kasoff, accepted a stateside post as Deputy Assistant Secretary for Asia in the Commerce Department. Covington partner Ruben Kraiem, who had worked with Ellen in their Paul Weiss days, heard about Ellen’s planned move to D.C. through the grapevine (okay, through Deputy U.S. Trade Rep. Tim Stratford), and the phone calls began. After interviews in D.C., Covington showed its commitment to Ellen—and to doing things right in their planned entry into China—when Management Committee member Tim Hester and Committee Chair Stuart Stock made a spring trip to visit Ellen and check conditions on the ground.
Ellen types out Chinese words phonetically and—voila—they pop up as characters on the screen. We believe we caught her drafting an Academy Awards acceptance speech.
Ellen will continue her business role with Warner Bros., so Covington is sharing her time. Still, the move felt like kismet when Ellen learned that the firm represented the Ezra Pound estate. Pound’s translations of Chinese poetry sparked Ellen’s first interest in the country. She began studying the language at 17, and took time away from Yale Law School to join the first group of American students in an exchange program at the University of Beijing.
Of all the places for Ellen to experience culture shock on her return, it happened at a Mazda dealership. Eyeing a convertible Miata, Ellen thought she’d have to come back with her checkbook to buy it—until the salesman suggested she simply put it on her card. “Everything’s on credit here,” marvels Ellen. (Who had to make a return trip for her purchase anyway…she didn’t have a D.C. license yet.)