Legal Jobs Market Update Q3 (2016) - Private Practice Lawyers in Hong Kong
In this, the first in a series of 4 articles, we will be reviewing the jobs market for lawyers and paralegals in private practice. In football parlance, it’s been ‘a game of two halves’ for law firms in Hong Kong this year. Whilst corporate dominated the first half of 2016, other practices have fast caught up demand in the second half of the year.
Where not specified, the hiring demand in other practice areas is generally low.
LAW FIRM PARALEGALS
Demand for IPO Paralegals has been consistent throughout this year, and many international law firms are opportunistic for candidates with the relevant skill set and prior IPO experience. For most law firm roles, fluent Mandarin language skills are required, and we are seeing less flexibility from international law firms who would prefer a candidate with the languages and slightly less experience, over someone with more experience but no languages.
There has been ‘a smattering’ of senior Litigation Paralegal roles, but these are usually filled quickly as attractive roles are few and far between.
LAW FIRM PARTNERS
A number of law firms have expressed an interest in opening new service lines, rather than to merely supplement or expand an existing offering. In particular, demand can be seen for arbitration, litigation and construction litigation partners, funds partners, as well as capital markets partners, and PE/M&A partners. With some exceptions, these openings will require a substantial amount of portable revenue.
We are also seeing an increasing demand from some international firms who have set up offices in Hong Kong over the last 10 years needing a senior level ‘general corporate practitioner’ (ie someone who has the skills sets to lead on M&A and IPO transactions, negotiate JVs and shareholders’ agreements, advise clients on general listing rules compliance).
Some of these law firms offer either immediate (salaried) partnership opportunities or a fast track to partnership. Key to this however, is someone who is strong technically, with excellent English and Mandarin skills (written and spoken), who is Hong Kong qualified, and is able to work on anything that’s thrown at them (including small-mid cap IPOs). The size of their operations in Hong Kong typically is such that they need someone who is versatile and adaptable. On the plus side for candidates, it means they can maintain or develop a broader corporate offering.
These are particularly good opportunities for a senior associate or consultant who feel their chances of upward career mobility are severely limited in their current firm, and the prospect of promotion elsewhere will be limited because they don’t have a great deal of portable business. Preference is for those with Big Law experience, willing to join a smaller outfit and be more entrepreneurial in their approach.
LAW FIRM ASSOCIATES
Banking and Finance
Similar to litigation, the second half of 2016 has seen a major spike in demand for high quality general banking and finance lawyers at all levels. Surprisingly, some junior roles have become available which doesn’t require Chinese language skills as the demand is such that Mainland transactions can be picked up by other members of the team, whilst a new recruit can focus on both local and wider regional transactions.
Corporate remains the dominant market amongst a collection of firms of varying sizes and at all levels from 2-3 PQE 4-6 PQE and around the 7-8 PQE levels. Whilst most of the hiring needs remain in capital markets/corporate finance, some of the large firms are interested to see M&A lawyers or those who are capable of both M&A and IPO offerings. The demand for US securities lawyers among some US law firms remains, particularly in the junior to mid levels.
After a flat first half to the year, law firms are experiencing growth in the dispute resolution space, with general commercial litigation, arbitration, white collar crime, and financial services regulatory lawyers experiencing a resurgence in new demand. The biggest demand across the board is around the 3-5 PQE mark.
With compliance and regulatory issues firmly on the agenda for in-house lawyers, as well as major restructurings at banks and other financial institutions, blue chip and mid-cap companies are increasingly wanting to hire employment lawyers of their own, or looking towards the law firms for guidance and advice on how to deal with a plethora of employment law issues.
Moreover, the proliferation of technology (use of social media, different platforms) mean that employers are increasingly entering into unchartered territories in handling employment related matters (breach of data privacy, security). Hong Kong has always been known as a highly transitory city, and organisations (not just law firms) who specialize in immigration and visa issues are reporting a buoyant demand in business.
"In football parlance, it’s been ‘a game of two halves’ for law firms in Hong Kong this year."
These factors are creating more business opportunities for law firms with employment law offerings as well as some spaces to fill as employment lawyers head in-house, and there has been demand for junior to mid level employment lawyers (predominantly contentious employment lawyers).
Whilst employment law remains an ancillary offering to most law firms, junior lawyers and future lawyers would do well to give serious thought to specialising in this area. Conversely, with the attractions of going in-house becoming ever more appealing as some organisations will hire a dedicated in-house employment law specialist, law firms with this capability should look to investing in the next generation of employment lawyers.
Just as compliance, regulatory and white collar crime are booming sectors, we predict long term strong and stable growth in the employment law sector.
Despite there being a slowdown in the funds market overall, some firms would still be interested to invest in good quality funds lawyers, both at the junior and senior end, both in anticipation of an upturn in business and also as an acknowledgement that good quality funds lawyers with Chinese language skills are rare.
The market for shipping lawyers remain super dry (pardon the pun). The shipping industry overall has taken a major hit in the last 2-3 years as demand and prices for oil are driven down and there has been a glut of ships available on the market. That slump is likely to continue for another 2 years at least, and this article gives a good overview of the current status: http://www.hellenicshippingnews.com/why-the-shipping-industry-is-still-in-the-great-recession/.
The shipping industry is cyclical so that the demand for good quality lawyers will be high when the industry as a whole picks up during a global market resurgence. Junior shipping lawyers shouldn’t lose hope, but some diversification in their portfolio would be recommended.
OFFSHORE LAW FIRMS
Corporate lawyers are just as much in demand from offshore law firms as onshore. For onshore law firm lawyers seeking an alternative career track, or the prospects of more stable working hours and greater chances of promotion, they would do well to consider these as a viable career path. Indeed, it’s worth noting that many lawyers at offshore law firms were previously lawyers at Magic Circle and other top tier law firms.
And, there has been a sea change in how offshore law firms are viewed as they have evolved into something more than simply an ancillary service to onshore law firms. See this article from 2014. http://www.legalbusinessonline.com/features/evolution-offshore/66661
In addition to corporate, funds teams are experiencing high levels of growth, and some offshore law firms would look at both common law qualified funds lawyers and corporate M&A lawyers (junior to mid level) looking to switch focus to the funds space.
Generally, common law senior-qualified corporate M&A and capital markets would be of interest to some law firms, where a viable partner track could be made available.
For further information on how we can help you on your candidate search or, for candidates, job hunt, please contact:
For senior lawyers and partners: Chris Tang, Managing Director — email Chris
For law firm lawyers: Michael Kwan, Manager — email Michael
For law firm paralegals: Christy Ho, Consultant — email Christy