2020 signs off with a bang and a whimper

If 2020 was dominated by a global pandemic, it will be interesting to see if a particular theme will hold similar sway over 2021. We have observed firms adapting to new working conditions, client interaction, marketing enterprises and observers have traded views on how far these new practices will be adopted permanently. Assuming there is a return to whatever a “normal” situation is, one would expect a surge in business travel and wining and dining – maybe for the novelty as much as anything.

Lateral hiring was an interesting aspect to observe. Once recession hit, all eyes turned to the likely busiest areas of insolvency and restructuring but with the exception of a few noteworthy moves, the sector remained relatively stable. Finance teams able to retool themselves in what seems like the distant past of the financial crisis of 2008 were again nimble enough to adjust, it seems. Other firms displayed bold aggression to strengthen in anticipation of a rebounding economy – Milbank’s  capture of three Magic Circle private equity partners in Hong Kong in late Autumn being the most noteworthy example.

An area certain to take on new levels of importance surely will be cybersecurity and data privacy, currently mostly seen as support functions to larger transactional teams, likely to move more to the centre stage (much as antitrust did in the 80s and 90s) as specific and precise legal advice becomes prevalent in such a fast-moving and constantly-evolving arena – and becomes a cash cow for firms.

International strategy will also come under scrutiny. 2020 saw a raft of firms withdraw from certain Asian countries (while maintaining outposts elsewhere in, what we assume to be, more profitable and strategically aligned jurisdictions. As travel became increasingly untenable, greater flexibility was required (as has been commented on throughout the pandemic) but firms looked to unprofitable offices in Hong Kong (for example), a jurisdiction notable for high real estate costs and high staffing costs, and decided to make radical adjustments. To name a few that come to mind immediately, Orrick and Osborne Clarke shuttered in Hong Kong, BCLP, Stephenson Harwood and Vinson & Elkins closed their Beijing offices, DWF curtailed their short-lived Asia project in Singapore and Mayer Brown will close doors in Bangkok in the new year. It is doubtful that Covid-19 was the direct reason for any of these closures but financial market crashes always prompt a review of strategy to assess where firms will haemorrhage money the most and which will struggle to recover. A lot of soul searching has been done in the past 12 months.

As we say goodbye to a very challenging year, uncertainty still reigns and lockdown restriction measures continue to fluctuate, in Asia and further afield. The availability of the vaccine means there is light at the tunnel so let’s hope this is the final hurdle to be overcome and 2021 brings an altogether sunnier outlook.

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