At the end of 2021 Baker Botts announced it was closing its Hong Kong office, just over a year after shuttering its Beijing premises, bringing to an end a 16-year physical presence in Greater China, and Asia as a whole. Not only was this the latest in a number of law firm withdrawals from the region, it was also part of a trend of energy-focused firms seemingly giving up on Asia (Locke Lord and Vinson & Elkins made their own exits belatedly official in late 2020). As with the other two firms, Baker Botts had allowed headcount to dwindle, in their case until only one partner was resident in Hong Kong, so the announcement arguably came as neither a shock nor a surprise. What came as both, however, was the recent announcement that the firm had reopened in Asia with a three-partner team hire from Ashurst in Singapore. Asia was not permanently off the agenda, it is now clear.
The team comprises of Ashurst’s then-global co-head of international projects Richard Guit, energy resources and infrastructure partner Michael Harrison and energy projects partner Daniel Reinbott. At the time of the firm’s Hong Kong closure, they issued a statement leaving to door open to alternative Asia openings, but then which exiting firm doesn’t? The timing suggests that Singapore was already in the firm’s thinking even at that time.
Another notable aspect of this move is the pivot from China/Hong Kong to Singapore, a process also followed by McDermott, Will & Emery and Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe in recent years. UK firm Addleshaw Goddard also ceased operations in Hong Kong in 2022 but maintains its Singapore presence.
Much has been made of Hong Kong’s internal difficulties in recent years, and the strain that travel restrictions and social distancing requirements have put an increasingly frustrated population under. Finally the Hong Kong government has lifted inbound quarantine restrictions which had severely compromised the SAR’s status as an international business hub, and the phrases “opening up” and “bouncing back” have been bandied about with much optimism. But in the meantime, it seems Singapore has stolen a march on Hong Kong as a venue for international firms making entrepreneurial moves in APAC.