What to do about Asia?


Cameron McKenna’s decision finally to pull the plug on Hong Kong highlights a real divergence of opinion on the way forward for UK law firms.

Camerons began its retreat in 2003 when it closed Beijing and made 40 Hong Kong lawyers redundant. It was followed a year later by Denton Wilde Sapte, which completely pulled out of Asia when it couldn’t find the funds to invest in the region.

One experienced Asian hand says: “Expect there to be more adjustments in Hong Kong assuming the market slows, which it will of course when China hits the buffers. There’s been lots of excessive investment by law firms over the past few years, which will shake out as conditions balance out.”

So sayeth the doomsayer, but US firm Reed Smith is busy trying to tie up a deal with the Richards Butler partnership in Hong Kong. Simmons & Simmons had every reason to pull out last year after a massive raid by Fried Frank, but responded by sending its corporate chief to Hong Kong and is now busy plotting a second coming in Beijing. Pinsent Masons is sending corporate partners East to build on its construction (ie Masons’) roots. Stephenson Harwood‘s recent renaissance has much to do with work coming out of Asia. Even Wragge & Co launched an office in China last year.

Camerons is in the midst of recreating itself as a European operation, while other mid-market firms see the way forward in refashioning themselves as global outfits.

Bird & Bird provides an example of a firm going in the opposite direction. The firm’s managing partner David Kerr was very keen to stress that Bird & Bird is not just a European firm when telling us about plans to launch in the Middle East (see page 5).

Indeed, Kerr made a point of reminding us that the firm has thriving offices in Hong Kong and Beijing, growing fast off the back of French, German, Italian and US investment in China.

So, what to do about Asia?There is far from a consensus. Perhaps Asia is best used as a barometer of a firm’s general health: when times are good, firms will invest there; when they’re not, it’s the first place to feel the axe.