Business Is Booming in Hong Kong and China and What It Means for U.S. Associate Lateral Hiring There

Since late last year, things have been booming in Hong Kong / China in cap markets, especially Hong Kong IPOs. M&A deal flow has recently been getting a bit stronger as well. Although one can’t predict such things with any certainty, all signs are pointing to a banner entire 2014 for the top end US corporate and cap markets practices in Hong Kong / China. This is not really new news, as its been the feeling most in the market have had for a few months now and things continue to look good.

The head of our Asia practice, Evan Jowers, has been in Hong Kong for about 10 days a month (with trips every other month to both Shanghai and Bejing) for the past 7 months, and spending most of his time there meeting with senior US hiring partners at just about all the major US and UK firms there, as well as prospective candidates at all associate levels and partner levels, and when in the US, Evan works Asia hours and is regularly on the phone with such persons, as our the other members of our Asia team. Our Yuliya Vinokurova is in Hong Kong every other month and Robert is there about 5 times a year as well. While we have a solid Asia team of recruiters, Evan Jowers will spend at least some time with all of our candidates for Asia position. We have had long standing relationships, and good friendships in some cases, with hiring partners and other senior US partners in Asia for 8 years now. Evan Jowers also has over 150 US associate placements in Hong Kong / China in the past 6 years, and our full Asia team has numerous more placements, and each of those placement experiences (as well as other persons we represented but did not place, usually due to an internal transfer choice that we supported) adds in some measure to our understanding of the market. There is a story behind every placement after all. It’s therefore pretty easy for us to get a good read on the market and what hiring trends will likely be like during the next 6 months or so, in any market condition. In fact, one main reason that senior US partners meet with us regularly in Hong Kong / China is because even when they are not hiring they look at Evan and Robert as a great source of information on the market and to get a feel of what their counterparts at other firms are thinking, simply because we know so many key folks in the market and get their opinions and predictions on things on a daily basis.

Back in October ’13, it seemed pretty obvious that by February and March we would be in a bit of a hiring boom, as long as the markets continue to ramp up as they were starting to. Clearly, we are now in a full blown IPO boom in Hong Kong / China.

But what does this mean for US associate lateral hiring in Hong Kong / China going forward in the coming weeks and months? Obviously, the lateral hiring market has become a lot better. However, it’s not simply a situation where the relatively early stages of a hot market upturn (let’s hope it lasts a year or more) translates into immediate US associate hiring. It is also not a situation where if a hot market continues for a year or more that a hiring boom coincides with the length of such a nice corporate / cap markets deal flow boom.

Thus, despite a buzz in the lateral hiring market and the inevitable 5 fold increase in cold callers claiming they would like to make some quick cash with your resume by emailing in on your behalf to firms they greatly exaggerate ties to (well they don’t say those exact words, but I am accurately translating 95% of them for you), it simply is not the case that all or even most of the better US corporate / cap markets practices (referred to as “corporate” from here on out) are hiring multiple US associates in Hong Kong / China right now and in fact about half of them are not (yet) actively hiring more than one, and in some cases still not hiring at all. With that said, we find that the better US corporate practices in Hong Kong / China commonly hire in bunches (meaning 2 or 3) when they do decide to hire in the relatively early stages of a deal flow boom, especially the HK IPO / US cap markets boom that is occurring now in Hong Kong / China.

For example, one of our top 10 US firm clients in Hong Kong / China hired 2 new junior US corporate associates in December, hired again recently, and are looking for two more at present. Another one of our top 10 US firm clients in Hong Kong / China had a key opening to fill in their US cap markets practice, and they have found their new hire (through Kinney, on an exclusive search), but because they also like very much some of our other candidates, they are likely to hire a 2nd US associate soon, and possibly even a 3rd. Another top 10 US firm client of ours has two fantastic mid level M&A associate openings and we are helping with that on an exclusive basis as well and those hires will likely be made this month. That same firm hired an M&A associate from Kinney in HK late last year. These are just examples and there are other positive ones. Things are obviously hot on the hiring front at these top US firms in Hong Kong / China, but these hiring sprees are only of 2 to 5 associates and once that is done there will not be a big need most likely for the rest of the current deal flow boom in Hong Kong / China that could last through ’14 and even well into ’15 (should we be be so lucky).

