Hong Kong Legal Jobs Market Update Q3 (2017) - lawyers and corporate governance professionals
Photo credit: Jason Wong
We take a look at the legal jobs market in Hong Kong, and how it has evolved during the course of 2017. Information in this report contains the following:
- Job market trends over the course of 2017, based on internal Star Anise data
- Aggregate of actual personal accounts direct from our consultants
- Analyses specific to the Hong Kong in-house legal jobs and law firm jobs market, as well as company secretary jobs market.
To view the second part of this jobs market update relating to legal support jobs and professional support jobs in Hong Kong, please click here.
1. Private Practice (Lawyers)
a. Partners and Of Counsels
Demand for partners with strong client following and who bill remains buoyant. That it is to say, not just those partners who have built up strong client relationships, but those who contribute a significant chunk of their revenue by recording their fair share of their team’s revenue.
Moreover, with so much business for most firms coming from, or targeting, China, law firms are prioritising Chinese speaking rainmaking and technically able partners.
Practice areas of particular interest in 2017 have included Corporate M&A, Private Equity, international arbitration, construction, institutional funds, regulatory/enforcement and investigations. Of notable absence this year is that of capital markets/ECM, where the demand at mid-senior level associates is far greater.
Firms actively seeking Of counsels/Consultants, on the other hand, have been few and far between. Even then, there is often a requirement from firms want to see such level of lawyers showing their potential as business developers by bringing in sufficient business to cover a certain level of cost.
Overall, the market sentiment from both employers and fee-earning employees in the private practice sector has remained steady, though the industry has certainly felt the effects of global political change and economic uncertainty (Brexit, US Presidential elections, One Belt One Road Initiative, North Korea), as well as further advances of Hong Kong and pan-Asia regulatory developments.
We have seen an ongoing demand for not just Chinese-speaking legal professionals, but specifically those with significant experience working with mainland Chinese clients. This is especially evident in the Corporate practice areas, including M&A, Private Equity and outbound investment work, in particular at the 3 to 6 year level. This, of course, has paved the way for a growing demand for experienced, Chinese speaking regulatory and commercial litigation professionals. Funds lawyers and those with Financial Services/Technology expertise are also in growing demand.
Aside from the strong demand for Corporate and Litigation lawyers, the market has also seen a growing trend of several key law firms establishing dedicated teams to support the ongoing corporate compliance matters for clients, something that many international law firms had historically either absorbed this services as part of their transactional teams or let this steady work flow go to local counterparts. However, this seems to now be recognized in some circles as a consistent work stream and service being offered to a broad range of clients.
The in-house market for senior level recruitment has definitely ramped up in the latter half of 2017. The technical skills most in demand have been quite diverse and include coverage of the following areas:
- M&A and listing compliance
- Banking and finance
- Property development and real estate
- Financial services regulatory
Industry wise, there has been an upsurge in hiring with Chinese Mainland companies/banks and we expect a continued growth trend in these industries for 2018 and onwards. Whilst hiring has been comparatively slower amongst FMCG/retail industry, the local companies have continued to expand their teams.
Further, insurance, hospitality, construction/engineering, Chinese SOEs, and investment firms have been particularly active, with Star Anise closing multiple mandates in each of these sectors in the past year.
With the oversupply of trainee lawyers who have not been retained by their firms or did not get offers for their preferred practice area (in part due to uncertainty created by geopolitical conditions), some have turned their attention on moving in-house much earlier than they would have typically planned to.
Whilst there has been a growth in the flexible/agile roles, we still find that the majority of lawyers prefer to secure permanent positions with more stability.
Corporate Governance / Company Secretaries
It has been a busy year for the company secretarial profession. The major corporate service providers in Hong Kong are all going through changes – ongoing acquisitions/consolidation of service providers, changes in senior management, or regulatory impacts such as the Common Reporting Standard ('CRS') that has come into effect for Hong Kong companies are all having an impact in creating uncertainty and pressure for company secretarial employees. The impact we see is that increasingly, a higher number of younger, less experienced company secretaries are looking to move in-house where they feel the working environment is more stable. As a result, there are a large number of candidates vying for a smaller number of openings – competition is tough!
Another impact of the CRS coming into effect is the increased need for hiring compliance and legal professionals by the corporate service providers in order to help set up/enhance existing compliance and conflict checking systems to ensure the service providers and its clients comply with the new regulations. These compliance professionals typically come from other professional service companies including law firms, accounting firms, and banks, where compliance systems are more mature.
As new regulations come into effect for providers of corporate services, standards for employee performance is also increasing. We have conducted multiple confidential searches in recent months as employers seek to replace employees who are not meeting their requirements (whether it’s in terms of technical skills or attitude). Company secretaries have no time to be complacent in their careers – there is a need to continually work hard and 'up skill' themselves.