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The China Effect

Law firms in Asia have been busy making lateral hires this year, logging more than 100 partner appointments in the first half of 2017.

The most active hirer has been Morgan, Lewis & Bockius, which landed 14 partners for its Greater China offices – almost all from Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe in January and February. In July, Withers snapped up Winston & Strawn’s Greater China commercial practice head Mabel Lui plus five more corporate lawyers.

China is the main driver when it comes to recruitment for international firms. Moreover, the competition has been complicated by the growing presence of PRC firms, and 26 of them now have offices in Hong Kong.

Generally, though, firms are now avoiding practice areas where they will have to compete on price and are looking to focus more on niche and less commoditised areas instead. “Where firms are looking strategically to grow is often around areas where there’s less fee pressure,” says Carl Hopkins, Asia managing partner at global legal search firm Major, Lindsey & Africa. “Capital markets, for example, is very price-sensitive and turning a profit is a significant challenge.”

Litigation and regulatory enforcement proceedings such as probes led by the Securities and Futures Commission or tied to the U.S. Foreign Corrupt Practices Act could see more growth, says Hopkins, “perhaps because the potential consequences can be so severe on companies under investigation.”

Firms are also focusing on diversification, adds Hopkins. “If you look back to 2007 or pre-global financial crisis, everyone was doing Hong Kong capital markets work. But that isn’t the case now, and you need to have a balanced office, so you want to make sure that you don’t just have a capital markets team,” he says. “You have litigation because it’s counter cyclical, so that when the capital markets are quiet, litigation might be busy.”

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