China and Hong Kong face opportunities and challenges in the wake of COVID-19

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With the increasing number of confirmed Covid-19 cases globally, the legal industry—along with most other industries—has been holding its breath waiting to see what happens next.

To keep the work going, firms have gotten creative with flexible work arrangement since the Chinese New Year in late January. Most firms in Hong Kong and China have had their lawyers work from home. A few are alternating teams—one team in for one week, the other works from home, and then switch. This working from home arrangement, however, may not work for everyone. Many litigation lawyers have found it easier to go into the office rather than work from home because they need access to the tools available at the firm.

While the Covid-19 developments have created a slowdown in work, a few teams have remained busy throughout the epidemic. An associate from private equity team of a top-tier US firm reported working over 200 hours in the last two weeks of February. Private sponsors are looking to capitalise on cheap deals in the market and keep the activity level high within the space. Despite banks’ reluctancy to lend in a bad market, people looking to do deals still borrow money so alternative lenders and PE sponsors have created business opportunities. IPO deals, which launched earlier in January, remain active and kept some of the IPO teams in motion. One tax partner indicated that this has been one of the busiest times in their careers; wealth management goes up as individuals look to protect their assets in a downturn. Money is moving around different jurisdictions.

While legal matters are ongoing, recruitment is understandably slow. Law firms are cautious about making any major changes until the market stabilises, and travel restrictions around the world are creating challenges for partners’ business development plans. Without a strong flow of pipeline, it makes it difficult for partners to justify the hire.

In the past couple months, a high number of associates have inquired about relocation opportunities in other markets. Lawyers who are interested in a relocation span from junior to senior associates and typically have expressed concerns about the developments in Hong Kong in the last year, including the political upheaval and now Covid-19. These inquiries are mainly coming from lawyers with family and/or educational roots in Hong Kong and China as well as foreign lawyers who have spent time in either China or Hong Kong and are looking to repatriate to AustraliaTokyoLondon and Singapore.

On the other hand, lawyers from other markets are seeing opportunities in Hong Kong resulting from the departures (real and perceived) presently occurring in Hong Kong and China-based law firms. These lawyers are typically from Singapore, Australia, London and the US.

A light at the end of the tunnel may be emerging as firms in Hong Kong started to resume business as usual in the office from the beginning of March and China offices are looking to resume mid-March. And as firms return to a more normal state of operations, hiring will likely pick up.

Partnering with a knowledgeable and trusted legal recruiter who is aware of current and imminent job opportunities, the shifting strategies law firms are employing in these dynamic markets, and the lateral associate and partner moves in the broader APAC market will be critical to maximising overall opportunities during these uncertain times. 

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