Asia Pacific associates see partnership promo prospects rise

Recent Asia partner promotions statistics from eight international firms over the past four years suggests local senior lawyers stand a good chance of being made up.

It is the time of the year again when global firms start to announce which of their lucky associates have made it to the partnership.Today Linklaters confirmed that its partner promotions have fallen to 21 from 24 in 2013 (7 April 2014) while recently, Allen & Overy (A&O) revealed that it had promoted 16 lawyers across its global network, with three based in Asia (26 February 2014).

Although the total number at A&O was slightly down from the previous years, the proportion of the promotions in Asia is generally on an upward trend. For example, in 2011, two out of the 21 promotions were in Asia, accounting for just 9.5 per cent. This compared to 26 per cent in 2013 and 18.7 per cent this year.

Although many other top UK firms are yet to make their announcements this year, the number of people they made up in the past four years in Asia indicates a few trends, such as the rising prospects for Asia promotions and the increasing demand for native lawyers that understand the local culture as well as have the local language capability.

It is a conclusion based on a statistical analysis of eight firms that have a sizable presence in Asia. They are A&O, Clifford Chance, DLA Piper, Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, Herbert Smith Freehills, Hogan Lovells, Linklaters and Norton Rose Fulbright. All are among the top 15 international firms in Asia by lawyer headcount, according to The Lawyer Asia Pacific 150 2013.

In the four years from 2010 to 2013, the eight firms together promoted 101 partners in Asia, forming 12.9 per cent of their global figures combined. Hong Kong by far is the largest jurisdiction for promotions in the region, claiming 46 new partners. China saw 28 while Singapore had 13.

Clifford Chance and Hogan Lovells elected the largest number of lawyers among the group, promoting 19 and 17 respectively during the four year period. They are followed by A&O, DLA Piper and Linklaters, which made up 13 lawyers each. In 2011, Clifford Chance had 12 promotions in Asia, more than half of the firm-wide 23 (4 May 2011).

Freshfields, which has 32 partners and 165 lawyers in Asia, came last with only six promotions in the region over the four-year period and all in Hong Kong. This year only one of its 15 promotions was in Asia, in Tokyo (13 March 2014).

It is interesting to note that Freshfields didn’t rebuild the number of capital markets partners in Hong Kong following several departures in 2010 and 2011, when Hong Kong managing partner Kay Ian Ng left for Sullivan & Cromwell, Christopher Wong left to join Simpson Thacher & Bartlett, and Beijing managing partner Antony Dapiran moved to Davis Polk & Wardwell (16 August 2010).

The firm has also saw gradual a reduction in partner numbers in Asia since the early 2000s, when it had more than 40 partners. This year, it saw finance partner Howard Lam leave for Latham & Watkins and Asia TMT head Mark Parsons, whom was promoted in 2012, join Hogan Lovells.

In terms of practice areas, corporate and capital markets practice saw the largest number of promotions. Banking and finance, including project finance, welcomed 19 to partnership, while dispute resolution also claimed 22, including six in international arbitration. The three areas have been the most in demand areas for promotions across the eight firms.

The statistics also suggest that the eight firms had a strong focus on promoting local talent, as a staggering two thirds of all the elected lawyers are of native ethnic background with local language capability rather than expats.

Clifford Chance and Hogan Lovells promoted the most number of lawyers with a local background, with 11 each. However, Norton Rose Fulbright has the highest percentage of local promotions, eight out of 11, or 72 per cent.

“It’s important that there is a route to partnership available for associates in any office,” says Patrick Sherrington, the Asia and Middle East managing partner of Hogan Lovells. “There always needs to be a balance between lateral hires and internal promotions. If there are too many laterals, you risk losing the culture of the firm.”

In the firm’s Hong Kong litigation team, five of the six partners have come through the internal promotion route. However, to speed up its growth in Singapore, the firm recently made two lateral hires to increase its fire power in finance and litigation there (4 February 2014).

The criteria to consider for promotions in some Asian jurisdictions is slightly different from the UK and US for most firms.

“We don’t have a different promotion policy for Asia, but in terms of considerations there are some points unique to Asia, such as the cultural difference and the language capability which are important in certain markets. Different factual considerations therefore come into play in Asia and they will influence what a firm is looking for,” says Sherrington.

As a result, 11 of the 17 lawyers promoted in Hogan Lovells from 2010 to 2013 are native speakers in their respective countries.

The commercial reality is that big offices are likely to have more promotions than smaller offices. Hence, naturally there are fewer slots available in international firms’ Asian offices due to their relatively smaller sizes than the London and New York head offices. However, given the strategic importance of the Asian markets and growth potential, firms are willing to promote people there without being purely accessed on the balance sheet.

“I would hope to see more people promoted in Asia, but I don’t think I need to push to hard for that because the right people and a good business case are there, the firm has no issue at all.  Of course in some strategic cases, firms can’t just look at the bottom line when assessing the business case,” he says. “I’d expect to see the number of partner promotions increase next the next year or two, as our growth strategy has a clear focus on Asia.”

It’s a promising message for the lucky talent in Asia.