Despite footage of ongoing civil unrest in Hong Kong dominating news coverage and the economy plunging into recession at the end of Q3, the legal market remained remarkably steady, although the China-USA trade war continues to foment uncertainty and caution and with no resolution in sight to the protest movement the outlook for 2020 would appear to most outsiders to be bleak. However the openings of Cooley and Steptoe & Johnson with hires from Skadden and Clifford Chance, respectively, showed that the SAR remains a key outpost in principle for firms with a global outlook while internal moves in the market reflected a willingness to invest in growth, typifying the resilience that has long been a byword for the market. The Big Four accounting firms also continued to make aggressive moves to threaten the established order. Perhaps the most notable departures were at Davis Polk which said goodbye to Bonnie Chan and Paul Chow, headline-making hires a decade ago as part of the firm’s push into the local Hong Kong market. Chan returns to the Hong Kong Exchanges and Clearing as head of listings while ex-Linklaters partner Chow took the role of Group General Counsel at Cathay Pacific. Another veteran of the market Jeanette Chan left her role as managing partner of Paul Weiss’s China practice to become General Counsel and Chief Compliance Officer at Tencent-backed fintech “unicorn” Airwallex after over three decades, off and on, with the New York firm.
PRC firms continued to make notable raids on international firms’ partner ranks in both Hong Kong and China, perhaps with an eye on the Greater Bay Area Initiaive which is presumably designed to integrate Hong Kong further into Greater China as well as generate extensive projects in infrastructure and technology. Alibaba’s colossal Hong Kong listing grabbed the headlines and continuing enthusiasm for hiring in equity capital markets remains a theme for Chinese firms confident of an ongoing steady flow of HK listings instructions from the mainland. International firms continued to grapple with the intriguing possibilities presented by the Shanghai Free Trade Zone.
After a spate of new mergers between international and local firms in Singapore in recent years, following the Ministry of Law’s ongoing gradual loosening of foreign law firm restrictions, 2019 saw less seismic activity. Morgan Lewis Stamford, Eversheds Harry Elias, K&L Gates Straits, and Withers KhattarWong remain the standard bearers for this facet of the market but it will be interesting to see how many more firms on both sides will commit to full mergers and which will prefer to maintain the flexibility of a Formal Law Alliance. The international arbitration scene in the City State remains a focal point of the market while increasing investment activity in traditional target market Vietnam was a boon to energy and infrastructure practices there. Where the government will hope to see progress is in legal technology, having launched a slew of initiatives through academic and legislative bodies, with the 2017 launch of the Singapore Academy of Law’s Legal Technology Vision roadmap followed by the Future Law Innovation Programme in 2018. This forward-thinking commitment to innovation is what is hoped to establish Singapore as a jurisdiction on the cutting edge of legal practice developments which hopefully will begin to bear tangible results in 2020.
Key Contributor: Sam Kenworthy