Asia responds to a lighter touch

Catrin Griffiths

This week we publish the second edition of The Lawyer Asia Pacific 150, the most comprehensive study of the legal market in the region. In the 12 months since we published our last report there have been clear developments – in a nutshell, many international firms are stalling while the local firms are consolidating. 

It’s an open secret that Asia operations are costly and that Chinese outposts in particular are a money pit. Over the past year only 17 international firms have increased their number of lawyers in Asia; by contrast, 70 local firms did so. 

The troubled economics of maintaining margins in Asia means some global firms are rethinking their strategies. The Lawyer’s revelation last week that Linklaters is on the prowl for an alliance in China is confirmation of this. But the alliance route is tricky; it may be working for Linklaters in South Africa but it certainly didn’t in Singapore, when you think about the collapse of the joint venture with Allen & Gledhill in 2012. Furthermore, Chinese firms tend to be remarkably unsentimental about relationships – just ask Slaughter and May about its Asia best friends.

It’s not just the elite global firms that are less willing to invest in low-return jurisdictions. Even Vereins, which have more flexibility, are eyeing the region with caution. So the international giants may have to take a leaf out of the independents’ books in cultivating relationships across the globe rather than assuming they can put boots on the ground.

What The Lawyer Asia Pacific 150 also shows is that the international firms are not necessarily abject petitioners; on the contrary, many local practices – particularly the Chinese – are more willing to entertain discussions than in previous years. This is in large part due to the King & Wood Mallesons-SJ Berwin combination, but also because many of the top Chinese firms have installed a new generation of management that is more open to working closely with overseas practices. One example is Commerce & Finance, which is understood to have been approached by Linklaters. Furthermore, the race to consolidate in China can’t be underestimated; see the talks between Zhong Lun and Jun He a couple of months ago. There’s a lot up for grabs.

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