Kirkland & Ellis’ hire of Paul Hastings’ Paul Guan is not necessarily a surprise in the context of the Chicago giant’s enduring interest in swelling its private equity ranks, but a foray into real estate remains a rare occurrence in the Asian legal markets. Whereas the nuts-and-bolts conveyancing remains very much the preserve of local firms with lower overheads in the larger international markets, indeed protected in Singapore’s divided legal system, high-level investment in one of the more stable global asset classes remains out of the cross-hairs of the international players.
Back in the early 2000s, Eastern Europe was opening up as a greenfield region for ambitious investors and chief among that wave of investment was real estate. Major UK players expanded in the region, led by their clients, and aggressively marketed their capabilities. For a few years the billing engines of the ‘Magic Circle’ and the chasing pack were not the traditional pillars of M&A, PE, antitrust or dispute resolution but real estate. The four-day international property exhibition MIPIM, held annually in the somewhat faded glamour of Cannes in the south of France, officially attracted nearly 27,000 delegates from legal, investment, development, banking and government, while unofficial figures estimated attendee numbers at north of 50,000. Firms wouldn’t blink at hiring luxurious yachts upon where champagne would flow near-constantly as the most ambitious movers and shakers were pursued. Investment in real estate practices remains core to any successful multi-disciplinary firm in the West.
In Asia, however, enthusiasm remains muted. While firms that are real estate powerhouses in Europe are active to a degree in investments here, the activity largely piggybacks off M&A or PE deals, or under the umbrella of “leisure and hospitality”, and partners aren’t specialized in the real estate field. Notable recent movers include Wayne Ma who joined BCLP from DLA Piper at the turn of the year, both firms being diners at the real estate top table in Europe. Stephenson Harwood hired Janice Garton, again from DLA Piper, making clear their own intentions to maintain a presence following several departures from their partnership ranks. But other sector-specific high-profile moves were scarce.
Indeed MIPIM has an Asia-focused offshoot which has never attained the status or attendance figures of the European flagship, perhaps reflecting generally more muted enthusiasm levels in the industry. The 80s and 90s were the boom times for construction boutiques in Hong Kong and Singapore as development and infrastructure projects surged. Perhaps the oft-anticipated investment wave in Asian emerging markets will see a similar rise in real estate interest.