Sun sets on an eastern future

Historically, Hong Kong has been an attractive alternative for UK lawyers wishing to gain international experience while continuing to practise English law. For those who wanted to remain with a City or London firm, yet sought to sample life in the Far East, the opportunities in Hong Kong seemed at times almost boundless.

However, during the past couple of years, changes in the dynamics of Hong Kong and the demands of clients, who expect not only negotiations to be conducted in Chinese, but also want documentation to be drafted in their own language, have meant that the lion's share of opportunities have fallen to those with Chinese language ability. Both local and overseas practices focused heavily on this issue and most have, at least in part, satisfied what was an urgent need to bring on board people with the necessary language skills.

But today, the pressure of being able to understand Chinese has, to some extent, been relieved. Talented lawyers from any jurisdiction with experience in areas of high demand, such as banking, finance, commercial, and corporate or capital markets, are increasingly sought after. The major City practices in Hong Kong still prefer to recruit candidates from like backgrounds or, with the introduction of multinational partnerships, from equivalent blue-chip firms in the US.

Recent changes in the law society's admission rules have also affected the opportunities for UK lawyers wishing to work in Hong Kong. For litigators, who must have a practicing certificate, it is no longer a case of fulfilling three months residency and applying for what was, effectively, a seal of approval. Now, it is often necessary to sit a number of exams and because these are infrequent lawyers can face a long wait before employment can begin. Furthermore, the high level of competition in this area mean offers are likely to go to those who are already admitted to practise.

There has always been competition for vacancies within the Hong Kong legal sector between lawyers from different commonwealth jurisdictions. Today, UK lawyers face similar problems of admission as their counterparts from Australia and New Zealand.

At the same time, as the economies in these jurisdictions have become more buoyant, fewer individuals are actively exploring the option of working in this high-pressure environment. Last year, partners from several major Hong Kong practices visited Australia to woo the country's bright legal talent with specialist skills in the areas of demand.

Competition for jobs is now coming from places such as Singapore, where the majority of the population speak both English and Mandarin fluently, from the US, where many talented lawyers study Mandarin at university, and, not surprisingly, from the People's Republic of China, where there are a growing number of lawyers who have amassed legal exposure to quality western practice through overseas study and work. And, while it is true that the demand for Chinese languages has decreased, firms will still give preference to candidates with both the required technical skills and language ability.

In recent years, the number of UK lawyers wishing to relocate to Hong Kong appears to be falling. Whether this is because the UK economy has picked up or because of uncertainty over the impending handover to China is unclear. What is certain, however, is that both local law firms and many Hong Kong-based foreign practices have made clear their strong commitment beyond 1997 and are seizing the opportunity to increase their presence.

Salaries in Hong Kong are still a major attraction with newly qualified levels starting at almost double those in the UK. A four to five-year qualified lawyer can expect to earn a salary of between HK$1 million and HK$1.35 million – approximately £85,000 and £114,000 respectively.

Further, the income tax rate is still a highly desirable 15 per cent. And even accommodation costs, always prohibitively expensive, have recently dropped slightly, cutting the cost of living. An added attraction is Hong Kong's easy access to a host of Asian tourist spots, including the Philippines, Malaysia and Thailand.

Recent Hong Kong banking scandals and the resulting pressures from the regulators have given rise to a noticeable recruitment demand from the financial sector. Consequently, a number of expatriate lawyers have moved into the banking environment, taking home competitive salaries with a non-guaranteed, but attractive bonus element. The global investment banks are recruiting for legal, compliance, documentation and transactional roles, and because the pool of candidates in Hong Kong is still relatively small, there is a call for candidates with Euromarkets experience from the UK's top City firms. Salaries for these lawyers remain highly competitive, but offers are only made to those with the highest blue-chip credentials.

Career opportunities for in-house legal counsel are growing, but these positions are rare for candidates without Asian languages because growth of Hong Kong practices tends to be aimed mainly at China or elsewhere in Asia. There is an increasing trend for corporations to localise and some are actively replacing expatriates with local lawyers. Unless you are already in-house with a corporation, and can persuade your employer to transfer you to Hong Kong, it will be difficult to secure a suitable position without having a skill which is in great demand, such as project finance.

Compared with recent years, there are fewer opportunities in Hong Kong today. But for lawyers with the right combination of skills and/or languages, Hong Kong can still offer an attractive alternative to the City.