Over the past few months, we have seen daily news updates on how businesses are taking different strategies to survive the pandemic. From delayed bonus payments and pay cuts to headcount freezes, firms are attempting to minimise their financial burdens whilst maintaining business continuity. Although these measures are pre-emptive attempts to save jobs on a broader scale and in the long run, the news impact can leave one sceptical about the future of the legal industry.
However, with the downward trend in new virus infections across Hong Kong and China, we are starting to see a light at the end of the tunnel and incremental signs of ‘normalcy’ creeping back. For example:
Whilst we have seen an increase in recruitment activity, certain practices are more active than others. The disputes space, for one, is experiencing heightened demand for talent. The busiest areas include construction disputes, FCPA, restructuring and insolvency, and distressed debt finance. Although headcount freezes continue at many firms, hiring within the disputes space has been prioritised, driven by the increased business opportunities for the firms.
On the other hand, traditional transactional practices remain quiet. Due to the previous high activity in the market, these teams are well staffed, and their focus remains on optimising utilisation rates with existing staff rather than recruiting for more. This is in contrast to litigation teams which tend to run on a lean structure, and where we believe hiring will become critical as business needs increase.
Those firms that are recruiting are primarily recruiting for mid-level to senior-level lawyers with at least three years PQE. Moreover, given ongoing travel restrictions and civil servants only recently returning to work from their offices with a backlog of work, visa application processes are taking significantly longer, which has led many firms to only consider candidates from the local market versus non-residents.
A New Cycle
Having followed the guidance of the Hong Kong government, many law firms have retained their home office policies for their lawyers whilst others are splitting teams between the office/home as had been the practice during the height of the crisis. With these types of flexible working arrangements in place, I believe we have entered a new cycle of sorts for law firms.
Historically a traditional industry, the law—among many others—has had to quickly and securely adapt to the new working norm. Alternative working models, newly adopted legal and communications technologies, going paperless, and the increased utilisation of social media will continue to shape the legal industry moving forward. Transparency in communication has been crucial during this pandemic.We have seen various examples of how law firms have responded and communicated their responses to the crisis to their employees and the general market, and it is notable how quickly news of a failure of transparency made it into the legal press and into the collective memory of the lawyers within the local market.
As we look ahead, as uncertain as it may be, the past has shown us that we will recover from this tough time. Once we break through this, it will be a new cycle for us to work towards a new high.