The inaugural Hanoi In-House Congress on 19 November 2019 brought together a number of in-house lawyers, CEOs, compliance professionals, company directors and private practice lawyers for series of discussions on the current state and future projections of the growing Vietnamese market. With various senior lawyers flying up from Ho Chi Minh City to attend there was a balanced appraisal of the market, Hanoi being the administrative capital where government relations, regulatory matters and energy and infrastructure are to the fore while activities in Ho Chi Minh tend more towards corporate and commercial and inbound investment. The markets of Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City remain quite separate entities with very few senior private practice lawyers having a foot in both cities aside from in a management capacity. Panelists from the likes of Citibank, Coca-Cola and Piaggio were able to pass on their observations on their own developing functions and related changing interactions with external counsel and global management outside of the region.
Key points of interest in Hanoi include a push in renewable energy projects, a welcome development considering the city’s air pollution levels, and improved urban municipal transport, including the opening of the first lines of the Hanoi Metro in 2019 with the opening of the second line scheduled for 2023. Although much delayed (initial mooted completion dates were 2010, then 2013), the system is hoped to alleviate the burden on the city’s overloaded road network and the population’s reliance on cheap, pollutant-emitting scooters, by extension making Hanoi a more appealing place to live for an incoming professional.
The Vietnamese legal market also shows signs of progress and growth. Even if there is a perception that international firms are not showing the commitment to growth and recruitment they once did, the emergence of the legal teams within the Big Four accounting teams has seen a spate of hires in both Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh while US firm and Vietnam stalwart Duane Morris made a statement corporate partner hire for their Ho Chi Minh office. The government’s ongoing liberalization of the market and reduction on conditions governing foreign participation has seen a surge in investment, and a widening of the sources of that investment. With firms such as KPMG Legal able to draw on the vast global investor client base of its deal advisory, tax, audit and consulting arms, interest in hiring lawyers with language skills compatible with those overseas investors has grown exponentially. Expect this to be mirrored by the rest of the Big Four.
A survey conducted by the In-House Community showed that 100% of senior in-house respondents expected their team with either grow or remain the same size. Attracting talent does not seem to be an issue, retaining talent was acknowledged to be more of an issue. Key among hiring requirements noted during the day were the ability to deal with governmental regulatory bodies in what is a constantly evolving legal framework. What was remarked on more than once is the ongoing willingness of the regulatory bodies to engage with lawyers on the effectiveness of new regulations and how they might be tweaked and amended. More than in other jurisdictions it seems to be a two-way street and a consultative process on both sides, a situation which has been welcomed as sensible and progressive. What this system requires is a bank of experienced, commercially minded Vietnamese lawyers, invariably with international firm experience. While senior lawyers from overseas are welcomed for their commercial nous and technical aptitude on investment matters, domestic regulatory issues are more the domain of the local experts.
While longstanding local firms such as YKVN, VILAF,. Frasers and Tilleke & Gibbons continue to hold prominent positions in the market alongside the international firms, new entrants have attracted attention. Lexcomm Vietnam LLC was founded in 2016 by groups of lawyers then at Frasers and Bross & Partnes but with international firm backgrounds and is already attracting the attention of the market, with some noting that this could be the future for young, ambitious lawyers at international firms not necessarily committing to on-the-ground expansion in the country. Although how long these firms will be able to resist expansion if the market continues to trend upwards remains to be seen.
Contributing writer: Sam Kenworthy