Chinese rivals challenge UK dominance in HK showdown

Firms from mainland China and US poised to fight for capital markets work in Brit stronghold

Hong Kong: capital interest
Hong Kong: capital interest

Chinese and US firms are setting out their stalls to challenge long-established UK lawyers in Asian finance capital Hong Kong, as capital markets work takes off.

Shanghai powerhouse AllBright Law is the latest Chinese firm to look at opening in Hong Kong, ­following in the footsteps of King & Wood, Jun He Law Offices and more recently Zhong Lun Law Firm.

AllBright partner Victor Wang told The Lawyer the firm was exploring its options through merger ­discussions with Hong Kong rivals. AllBright is also considering a liaison office staffed by the firm’s own lawyers.

Chinese firms have begun recruiting local and foreign lawyers from international firms in both Hong Kong and mainland China in recent months, in a bid to ramp up their offering in cross-border deals. Recent laterals include the November 2010 move of Stephen Wozencroft from Dewey & LeBoeuf’s Hong Kong alliance firm to Jun He.

Lawyers in international firms in Hong Kong said domestic firms were becoming increasingly powerful as Chinese companies look for overseas investment opportunities, often using a Hong Kong-listed business as the vehicle.

US firms are also playing catch-up with UK and ­Chinese firms by establishing local practices in Hong Kong. Last week Simpson Thacher & Bartlett became the third US firm to launch a Hong Kong capability ­within six months, raiding ­Linklaters and Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer.

This followed the November and December 2010 news of ­similar moves by Cleary ­Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton and Davis Polk & Wardwell.

Also, Proskauer Rose has turned to White & Case for a duo of Hong Kong-qualified capital markets partners, Seung Chong and Jeremy Leifer.
Lawyers in Asia’s finance capital believe more US firms will follow suit as IPO activity continues to boom.

US firms have traditionally not focused on Hong Kong law practices on the ground, and several pulled out of Asia during the downturn in 2003. While some of these have moved to rebuild, others, including Cravath Swaine & Moore, are still absent from Hong Kong.

A record year on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange last year mainly benefited UK firms, in particular Linklaters and Freshfields. The magic circle duo picked up four instructions each from the top 10 IPOs to take place in Hong Kong, according to data provided by Thomson Reuters. Clifford Chance and Linklaters both have lead roles on the upcoming flotation of commodities trader Glencore in London and Hong Kong.