However, there are also just as many top US corporate practices in Hong Kong / China which are either not hiring US associates at all yet or are have one opening at the moment (the type of opening that can exist in the slow to average hiring market that we saw in Hong Kong / China for much of ’13). First off, if a top US firm in Hong Kong / China does not have a leading US cap markets practice in China and a leading local HK IPO practice (they pretty much go hand in hand), then they will not have such urgent staffing needs in the current IPO boom. Also, some of the top 5 US cap markets practices in China, while being very busy, simply did not have to hire multiple lateral US associates in order to keep up with the deal flow increase (due to being well staffed already and also having mandarin fluent internal transfers from their US offices to come over), at least for now. Also, keep in mind that top US firms’ global management, while loosening the purse strings quite a bit since the great recession, are still going to make their even busiest partners jump through some hoops to get approval for new hires and this can slow down the pace of US associate lateral hiring in Hong Kong / China, even in a boom market, at some firms. Top US firms are, for the most part, going to still be conservative in green lighting new lateral hires, even though the great recession is pretty far back in our rear view window by now. Until there is a true boom market again in the US, deals will continue to be leanly staffed in US and abroad at major law firms, because until then, firms have the leverage in the hiring market (unlike, for example, in ’06 and ’07 when the market leverage resided more with associates).

So what type of US associates are getting hired in Hong Kong / China during this current and relatively young cap markets boom in Hong Kong / China? Taking a look, for example at the recent, current and expected shortly new hires at top 10 US firms in Hong Kong / China described two paragraphs above, it becomes pretty clear what is required – All of these recent and current lateral hires are fluent in spoken Mandarin and written Chinese, most being native Chinese (for most of these spots being native chinese would not give a per se advantage over a non native who is fluent in mandarin and chinese). Less than half come from top 10 peer firms, with most coming from top 30 firms. This is quite a difference from ’12 and ’13 when it was difficult to land at such US firms in Hong Kong / China without coming from a peer top 10 firm, although there were relatively few such openings then, compared to the current boom market, and naturally a log jam of great candidates competing for those spots.

Yes, it is easier to upgrade your firm (regarding prestige ranking) in a US to Hong Kong / China move or a within Hong Kong / China move now, but firms are continuing to be very selective and any upgrading of firm type in such a lateral move has a lot to do with a limited number of Mandarin fluent US associates available on the market (due to firms hiring them and also NYC market getting better and such folks not always as quick to move to Asia now as they were from ’08 to ’12) and being able to start quickly (already on the ground in Hong Kong / China). The top US firms in Hong Kong / China are going to continue to be very selective and have the same JD academic requirements during this boom period. However, some top 10 US firms in Hong Kong / China are fine with hiring associates from top 30, 40 or 50 firms because of the state of the market and the skill set and background they are looking for. Almost all of such positions are going to require Mandarin, and most will require reading and writing Chinese as well. JD academic remain same as before, although there are usually a few cases in boom hiring markets in Hong Kong / China where a firm’s Asia partners get an exception granted by global management regarding a new hire’s grades being just off the cut off for the firm’s policy on that particular law school.

In a boom market hires are made a lot quicker. The interview process can be concluded in a week or two instead of 2+ months (as can be the case in a slow or more normal hiring market in Hong Kong / China. One of our recent placements at a top 10 US firm in Hong Kong was verbally given an offer during her first day of interviews. Hiring partners are aware that their target candidate pool for an opening shrinks quickly in a hot market, they have a full green light from firm management to make a hire, and they have urgent need to staff new deals coming in. Thus, interview processes and offer decisions are made quickly.

