Welcome to the new year; same as the old year?
The news in 2021 was dominated by something that was emerging as a mere curiosity this time two years ago. Those who had lived through the original SARS outbreak were confident (or at least hopeful) that the then-named Coronavirus would be eradicated in the warmer summer months and any inconveniences and concerns would be sharp but short-lived. Two years on the world braces itself for a new and highly transmissible variant, and the variable responses of different governments in curtailing the spread. The universal mood among individuals remains one of weariness, disenchantment, frustration (at those in power and each other), annoyance and despair. That confidence now looks hopelessly naive.
That said, the Asian legal markets maintained an air of stoicism and firms refused to stand still, whether continuing to drive forward, shifting their territorial focus or, in some cases, withdrawing from the region altogether – Baker Botts following fellow Texas oil and gas giants Vinson & Elkins and Locke Lord in shuttering physical operations and establishing something of a trend in that sector. Elsewhere there were closures in Thailand (Mayer Brown) and openings in Vietnam (Dentons) as international firms reconfigured their South East Asia strategy while Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe and McDermott, Will & Emery shifted their focuses from China and Hong Kong to Singapore. While none of these shifts in strategy are directly attributable to the virus situation, with severe travel restrictions and political upheaval continuing ad infinitum in Hong Kong, Singapore is seizing the opportunity to present itself as an alternative, attractive, prosperous regional hub.
As we look forward to 2022 and beyond, the picture is murky; not necessarily gloomy, just unclear. As the world welcomed 2021 there was an air of optimism thanks to the impending availability of vaccines. A year on that optimism has been deflated somewhat by the continued spread of new variants, exacerbated by a scientific skepticism leading to a lower-than-expected uptake of the vaccine. Firms have by and large successfully pivoted and retooled to minimise disruption to their operations, and are therefore more capable of absorbing any further bumps and shocks along the road to normality. How much of that road remains, and what the world will look like by the time we reach the end, is anyone’s guess.