This article first appeared on April 10, 2018 in ALB Insights, a weekly, ad-free newsletter that is sent to subscribers.
In our quarterly roundup of partner hires in Asia, John Kang analyses the trends behind the movements in Q1 of 2018, and finds the draw of Magic Circle firms declining.
A total of 42 partners were hired in Asia during the first three months of the year, according to tallies kept by ALB. Mayer Brown JSM was the biggest gainer this quarter, hiring four partners: two from Allen & Overy in Singapore, and one each from Debevoise & Plimpton and White & Case, both in Hong Kong.
HFW also made a splash this quarter, recruiting a partner trio in Singapore from Watson Farley & Williams, Norwegian shipping firm Wikborg Rein, and a former Southeast Asia managing partner of Berwin Leighton Paisner.
With Mayer Brown and Ashurst both poaching from A&O, the Magic Circle firm is tied with Jones Day as the biggest loser this quarter, with both firms losing three. Jones Day’s leavers were all from its Tokyo office, with two going to DLA Piper and one to K&L Gates.
The number of partners hired this quarter dropped from 65 in the same period last year. In Singapore, for example, the number of partners hired dropped from 15 to nine. One reason for the decrease could be that the attraction of the partnership dream is lessening, says Lay Hoon Ng, the Singapore-based head of the legal and compliance practice at recruitment firm Michael Page.
"What used to be the top career aspiration is no longer commonplace,” she explains. “While legal professionals still see the value of working in a law firm, we observe them putting in the hard work and gaining experience in these law firms with the end goal of moving towards an in-house legal counsel position. They recognise that while partners are paid better, in-house positions, with their better working hours, are more attractive.”
“Some lawyers also express concern over the business development aspect required of being a partner,” she adds. “Some have no interest in, or don’t feel that they are very good at it. Potential partners are assessed based on their network and ability to drive business to the firm, and this has led to candidates exploring other options over being a partner.”
Last year’s biggest recruitment trend was of Chinese firms expanding in Hong Kong, and while the trend was expected to continue this year, Chinese firms have been absent from ALB’s tallies this quarter.
That said, Chinese firms are still on the lookout to hire partners, says Ricky Mui, director at recruitment firm Robert Walters in Hong Kong, with the prospect of a fast track to partnership.
“However, moving to a PRC law firm is not for everyone and therefore they still need to build up their reputation and presence in Hong Kong as well as to clarify their long-term strategy and structure in order to attract talent in the market,” he notes.
One new trend this quarter was lawyers leaving Magic Circle firms. In Hong Kong, Ashurst hired a partner each from A&O and Slaughter and May, and Kirkland & Ellis recruited from Clifford Chance, while none of the Magic Circle hired in the city this quarter.
Lawyers may want to be a partner at other international firms instead of at a Magic Circle firm because it’s less bureaucratic and they can have more say in the partnership structure, says Mui. Some are also looking for firms with a stronger connection with China, such as Ashurst, which recently became the fourth firm to launch a joint operation in the Shanghai Free Trade Zone.
No Magic Circle firm hired in Singapore either, while A&O and Clifford Chance lost lawyers to Mayer Brown and King & Spalding, respectively. “Magic Circle firms traditionally have a lot of prestige, however, that has dwindled down somewhat over the years,” says Michael Page’s Ng.
One of the reasons is the entrance of competing law firms who have been able to put forward their unique selling points to candidates. “When considering a mid-sized firm, candidates see a greater opportunity to shine and willingness to accept change in the culture,” she says. “In recent years, these two factors have become more important than the brand name of a law firm.”
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