International eye: Asia

Firms circle India for office openings
All eyes have been on India this month, with law firms circling the nation, just waiting to pounce on the legal market as soon as it opens up to legal practitioners

Simmons & Simmons swooped first, announcing plans to launch in South East Asia as a springboard to opening in India (The Lawyer, 21 November). The firm has concrete plans to open in Beijing, but is still waiting for a licence to be granted.

China managing partner Huen Wong told The Lawyer that Singapore was the most likely target as a launch pad for India. Simmons currently has offices in Hong Kong, Shanghai and Tokyo.

At present, Indian work is split between the 100-lawyer Hong Kong office and London. Hong Kong focuses on financial work in India, while the rest is covered by London.

Meanwhile, Clifford Chance undertook a major strategic review, considering the possibilities for the firm on the advent of market liberalisation in India (The Lawyer, 28 November).

“India features as one of the growing economies that impacts upon Clifford Chance’s strategy,” said senior partner Stuart Popham. “The work will increase and the market will become more important for us. Currently the question is how best to be there… We look forward to [India] allowing greater access.”

Clifford Chance is just one of a number of firms lining up to get a piece of the Indian market. The market is also a hot topic on the agendas of international firms such as Baker & McKenzie, DLA Piper Rudnick Gray Cary, Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, Herbert Smith and Linklaters. But two key questions face any firm looking to set up an office in India: how and when? There are no guidelines as to what type of law firm model officials would accept and it is still not clear when firms are likely to be allowed in.

Currently, there is a consensus among the domestic practitioners that the market will open up in 2007, but the joke in India is that liberalisation will always happen in two years. It is a highly charged political issue that goes way beyond the bounds of the legal market.

Coudert Brothers in Singapore civil action
The attention shifted momentarily from India to Singapore following yet another drama in the ever-unfolding soap opera surrounding the dissolving Coudert Brothers

A former partner of the collapsed US firm was reported to the police after the lawyer withdrew around £420,000 from Coudert’s local accounts. It is understood that the partner placed the sum into a trust in order to protect the office and settle any staff, tax and creditor liabilities likely to arise in the future.

Local police have investigated the issue with the Singapore office, which is in the process of transferring to DLA Piper Rudnick Gray Cary, but authorities are treating the incident as a civil matter.

Coudert announced its plan to dissolve in August.

Authorities force closure of Shengzhi Law Office
While Coudert made the choice to close its doors, Beijing-based firm Shengzi Law Office had no such free will when Chinese authorities forced it to shut down last month

As reported in The Lawyer (21 November), Shengzhi had its operations suspended for a year, raising questions about how liberal the legal market in China actually is.

The closure came after the firm’s director Gao Zhisheng sent an open letter to Chinese president Hu Jintao, calling for an end to the persecution of Falun Gong practitioners in China.

It is believed the firm’s closure was linked with the letter, but the official reason was that the firm failed to notify the authorities about its change of address.

Shengzhi is one of a handful of firms in China to have taken on cases involving human rights issues.

King & Wood expands into Hong Kong
China’s largest law firm King & Wood has launched a new office in Hong Kong following the recent merger of its partner firm Fong and Ng with Arculli and Associates.

As first reported in The Lawyer (21 November), King & Wood opened its new office last month after the Hong Kong Law Society approved its registration as a foreign firm.

The move came just weeks after corporate and commercial firm Fong & Ng merged with technology specialist Arculli. The new firm takes on the title Arculli Fong & Ng.

King & Wood has increased its circle of friends as a result of the merger and reaffirmed its alliance with the newly merged firm.

As one of the first private law firms in China, King & Wood has had a close working relationship with Fong & Ng for the past three years. Due to the tough restrictions imposed on the legal market by the Chinese Ministry of Justice, King & Wood and Fong & Ng have not been allowed to merge officially.

King & Wood’s head of international trade Susan Ning told The Lawyer: “After the merger between Arculli and Fong & Ng, we’ve formed an essential association relationship with the new firm.”

Exodus of associates at Herbert Smith
Also in Hong Kong, Herbert Smith’s litigation department suffered an exodus of associates, with more than 75 per cent of its junior lawyers leaving during the past year.

As first reported in The Lawyer (21 November), at least 17 associates have resigned during the past 12 months from the Hong Kong-based litigation department – a “higher than normal” turnover, according to Asian dispute resolution head Mark Johnson. Litigation partner Gavin Lewis is also set to leave the department, having accepted a job with UBS Investment Bank.

The news came after The Lawyer revealed that 30 litigation associates had quit Herbert Smith’s London office during the past year (10 October).

Former associates told The Lawyer that the litigation departments in London and Hong Kong have suffered from a lack of morale, poor communication and uncertainty about career progression.

In Hong Kong, Johnson defended the turnover figure, stating that even though the numbers were unusually high there were a number of contributing factors.

“There’s a range of reasons why these people have left,” he said. “We view some of the moves as quite positive because a few of the associates have gone to investment banks, which will obviously strengthen our relationships with those teams.”

Johnson admitted that some of the senior associates had left to pursue partnership prospects at other firms. “We like to be straightforward with people and we understand, as do our associates, that not everyone can make partner,” he said.