Mind the Gap: Trends and Advice for Optimising Legal Talent in Hong Kong

Which industry sectors and growth areas in Hong Kong are seeing the hottest demand for legal talent in 2018-2019? And what’s the best way to hire and retain top legal talent? Marta Verderosa, Manager of Hong Kong Legal for specialist recruitment company Michael Page, brings us up to speed.

American judge Milas Hales once famously noted: “There’s always room for a good lawyer.” Indeed, this has perhaps never applied more so than in the rapidly evolving legal market we see today, especially when it comes to one of the busiest and most highly-competitive cities in Asia.

For those at the front line of specialist talent search in Hong Kong, attracting and retaining good lawyers is very much a labour of love: and one that sees our team intersect with many of the economy’s smartest minds and most significant levers of change.

As conduits between the demand and supply side of the talent search in legal, recruitment professionals in particular have a unique view on the changing nature of the legal industry, and the opportunity areas that exist for top talent, as well as for those competing for the best lawyers in town. Here are some of the trends we see in the near future – and our advice for attracting and retaining top talent in a fiercely competitive market.

Capital Markets Heating Up

It is almost impossible to discuss the Hong Kong economy, and not mention the capital markets space – and this is no different when it comes to legal talent. Indeed, demand in capital markets has recently produced a spike in demand for Chinese-speaking capital market lawyers, which we expect to keep growing throughout 2018.

Furthermore, the pickup in both the IPO and FDI markets in 2017 has spelled good news for equity capital markets lawyers. This year, assuming we have the ongoing spur of growing global stock exchanges, relatively stable geopolitics and generally positive market sentiment, we’re expecting this trend to become a boom, which we believe the Hong Kong government intends to capitalise on.

In December of last year, the Exchange announced that it will take a significant step forward towards liberalising its listing platform: allowing the listing of start-ups that are pre-revenue and pre-profit; and secondary listing to companies having WVRs or a “centre of gravity” in Greater China. As such, we expect that international, Chinese and Hong Kong law firms alike will be more aggressive in their hiring strategies concerning capital market lawyers.

Regulatory Lawyers are in Demand

We are also expecting significant movement in the regulatory area. There has been a lot of talk about MiFID II, a regulatory framework of the European Union, and its effect on financial services providers. In January this year, MiFID II came into force, and while the new product governance rules only apply to MiFID firms, it’s expected that non-MiFID firms such as Asia-based houses, will have to align with it – as they are indirectly impacted when doing business with MiFID firms.

Likewise, the ongoing growth of Fintech, and its resultant domino effect requiring Hong Kong firms to home-grow or import payment systems, cybersecurity, data privacy and white collar crime experts, will also keep regulatory lawyers in high demand.

All Eyes on the Skies

One new hot space to watch in Hong Kong business is aviation leasing – and as a consequence, aircraft financing and structured finance lawyers should continue to be highly sought-after. In the past few years, the Hong Kong government has worked towards the establishment in Hong Kong of an international aircraft leasing hub, in turn attracting more aircraft leasing companies to establish operations here.

This goal is now much closer thanks to the Inland Revenue (Amendment) (No. 3) Ordinance 2017, which introduced a dedicated concessionary tax regime only six months ago. The target market is lessors from the APAC region: and the new regime is believed to represent a crucial factor in determining the location of the asset-owning entity, especially for lessors considering getting listed. As such, we believe this is a space that we need to be monitoring closely.

Offer Greater Work-Life Balance

In terms of attracting and retaining top legal talent, work-life balance and a sense of purpose continue to be highly sought after aspects of any job package. We hear of great success stories coming from law firms that allow flexible work arrangements.

Admittedly, only a few of the more progressive law firms and multinational companies are experimenting with these arrangements – but we are glad to see that they work, and are as such becoming more common.

In our experience, lawyers who have other passions and interests outside of work, including working mothers, tend to be highly-motivated achievers – many of whom have traditionally been pushed out of the workforce. In a candidate-driven legal market like Hong Kong, retaining these experienced people by implementing structures and policies to accommodate them is of strategic importance. It is also an invaluable marketing tool to strengthen your brand with top talent.

Develop In-House Talent

Given that Hong Kong is often a competitive market for the best legal talent, we suggest that clients push to develop more talent in-house, including the implementation of detailed strategies to grow and develop talent, based on the expected market conditions over the next few years.

Simple and effective retention tools include offering Professional Development Plans (PDPs), encouraging exposure to new practice areas, or offering more direct involvement with clients. Each of these can be highly effective, especially for a younger generation of talent looking for variety in their jobs, and broader learning opportunities.

Take Coaching and Mentorship Seriously

In a market where top talent has numerous choices currently, a big focus in the past year has been for law firms to create better learning and development programs. This is still not yet fully developed in Hong Kong, but we have definitely started seeing change – and the message that we communicate to clients is the importance of shifting from a ‘managing’ approach to a ‘coaching’ one.

One of the important things to remember in this context is that while lawyers tend to get some good technical training in the earlier stages of their career, this may not be consistent. If they are lucky, they will be accidentally coached on the job by a senior associate or partner – but very few firms have designated coaches or coaching programs. As such, we see a great need for coaching not only for juniors, but mid-level to partner-level lawyers too.

Business Development Training

In future, what differentiates a good lawyer from a great one may come ultimately come down to softer skills – and things like pitch work and business acumen skills are becoming more vital for the modern lawyer.

While business development has always been important in law firms from a certain level of seniority, traditionally those aiming for partnership had to acquire these skills along the way. By introducing sales training as part of a training and development plan for lawyers, companies can manage this transition more effectively, provide additional benefits for the team -- and ultimately ensure that the company’s positioning and messaging are in good hands.

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Michael Page Hong Kong, Manager – Legal

Marta has five years of legal recruitment experience with a dedicated focus on private practice in Michael Page Hong Kong. She has extensive experience in the placement of lawyers covering all areas of practice from the newly qualified up to partner level. Her team of four recruiters work with Hong Kong law firms, international firms as well as financial institution clients recruiting qualified legal professionals. Marta graduated from her LLM cum laude and worked in a leading global insurance company in Hong Kong before joining Michael Page.