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Hong Kong’s legal market has undergone profound change over the last decade. Firms have experienced structural and cultural changes, with the value of China-facing lawyers growing considerably. Firms looking to tap into the dynamic Chinese economy and its further potential have identified language skills and a cultural affinity with the People’s Republic of China (PRC) as a pre-requisite.

The cadre of Western expatriates is still evident in Hong Kong, but some wonder whether their days are numbered. It is notable that the partnership ranks in most of the leading firms are filling steadily with Hong Kong locals and PRC natives. Naturally Western expatriates are gradually being squeezed out, retiring or relocating. Notable lateral hires that illustrate this include Kirkland & Ellis’ hire of PRC private equity star Gary Li from Ropes & Gray LLP. Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton (Hong Kong) also hired PRC native and equity capital markets specialist Shuang Zhao from Shearman & Sterling LLP.

At the same time, firms in Hong Kong are increasingly reliant on their PRC rainmakers situated over the border. For instance, Clifford Chance’s flourishing Hong Kong initial public offering practice is thanks in part to the connections of Beijing partner Tim Wang and his colleagues.

While Hong Kong, Greater China and Asia Pacific offer significant rewards to firms that are able to successfully execute their strategies, the environment is not for the faint hearted. In 2015, leading Wall Street firm Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson closed its Hong Kong office, having launched it in 2006. It was a timely reminder that despite a global economic recovery and China’s emergence as an economic superpower, Hong Kong is still a brutally tough spot for firms to succeed. Competition is more intense than almost anywhere else in the world and partner remuneration is commensurate with many firms’ over-zealous enthusiasm to carve out a share of the market. At the same time, because competition is so fierce, charge-out rates often become a race to the bottom. As a consequence, partner remuneration and office profit margins rarely reach a satisfactory equilibrium.

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