State of the Market Report

Posted on March 4, 2009 at 5:03 PM

Even if Your Ship Isn't Sinking, it Could be Time to Jump - An Analysis of Hiring Trends in Overseas Legal Markets

No one would deny that in the past few months the legal job market has been less than robust.  A few weeks ago 317 attorneys were laid off in a single day.  Legal hiring has undeniably suffered under the weight of the sinking global financial markets.  That does not mean, however, that the right attorney and the right firm can't make a match, despite the greater economic climate, especially for partners.

For the right highly qualified, well experienced candidate, now may just be the time to make a move.  It is a buyer's market for talent; markets like the one we are currently facing are exactly the ones in which firms are on the lookout for that special candidate, and looking to make that hire that is just right.  Standards are higher than they were six or even three months ago, but if you meet them, there are firms that want to meet you. Where real needs exist, if you fit that need, there is no reason to wait.  We have seen numerous firms that have laid off employees domestically continue to hire in Asia.  In late February, Bloomberg reported that while firms in the US and UK are contracting, their China offices are expanding as "the country's growing importance to clients makes it an essential location for global law firms, along with New York and London."

The biggest change we have seen over the past few months is a reversal of the trend towards looser language requirements.  If you want to work in Asia, these days you need to speak the language.  In the past weeks our team has seen a more optimistic outlook in the Tokyo market, with firms beginning once again to actively look for candidates, albeit ones with exceptional qualifications and language skills who are willing to make a long term commitment to the city.  The Shanghai and Beijing markets have yet to show a robust recovery, but there are firms looking for highly qualified candidates with specific qualifications on the mainland.  Hong Kong is not in the greatest shape for U.S. qualified J.D.s, but if you are Hong Kong qualified there are jobs to be had.

The job markets in the Middle East and Russia never slowed down as much as the Asian markets did, and in both places there are still many positions open for attorneys without specific language skills.  The Middle East does appear to be entering a shake out period, however, with fewer transactions to go around and a large number of lawyers in the region, especially in fields such as real estate.  In the past fourteen months, nearly 40 firms from the US and UK have opened offices or increased their presence in the Middle East.  This may be too many.  2009 is likely to see the more committed firms with stronger bases of operations in the region excel, and those that may have just jumped on the bandwagon prove to be less successful.

Firms want to fight for their profitability, and there are still several options available to beyond simple layoffs and hiring freezes.  Secondments, leaves of absence, reduced bonuses, and outright pay reductions are all about remaining profitable, and may not be as bad  as the alternatives. Salary freezes at firms such at Latham & Watkins and Freshfields have paved the way for salary reductions at firms such as Wolf Block, and this may be seen as a discouraging sign.  It is important to understand, however, that these tactics are about remaining profitable and avoiding or at least minimizing layoffs.

Across the board, the past few months have seen opportunities for junior candidates take the biggest hit.  Those firms that are looking are looking for mid levels and seniors.  When they make those hires, the junior positions will follow, but those jobs are a few months out at best.  Interestingly, the past month or so has seen a sharp uptick in partner movement and interest; firms and partners both are looking to best position themselves for recovery, meaning practice groups and individual partners are on the move, and firms are looking for that perfect partner to complement their current practices.  In fact, since February 1, we have been contacted by four separate firms that have opened new offices that are in need of partners.  Again, associate jobs are sure to follow.  In the past week alone, we have been contacted by two firms planning to open multiple new offices in China; one is looking for private equity and transactional IP partners and the other has roles for managing partners onshore (see our Partner Watch section for more specific information). The timing of these firms' renewed interest is not at all surprising, given that the Chinese New Year has recently been celebrated, and firms there are ready to get back down to work.

As Bloomberg reported in late February, 28 foreign firms have opened offices in Mainland China since September 2006, bringing the total from 149 to 177, a nearly 19% increase.  More recently, in Q4 2008, we saw over 20 offices open in Asia and the Middle East, and approximately 12 have opened thus far in 2009.  Where there are new offices, there are new jobs; these firms' growth is an encouraging sign.  Where firms have opened new offices lately, it has been through the acquisition of practice groups and locations from those firms that were unable to weather the storm.  For example, Winston and Pillsbury benefited from the dissolution of Heller, absorbing the defunct firm's Shanghai and Beijing offices respectively.  Other recent openings of note include Bird & Bird in Singapore and Goodwin Procter in Hong Kong.

Certain practice areas seem to be faring better than others, and not just those related to restructuring.  For example, we have seen surprising growth and need in international arbitration, litigation, IP, private equity and projects/energy in the past month or so.  If you are well qualified, have language skills, and have experience in these areas the jobs are there.  There are even firms that are avoiding layoffs by encouraging associates to retool towards the areas that are growing despite the market, which is certainly an encouraging sign for the weeks and months to come.

The current job markets in Asia, the Middle East, and Russia are not ideal, and this is most definitely not right time for everyone to make a move.  If you are an exceptionally qualified candidate, however, and have the right language skills and experience, this may in fact be the best time for you to go.  Firms have specific needs, and if you match those specific needs, they want to meet you.  If you think this might be the right time for you, let us know. We're here to help you make the right decision.

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