Legal Practice in Asia vs NYC
If you were to trade in Midtown for the Mid-Levels, the Subway for the Escalator, and SoHo for…well…SoHo: what would that mean for your legal practice?
The four practice areas most represented in Asia for US Associates are: Capital Markets, M&A / Private Equity (including Fund Formation), and FCPA / Government Investigations.
Start Me Up
Working for an Asia office of an international law firm is like working for a startup. An associate in New York has a lot of resources at their disposal while they progress from junior to mid-level to senior associate. In Asia, many law firms (especially the ones with smaller US practices) will expect a first or second-year associate to perform what a fourth-year associate would be asked to do in New York without much guidance.
US practice groups are much smaller in Asia than they are in New York, especially outside of Hong Kong. Junior associates may find themselves working directly with partners and clients at a much sooner stage. While many partners in Asia are fantastic mentors, being able to pro-actively figure out how to climb up the learning curve will be appreciated.
The speed of deals is also much faster in Asia. Getting deals closed fast is often of paramount importance to Asia clients, and an associate with a look-before-you-leap mindset may need to change that mentality to thrive in an Asia practice.
A Mixed Bag
Depending on market cycles, an associate could get a steady stream of the same types of deals (such as Hong Kong IPOs), or a mix of transactions.
At some firms, your practice could be 75% M&A, 75% capital markets, or a more equal mixture of the two. Associates who are practice-agnostic will do well under this setup, as well as associates who see the value in cultivating an Asia-focused mixed practice as opposed to siloing themselves off in one group or another.
However, not every firm will offer an associate a mixed diet – some firms’ US practices involve almost exclusively M&A or capital markets work or draw clear lines between the practice areas.
Asia deals mean Asia travel. One week into my new role at Linklaters, I was sent on a diligence trip to Phnom Penh. Three weeks later I was in Bangalore, then Bangkok. Colleagues of mine were sent to locations as far-flung as Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. China associates should expect to spend a lot of time in the PRC.
Specific Practice Group Differences
Regional differences will affect your dealflow as much as they’ll affect your lunch. In New York, you’ve got rainbow bagels, mega LBOs, subway acrobats, and stand clear of the closing doors, please. In Silicon Valley, you have series D financings, hoodie billionaires, software-as-an-everything, and avocado worship.
What about Asia?
In Asia, depending on your geography, you may be advising on Hong Kong IPOs, Islamic bonds, or even offerings on some of the other stock exchanges in the region.
But, most of what you’ll be doing as a US Capital Markets associate is advising on offerings of securities under Regulation S or Rule 144A. While there are some large Asian issuers that choose to list on the NYSE (we’re looking at you, Alibaba), most of the securities issuances you’ll be advising on – especially if you’re in a debt capital markets-focused practice – will be done under either the Regulation S or 144A exemptions.
A capital markets practice in New York can encompass everything from ’34 Act compliance to IPOs on the NYSE. However, can you picture directors and officers of any Southeast Asian or mainland Chinese conglomerate agreeing to be personally liable under Sarbanes-Oxley?! I didn’t think so. What this means is that capital markets associates based in Asia may get less experience with S-1s, S-4s or other types of securities registrations.
With Hong Kong looking to change its listing rules to make it a more attractive target for IPOs, expect more Asia-based companies to list on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange as opposed to the NYSE.
M&A / Private Equity
In the US, M&A can take a variety of forms – public, private, financial / private equity, strategic – and much of that holds true in Asia. Large-scale LBOs are becoming more common, as are billion-dollar PE funds. Depending on the law firm and its client base, you could be advising on seed round and A/B round financings, formation of joint ventures, co-investments, or more traditional M&A and private equity deals. Because “new economy” companies (think tech, e-commerce) are starting to proliferate in Asia, many M&A deals will touch some aspect of the tech industry.
Litigation and Disputes
Historically, US practice groups in Asia have focused on capital markets and M&A, making it difficult for litigators to land in Asia. However, since 2011, firms have started relocating and hiring US associates to build out an FCPA / regulatory / government enforcement practice in Asia. Litigators in those practice groups with business fluency in Mandarin or Korean will have the easiest time landing in Asia.
Who are the clients? Some are banks facing regulatory investigations, or Chinese companies traded on the NYSE that the DOJ is investigating.
Language skills are even more paramount for a litigator than they are for a corporate attorney, because much of what you will be doing is conducting interviews of various parties around the region who may not speak English.
If you’re more of an arbitration or disputes lawyer, your best bet is to land at one of the Magic Circle law firms. US firms have remained focused on their white-collar practice, although we expect US firms to focus more on growing their international arbitration practices in Asia in the next 18 months.
I’m Not Any Of Those – Can I Retool?
The general rule of thumb about retooling is: the more junior you are, the easier it is for a firm to retool you. Class year haircuts are also not uncommon among associates seeking to retool, but the same could be said for New York.
Some practice groups in Asia will hire any star junior associate with language skills and retool them, but other firms are sticklers for exact experience.
Is an Asia Practice Right for Me?
For many of the associates we have placed, moving to Asia was the best career move they could have made. Attorneys that we placed in Asia as juniors and mid-levels ten years ago are now leading practice groups or in-house teams. Even if you don’t see your Asia move as a permanent stop, business-minded attorneys will appreciate the dynamism of the Asia markets.
I found Asia to be an adventure, both professionally and personally, and it’s an experience you will take with you wherever your final professional destination happens to be.