Despite the European debt crisis, 2012 still appears promising, and the legal recruitment industry looks set to continue to cruise. This is because the strong regulatory framework that makes Hong Kong a natural industry hub and gateway to the mainland has led to an influx of international businesses, law firms and talent to the city.
Nevertheless, the industry has been negatively impacted. Bitten badly in 2008, it has been shy to immediately jump at prospects. The legal arms of executive recruitment firms report that the quintessential market peak occurred at the beginning of 2011, with high turnover after Chinese New Year. In the second half of 2011, market uncertainty slowed recruitment.
"Hiring was fairly consistent with recruitment within the IT and telecommunications, FMCG [fast-moving consumer goods], retail and entertainment sectors," says Ricky Mui, solicitor and manager for legal and commerce finance with Robert Walters.
Today, within private practice and financial institutions, demand is strong for banking finance lawyers on all levels. Those with experience in structured finance and products, loans and asset financing and private banking and wealth management are hot, says Olga Yung, senior manager for legal at Michael Page.
In Hong Kong and on the mainland, demand for regulatory lawyers - both contentious and non-contentious - is increasing across in-house financial, corporate and private practice. In-house demand is high for trade and operation compliance skills, particularly with regards to covering anti-bribery, anti-corruption and matters relating to the US-initiated Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA). This area is expected to increase, as is also the need for candidates with competition law and corporate governance experience, Yung says.
The influx of foreign firms into Hong Kong is fuelling demand for intellectual property (IP) lawyers with specific experience in anti-counterfeiting and patent law. "More MNCs [multinational corporations] are seeking to protect their intellectual property rights in Hong Kong and the mainland - especially in areas of fashion retail, luxury, FMCG and pharmaceuticals," says Mui.
In particular, demand for legal or compliance talent is strong in US companies on the mainland. "With the [FCPA] taking a close regulatory watch over US companies or foreign companies listed in the US, and with the mainland continuing to be a strong focal point for business growth in Asia, we are seeing compliance and corporate governance to be a key hiring area within the in-house corporate market for Asia," says Charis Uyecio, senior consultant at legal recruitment and compliance firm Legal Futures.
"A majority of the global corporates who have operations within the mainland will be requiring seasoned legal or compliance professionals with strong FCPA experience, and working knowledge of the mainland regulatory environment," Uyecio adds.
Some candidates made smart career moves to secure regulatory experience in 2011, Mui notes. "In the second half of the year, some lawyers working in banks or law firms moved to government regulators to gain highly marketable regulatory experience," he says.
"It's a good career move as candidates can either progress with their career within the regulator or, afterwards, investment banks and law firms will try to attract them back into the financial services sector with better market rates, salaries and opportunities," Mui adds.
The keen global focus on the region has also created demand for regional language skills. "A new trend [in 2011] was legal translation roles with employers seeking candidates with Korean, Thai, Mandarin and Bahasa language skills," says Mui.
So, what does the future hold? Yung sees continued demand for corporate commercial lawyers in the in-house corporate market. Banking lawyers will also continue to be sought after.
Meanwhile, private practice hiring will depend on market conditions - if the market swings upwards, the demand for corporate lawyers will increase, while that for litigators or banking lawyers will decrease.
If not, some private practice candidates may look at in-house opportunities for better work-life balance and more diverse roles, as well as to gain commercial experience, says Mui.
WHAT’S HOT IN 2012
Legal professionals with a strong, track record in corporate or commercial law, mergers and acquisitions (M&A), intellectual property, property leasing and IT for the commerce and industry sector
Banks and financial institutions will continue to hire employees in derivatives and funds
Legal professionals with general banking work experience for private banking roles
In private practice, corporate specialists, especially those with strong corporate finance, IPO and M&A experience. Additionally, litigation roles will continue to be in demand