It’s official: Law firm hiring has well and truly recovered from the pandemic. Lateral moves across Asia’s legal markets in the first quarter of this year have already surpassed the number from the entirety of 2020. In mainland China alone, ALB recorded more than 40 lateral hires in the first two months of 2021.

Betty Chen, a manager at legal recruiter SSQ, tells ALB that for the law firms looking to expand in Greater China, the “black swan” nature of the COVID-19 outbreak is a good opportunity to put some distance between themselves and their competitors. As a result, a number have already embarked on a recruitment drive.

“Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong have seen a particularly sharp increase in lateral recruitment,” says Chen. For example, Milbank’s Hong Kong office has been recruiting partners since late 2020, injecting fresh energy into its capital markets, banking and finance practices.

Another reason for the lateral hiring boom, believes Chen, is the growing demand for specific practice area specialists. A notable recent example of this was the departure of Sidley Austin Hong Kong partner Lu Mengyu, a capital markets expert, and her team to Kirkland & Ellis.

Kirkland was not the only firm looking to bolster its capital markets offering: Cooley recently snapped up Liu Yiming from O’Melveny, while Davis Polk & Wardwell hired Jason Xu from Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer. The recent popularity of special-purpose acquisition companies (SPACs) will also impact the hiring of capital markets lawyers, Chen observes.

Another much sought-after area is regulatory and compliance. Chinese regulators are taking tougher anti-trust measures against tech giants, which is becoming a key driver of regulatory work. To beef up in this space, Paul Hastings recently hired Sarah Zhu from Ropes & Gray’s Hong Kong office, and Phoebe Yan, a former consultant at Hogan Lovells in Shanghai. Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan has likewise hired former Paul Hastings partner Tang Haiyan to further expand its compliance practice.

Another trend is the rising attraction of elite Chinese firms such as Shihui Partners, DaHui Lawyers and Merits & Tree Law Offices, Chen says.

Lawyers looking to change jobs today additionally have a number of options to choose from beyond simply moving to a traditional law firm. For instance, the Big Four firms are steadily establishing themselves in the legal market, with their law firms expanding rapidly in Hong Kong, Beijing, and Shanghai. There are also NewLaw firms.

As a result, Chen advises legal practitioners to “look at new job opportunities with a longer-term perspective and a broader mindset to find the right platform for their development.” 


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