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The review follows Denton Wilde Sapte’s announcement last week that it was quitting Asia, which sent shockwaves through the region. Sources in Asia claim all Freshfields’ non-UK-qualified Bangkok staff will now leave the firm. The three-partner office has 22 associates and a total staff of 81, who are expected to be made redundant under Thai law.
Two well-regarded Bangkok partners are not UK-qualified, and if they choose to stay with the firm it will be practically impossible to relocate at least one of them. One possibility is that the office could be spun off with best friend status, as Prague was in 2002.
The decision in principle to shed equity partners on commercial rather than performance grounds is a major move for Freshfields’ conservative partnership.
Freshfields’ Asian review has already seen Singapore quietly downsized, with retiring partners not replaced and others returned to London. Vietnam – safe in the short term because it is profitable – is thought to be vulnerable because the Mekong Delta is not key to Freshfields’ strategy.
Chief executive Hugh Crisp said: “We’re doing a review of the whole region, but it’s ongoing with no final decision taken. We’re consulting with our partners and people and talking to clients.”
Some sources claim Freshfields has placed a moratorium on partner promotions in Asia – something the firm strongly denies. However, unlike Linklaters, Clifford Chance and Allen & Overy, it has promoted no Asian partners in the last two years.
Of the UK firms in Asia, including Slaughter and May, Freshfields is the only firm that is 100 per cent lockstep. While the others can balance lower Asian revenues with local or salaried partners, Freshfields cannot.
A Freshfields source said: “A key aspect of the review is that managing a pure lockstep in Asia is very difficult given the business environment.” He added that the firm was committed to the region and would continue to strengthen Greater China and Japan.