We believe that the handful of top tier US firms’ cap markets practices that are hiring US associates now in Hong Kong / China will make most of their US associate hires for ’14 by April. By then, some of their other peers in the top tier that are not yet hiring US corporate / cap markets associates will be hiring multiple laterals. However, the majority of the US associate hires during this current boom in Hong Kong / China at top tier US firms will be made within a 5 month period. Even if the boom goes well into ’15, there will not be another several months period of so much hiring. The top US firms will continue to hire in 2nd half ’14 and into ’15 (as long as the boom lasts), on an as needed basis of course, but there will most likely no longer be a need for multiple associate hires in the same month (or same week as we are seeing now at some firms) by the same office.

A number of firms in Hong Kong / China have urgent M&A US associate openings as well, including at top 10 US firms. Those positions though are being filled differently than the China US cap markets openings – in that for the M&A spots the interviewing and offer decision process is taking longer now than for the US associate hires needed to support all the new IPO work coming in.

Also, keep in mind that during IPO booms US associates hired to be in a mix M&A and cap markets practice or even to have more of a focus on M&A will in many cases have mostly cap markets work in their first 6 months or so at their new firm. This will happen because there will simply be an overflow of IPO work coming in to any top tier US firm in Hong Kong / China which has a solid US cap markets practice in China.

If the IPO boom continues through this year, then at some point this summer or early fall, a number of 2nd tier US firms in Hong Kong / China will be hiring multiple US associates in a relatively short period of time as well, as the over flow of high end deals can’t all fit in the top tier US cap markets China practices. Some deals will be turned down by top tier US practices and then of course get gobbled up by 2nd tier US cap markets practices. We find that the hiring frenzy for those 2nd tier firms in such periods of sudden great deal flow in cap markets can be a bigger hiring frenzy than the earlier one by the top tier firms. This is because some of these 2nd tier US cap markets practices in Hong Kong / China are pretty small sized and they will have to ramp up very quickly.

While things were very hot over the past two years in other SE Asia markets, such as the Philippines for example, SE Asia deal flow has slowed down quite a bit in ’14. There are some openings in HK and Singapore which do not require Mandarin, but in HK most of those positions end up being filled by Mandarin speakers anyways. Singapore is a rapidly growing US big law market, but it can still be difficult to break into that market unless you have a connection to Singapore (or at least SE Asia) and are currently at a top 20 US firm, in the right practice area. Even during busy Singapore markets, there is not all that much hiring and those spots for US associates at top tier US firms and magic circle firms in Singapore are very competitive.

The interview process for US associate candidates at Pan Asia practices is dragging out quite a bit at Hong Kong and Singapore firms at present, because of the focus on hiring needs for China practices and there being plenty of great candidates on the market who don’t speak Mandarin but could fit well in any Pan Asia practice.

We think there will be an uptick in hiring of English only US associates in Hong Kong by the fall, but only if the boom continues throughout ’14. At some point, Pan Asia US partners have openings and in many cases it can be because the mandarin speaker they hired in the past few years has now been recruited by an top US China practice. When the Hong Kong / China markets are booming for a sustained period of a year or more, then almost any hiring need by any US partner in Asia will get green lighted by management (unless the biggest US recession of our lifetime is taking place) and the top tier US firms will sometimes hire a stellar English only speaker for a China and Pan Asia mix role when there is not a suitable (by their high standards) mandarin speaking candidate available for the spot. Until that happens, it will continue to be very difficult for a non Mandarin speaker on a job search in Hong Kong / China, but its not impossible.

In fact, one of our top 10 US firm clients in Hong Kong has now a great 4th to 6th year M&A US associate opening and English only is ok.

As always, feel free to reach out to us at to set up a call with Evan Jowers, for detailed information on any opening and also the market in general, or simply to get good career advice.

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