Lawyers' future writ large
Hong Kong law firms are experiencing mounting workloads, creating a renewed demand for talent, writes Jessica Caplan
JUST A FEW years ago, law firms worldwide faced the unpleasant task of downsizing their workforces. John Budge, head of the litigation and dispute resolution group at the Hong Kong law firm Wilkinson & Grist, still recalls those dark days, but he agrees that there is cause for renewed optimism as demand for legal services soars with the strong upward trend in the economy.
'Post-Sars, there has been a great increase in the number of large [initial public offerings], and general commercial activity is also greatly improved,' he said. 'It is not an absolute explosion, but we will be seeing a general increase in numbers. People can say they are cautiously optimistic.'
Eddie Lee Kwan-hung, a partner at local firm Woo Kwan Lee & Lo, said: 'I am quite positive. The stock market has been pretty bullish in the past six to 12 months. Corporate finance transactions bring huge demands for commercial and corporate finance lawyers.'
In addition to listings and securities-related work, lawyers cite tax, intellectual property, litigation, conveyancing and regulatory work as areas of recent growth.
China-related deals are also forming a much larger proportion of the work being undertaken, Mr Budge noted.
Some Hong Kong firms are clearly reaping the benefits of the recent opening of the mainland market through the Closer Economic Partnership Arrangement (Cepa).
This has removed the residency requirements for Hong Kong lawyers working with representative offices in Shenzhen and Guangzhou and allowed Hong Kong and mainland firms to team up and form contract-based associations.
As a result, it has been possible for smaller or medium-sized local firms to gain a foothold in China's vast market for legal services.
Mr Lee, whose firm is currently one of three to have formed an association with a mainland firm, acts as chief representative of Woo Kwan Lee & Lo's Beijing office. He said the new rules had increased the flexibility of his practice, allowing him to travel more freely between Hong Kong and China and to pursue more work opportunities in both places.
Cepa was also helping lawyers practising in the two jurisdictions to learn more about one another, said David Fleming, managing partner of Baker & McKenzie. '[Cepa] makes it possible to align, providing good exposure for mainland firms on how those in Hong Kong are run and vice versa. Firms can gain special experience and insight on the way the profession works, so it is a great opportunity.'
For large, international firms that may already have a mainland presence, Cepa is creating an increased need for advice for clients about navigating the agreement, Mr Fleming added.
Given the steady flow of work and employment opportunities, law firms are experiencing fierce competition for talent.
'There is a higher turnover of staff now compared with the past few years,' said David Ellis, a partner and director of operations at Johnson Stokes & Master.
What is expected of candidates is also evolving. Besides the usual prerequisites - a solid academic background and strong language, communication, analytical and problem-solving skills - many law firms are looking for candidates who are bilingual and 'tri-literate' and have mainland-related experience.
'The challenge for Hong Kong graduates may be that we need people with a mainland academic background,' Mr Ellis said, adding that recruits with mainland experience were still hard to come by.
Mr Fleming noted, though, that a number of lawyers who had studied in the mainland and then gained experience working overseas were now returning to work in Hong Kong and China.
312 positions advertised in first quarter of 2004
275 positions advertised in second quarter of 2004
288 positions advertised in third quarter of 2004
254 positions advertised in fourth quarter of 2004
Conveyancing the legal process involved in buying and selling property
Corporate finance multiple currency and credit operations involved in trade and industry
Intellectual property law law protecting intangible property, including copyrights, trademarks and patents
Liability any legal responsibility, duty or obligation
Litigation the process of carrying out a lawsuit
M&A mergers and acquisitions, corporate restructuring resulting from combining two or more entities, or one entity acquiring control of another
IPO initial public offering, the first sale of stock by a company to the public
Securities generic term for shares of stock, bonds and debentures issued by corporations and governments
SFC Securities and Futures Commission, the independent statutory regulator of the securities and futures markets in Hong Kong
Registered foreign lawyer