Market update: legal and compliance jobs, Hong Kong (part 1) - Autumn 2015
As Autumn is well underway, the team at Star Anise provide their thoughts on the legal and compliance market. In this first of two parts, we look at qualified lawyers in law firms (from partners to associates), in-house (from senior counsels to junior level counsels) and to the professional compliance market. Our next part to this market update (to follow) will cover the company secretarial, paralegal, and back-office support roles.
LAW FIRMS – PARTNERS AND OF COUNSELS
Demand for good quality partners with loyal client-following remains high in many of the small to mid-side international law firms. Demand in the larger firms has remained stable (or rather low, but with no extreme movements either way).
High on the list of demands are banking and finance partners (particularly with an asset finance focus, particularly aviation finance, or structured finance), and ‘the usual suspects’ of M&A/Private Equity partners and Capital Markets partners.
The requirement for a substantial book of business from partner candidates is something that remains high on the list of most firms’ shopping list and such candidates must already be a partner at their current firm. But arguably, suitor firms are missing a trick.
All too often, Of Counsels or Consultants who are hungry to be made up to partner are sidelined in their current firm for the predictability of the current partners. Yet, many law firms are not seeing this as an opportunity to entice the younger, more hungry, fitter and equally technically-able lawyers from other top firms with an attractive and alternative career path.
As a result, demand for Of Counsels has been flat over the summer and there are few signs that this will change. Firms are only willing to consider Of Counsels from other law firms if they join them in the same position and can show they have a good client following. On the other hand, Of Counsel candidates are demanding signs of partnership. Neither is willing to exercise more flexibility in their requirements, which leaves some firms and candidates in danger of stagnating.
LAW FIRM – JUNIOR TO MID-LEVEL ASSOCIATES
There remains a strong interest in junior to mid level Corporate Finance associates (1-5 PQE) by many top ranking firms over the past 9 months following some associates going in-house which naturally creates a gap in the market.
Fluency in Mandarin and excellent drafting skills in Chinese are essential for most of these roles as most of the instructions stream from the PRC clients.
We see an increasing need for Banking and Finance associates too, from NQ – 7 PQE, as the upturn in banking activity shows no sign of abating.
The earlier part of the year was rather quiet for Litigation associates but as the year has progressed we have received a growing number of requests from both international and local law firms seeking mid level litigators.
IN-HOUSE - SENIOR LAWYERS
The Hong Kong in-house market continues to demand experienced in-house lawyers with Chinese languages, especially for roles which cover China as part of the APAC remit. For trilingual lawyers with Hong Kong qualification plus sought after skill-sets, the in-house market continues to offer broad opportunities. Apart from languages though, the demand in the market has been for specific technical skills. Some examples can be seen in the following selection of most demanded:
a) PRC Experience
A number of our clients have been hiring candidates who possess strong PRC knowledge plus hands-on PRC exposure. Strategic advisory, operational knowledge as well as general in-house legal support have been sought after.
b) PRC Construction/Property Development/Real Estate
This area has been one of the top areas of demand in the corporates over the past year. However, there is a small candidate pool and clients are looking in Mainland China for such talent.
c) Compliance/Corporate Governance
This skill-set (coupled with legal) is fast growing in demand in the corporates as well as in law firms. Compliance professionals will no doubt have more industry transferability in the future. AML and KYC experience is now no longer confined to the Banks and financial services industries.
Listed companies have increasing regulatory compliance matters to handle and hence are increasingly hiring lawyers to support them on legal, listco regulatory compliance as well as company secretarial matters.
e) Competition Law/Data Privacy/Employment
As there is only a handful of international law firms specialized in competition law matters, there has been an increasing market interest from major corporations including retailers in competition
lawyers given the new competition law regulatory requirements. Corporates are competing (so to speak) with the Competition Commission for the small pool of local talent.
f) Employment law continues to be of interest to corporates and banks.
Employment lawyers with Chinese languages have been able to secure either in-house employment focused roles or employee relation roles (within the Human Resources functions of large banks/organisations).
Mid-level general commercial lawyers with these skill-sets plus Chinese languages remain in demand as teams expand their legal teams due to business expansion.
h) Banks and Financial Institutions
Private banking, wealth management and fund management areas continue to be in growth mode and skill-sets continue to be in demand. Some capital markets/IBD roles have arisen, however, this has been mainly due to attrition.
i) Insurance Companies
Insurers have been ramping up their product availability to customers and we have seen an increasing interest in Insurers in hiring general commercial lawyers for their life insurance or general insurance legal teams and also M&A lawyers to provide business development support to Underwriters on warranties and indemnities insurance. Insurers which have legal teams focusing on Hong Kong legal matters have been competing with Insurers who can offer regional coverage to candidates.
IN-HOUSE – JUNIOR TO MID-LEVEL COUNSELS
The junior to mid-level counsel range (2-5 PQE) remains a very active market, with banks, fund houses, corporations and listed companies all vying for talent.
Candidates with solid funds formation experience are in demand amongst financial institutions, with new headcounts being approved in organisations that typically have a sole senior lawyer and finally ready to expand. Good general commercial lawyers are also sought after, though the need for top-notch Mandarin language skills (in addition to English) remains a barrier for a lot of lawyers.
Compliance has remained a very ‘hot area’ throughout the year, equally in the major corporates/conglomerates and in the banking and equities sector, ranging from junior executives to managerial grade. Within the banking sector, private wealth management and private banking are fast growing areas, and for securities/equities, there has been a generally high demand for good quality, technical compliance experts.
Occasionally we are seeing a demand for very strong all rounders (as opposed to one topic specialists), particularly from smaller financial organizations . Candidates with a broad exposure (expertise in a wide range of financial products, strong knowledge of KYC/AML regulations, and strong knowledge of the SFO and dealing with the SFC) are highly valued.
A common feature of the compliance industry 5-7 years ago was that many financial organisations were hiring compliance staff on a contract basis and interestingly, it still happens today.
What we see are candidates whose CVs look like a “Who’s Who” of excellent brand names in Financial Institutions, but on the face of it, whose experience is very jumpy. This is more as a result of organisations hiring on a contract basis which, regrettably, adversely affects a candidate’s perceived stability through no fault of their own. It can also affect their ability to develop and grow their skill sets as new employers only hire them for a specific role and for a defined period.
Yet more must be done collectively in the financial services sector to transition out of this mindset and hire more compliance staff on permanent contracts, thereby creating a more stable and technically superior work force.