Everything you wanted to know about EXPAT PACKAGES but were afraid to ask
The question on many associates’ minds before they join a law firm in Asia is: will I be getting an expat package? The short answer – if you’re a U.S. JD – most likely, yes. Now that we’ve got that out of the way, let us tackle some FAQs surrounding expat packages / cost-of-living adjustments (or “COLA”). How Much Will I Be Getting? It depends. In Hong Kong, expat packages that we have seen in recent offer letters have ranged from US$30k to US$80k or more. While there are some firms that determine an individual attorney hire’s expat package on a case-by-case basis, most firms standardize. There may be some deviations between COLA figures offered in Hong Kong and mainland China, but those are minimal. Some firms give slightly higher COLA to their attorneys in Hong Kong, others will give their attorneys in mainland China the edge. Singapore is a different market entirely when it comes to COLA. Most firms in Singapore do not give COLA, and, if they do, the figures would be considered bottom-of-the-market by Hong Kong / mainland China standards. Why Is Your Expat Package Bigger Than Mine? While most firms give the same expat packages to all their US-qualified attorneys, some firms do not standardize their expat packages, meaning that two US associates at the same firm could be receiving expat packages of different sizes. Some firms use a scale where an attorney’s expat package grows with his or her seniority – in other words, senior associates get a larger expat package than junior associates. Other firms give attorneys a COLA bump for each child – logic being that it can be expensive to send children to Western-quality international schools in Asia, and these are the types of cost-of-living differentials that a COLA is meant to address. How Is COLA Paid? Your expat package acts as a lump sum on top of your salary. It is paid in addition your salary in each paycheck. When you get paid, the money deposited into your account is both base salary and COLA. How Long Do I Keep Getting COLA? Some firms are beginning to implement sunset provisions, i.e. they will only pay attorneys COLA for a certain number of years (typically 4 or 5) before the COLA phases out. While this is not a common practice, some firms are currently considering implementing these provisions. It would not surprise us if this is the trend where the market is moving. I’m an LLM – Do I Get COLA? If you are hired as a US Associate, you will get a COLA at most firms – just like JDs. Some firms have a policy where LLMs need to work at the firm for one year and “prove themselves” before being granted a COLA, and other firms make COLA determinations for all their hires (not just LLMs) on a case-by-case basis. If an LLM is hired as a Foreign Legal Consultant, Legal Manager, or other pre-Associate title, there will be likely no COLA granted to the attorney until he or she is promoted to Associate. What About Non-Cash Benefits? About half of the firms in the market provide their attorneys with “home leave”, i.e. the firm will cover the costs of economy class air travel for the attorney and his / her family back to their home country. It’s increasingly rarer for law firms to pay for their attorneys to fly home in the front of the plane, so don’t expect the business class treatment. Another extra is School Tuition Reimbursement. While many firms will give an attorney with children a larger COLA, some firms will cover school tuition expenses for all school-aged children. Will My New Firm Help Me Relocate? Yes, your new law firm will provide you with relocation assistance. Upon signing your offer letter, your new firm will put you in touch with a moving service that specializes in international relocations. All customary moving expenses will be covered by your new firm. Moving of specialty items, such as that Basquiat hanging in your living room, will not be covered. Pets may or may not be covered under a firm’s relocation policy. Upon arrival in Asia, your firm will arrange for you to stay in a serviced apartment before you find your own flat. The firm will also provide you with contacts for real estate agents, so you can easily settle in to your new city in a place of your own. In lieu of the above, some firms will provide their new hires with a moving stipend in cash. What About Local Hong Kong-Qualified Attorneys? It is not customary for local Hong Kong-qualified attorneys to get a COLA adjustment (they are from Hong Kong, after all). However, to attract top Hong Kong-qualified attorneys, some top New York firms will offer a full COLA to their Hong Kong-qualified attorneys. Other firms will make it possible on a case-by-case basis for Hong Kong-qualified attorneys to obtain COLA under certain circumstances, such as if they pass the New York bar. If you are interested to learn more about what’s currently “market” with respect to law firm expat packages in Asia, please reach out.