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U.S.-headquartered Seyfarth Shaw opened its Hong Kong office earlier this year and has been growing it ever since, hiring Julia Gorham, the former Asia employment head of DLA Piper, and Raymond Wong, a King & Wood Mallesons corporate partner. John Kang talks to Gorham and Darren Gardner, the firm’s head of international practice, who talk about how Seyfarth plans to compete for employment law work in the city.
Why open an office in Hong Kong, and why now?
Gardner: A Hong Kong office has always been part of our plan. We have a very large pan-Asia practice and we’ve done a lot of work throughout the region for a long time. This decision builds on the successful establishment of Seyfarth in Shanghai and Australia – offices that have been servicing clients for over four years.
In terms of timing, it’s really about the people. All of our international offices were opened around the key folks who are all leaders in their practice areas. With employment specialist Julia Gorham and corporate specialist Raymond Wong joining us, it was an opportune time for us to do it.
What kind of employment legal advice and services do Seyfarth’s global clients need in Asia?
Gardner: We do a lot of regional work that historically has gone through Hong Kong with a Hong Kong component that’s either part of a broader global project or part of an Asian regional project.
The projects fall into several different categories: strategic projects, where clients are either wanting to make or save money in some way that impacts their workforce. Transactional projects are the typical M&A joint ventures and outsourcings where there is a workforce integration or other material employment component or impact. There’s also compliance work, which is something that we’re seeing a significant uptick in. We act for a number of very large publicly listed U.S. companies, and compliance is a big focus for them.
From a Hong Kong perspective, the city has always been a critical jurisdiction in Asia Pacific. It’s a place where there’s some certainty in the laws, and that certainty in the way that the law is administered gives clients a lot of confidence. Being able to directly assist them here on the ground with a leading practice in the market is particularly important to us.
How does Seyfarth plan to compete with established firms in Hong Kong and Asia?
Gorham: I think there are still very few of us in the market here who are long-term specialists in what we do. There are a lot of people who turn their hand to aspects of the field – such as generalist corporate lawyers or litigators who do some employment work, for example – and that’s historically been the case across Asia, as not all firms can invest in specialist disciplines.
What we are doing is we are shifting the focus of the type of firm that they are working with because Seyfarth itself is a specialist international employment law firm – that’s its genesis – which is something the other firms don’t have. For the other big international firms that do employment law, their biggest teams are usually their corporate transactional teams, not their employment law group. At Seyfarth, international employment will be my top priority.
This specialisation, when combined with Ray’s corporate expertise, will position Seyfarth to compete with established firms in Hong Kong, and Asia.
What’s the talent pool of employment lawyers like in Hong Kong?
Gorham: For specialist employment lawyers, it’s not huge. A lot of the CVs I get across my desk are generalist lawyers who have now decided they want to specialise, and that’s because of the way young people are trained as lawyers in this region. There is still a view that it’s better to qualify in the bigger corporate practices – M&A, IPO, banking – and then worry about specialising later. In comparison, we were trained was to specialise from the beginning.
These attitudes are changing now with more and more people looking to specialise in areas like employment, fintech, and IP, for example. I also think that in our area, people are starting to realise that the skillset employment law gives you then opens doors to a wide range of future career possibilities outside of private practice, such as in-house legal, human resources, employee relations, consulting, compliance etc.
Julia, after almost a decade at Allen & Overy, then in-house at JP Morgan and most recently DLA Piper, what excited you the most about helping establish Seyfarth’s Hong Kong office?
Gorham: This opportunity allows me to combine my prior in-house experience with a private practice law firm. Even though I’m back in private practice, I still operate very much like an in-house lawyer, and to be able to pick up the phone and shoot the breeze with my clients about practical things, and not just about the pure letter-of-the-law questions – that’s how I like to operate.
And that’s what I want to do – to be more well-rounded and more valuable to a client, rather than just a pure lawyer who has to get X number of hours through their books on a daily basis.
Sometimes at big firms, you can have pockets of great people and pockets where the quality is not so good. That is not how we operate at Seyfarth. We’re in a position where the team has been lucky enough to choose the best of the bunch, and really just going somewhere where employment law is their passion.
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