Business of Law

Hong Kong Is Law Firm Battleground, Davis Polk Partner Says

Seventeen lawyers from Davis Polk & Wardwell were among the record 224 lawyers who took the Hong Kong bar exam last year.

Davis Polk partner William Barron was one of them, Bloomberg reports. “Hong Kong has become the battleground for the world’s law firms,” Barron told the wire service. “This is where the action is.”

Hong Kong is the only Chinese jurisdiction where foreign lawyers can advise on local law, attracting bar exam candidates from both Davis Polk and Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton, the story says.

The city now hosts 69 international law firms, almost double the number in 2004, Bloomberg says. Weil Gotshal & Manges and Shearman & Sterling opened offices there within the last 10 months. Earlier this week, Latham & Watkins announced it has launched a new Asia practice with a hire from Jones Day’s Hong Kong office, the Am Law Daily reported.

The Bloomberg story says U.S. law firms have had Hong Kong offices since 1972, but most New York-based firms there advised on U.S. law. That changed in 2005 when Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom hired two lawyers who could offer Hong Kong legal advice.

As the Hong Kong legal market gets more competitive, law firms are feeling the pressure. Thomas So, head of litigation at Mayer Brown JSM in Hong Kong, told Bloomberg that some of the work once handled by big law firms is now going in-house. “Hong Kong now has 1,500 in-house counsel,” he said. “What are they doing? Work that used to be done by practicing lawyers, so fees are pushed down.”

Updated at 5:41 p.m. to state that U.S. law firms have had Hong Kong offices since 1972.

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