Asia partner shortage

Firms plug the talent gap in Asia with junior partnerships

As more firms expand their Asia offerings, good partners are getting harder to come by. As a result, senior lawyers at the counsel level are becoming an increasingly attractive candidate pool for new entrants to tap into. Firms looking to expand into new jurisdictions or practices are offering junior partnerships as a means of luring counsel from established players.

In the past month at least 10 such counsel-to-partner hires have been reported across China, Hong Kong and Singapore. Two recent examples are DLA Piper’s appointment of Shearman & Sterling counsel Yu Jin Tay to head its international arbitration practice in Singapore and Australian firm Gadens’ launch in Singapore with the hire of Clifford Chance energy counsel Marc Rathbone as local managing partner.

This trend sends a positive message to senior lawyers looking for a step up to partnership.

“Lawyers are enjoying more chances to be made up in Asia than their counterparts in the UK,” observes a recruiter. “If there’s no opportunity at their existing firm another may want to offer them the junior partner title as a carrot, given the limited talent pool in Asia.”

It is also a more economical option for firms wanting to expand their partnership in Asia rather than hiring in talent. According to a recent legal salary survey in Hong Kong, the difference at the lower end of the salary level for counsel and salaried partners is relatively small. For example, the minimum monthly salary for a counsel at an international firm in Hong Kong is £11,000 per month, compared with £13,000 for a salaried partner.

At the same time, it reflects the difficulty certain firms are having in attracting partners.

“If a firm doesn’t have a record, a strong brand or a niche, it’s hard to convince successful partners to move. They are cautious about moving to a new platform in today’s climate,” says the recruiter.

It is easy for firms to get into a Catch-22 situation in Asia. On the one hand, to launch they need strong partners with solid books of business, but on the other they may find it difficult to recruit established partners. The counsel option offers an ideal solution.