Originally posted here on LinkedIn on April 1, 2020
It’s been nearly 2 weeks since our previous article on COVID-19 and Asia BigLaw, and the world has changed immeasurably since then. As with many of our clients and other industry observers, we were initially caught off guard a bit by the reality of the COVID-19 crisis. We are obviously in a global recession and whether a lateral hiring freeze in big law in Asia lasts a few months or the rest of 2020 (and possibly beyond) is still up in the air. We hope for the former, but prepare for the latter. It goes without saying that our individual and collective health and safety is the primary concern; far more than any economic impact that the virus may have on our industries, businesses, and personal finances.
Each day, we are faced with a deluge of headlines about the virus’s spread and impact: much of it harrowing, some of it hopeful. There’s still much we don’t know about its long-term impact on populations and markets, and this uncertainty continues to raise questions for law firms evaluating their hiring needs and strategic priorities.
What we do know is that each country is on its own timeline, and each government has crafted its own unique containment response. While cases in the US and UK are skyrocketing, Singapore, Hong Kong, and other Asian countries are fighting a concerning second wave of infections as overseas citizens and residents return home.
However, unlike in the US and Europe, much of day-to-day life in major Asian cities is operating perhaps half of normal, or has settled into a “new normal.” While borders may be closed to non-residents in Singapore and Hong Kong, many corporate offices are open—including those of international law firms—and many restaurants, shops and malls continue to operate even if with shortened opening hours.
BIGLAW HIRING – AN UPDATE
As of now, most firms have yet to implement official global hiring freezes but remain cautious about the situation while implementing unofficial hiring freezes, cutting pay, or delaying recruitment.
For example, Allen & Overy announced this week that it is placing select recruiting needs on hold as they determine the best strategy to deal with the pandemic. Nonetheless, several firms have reached out to us this week and last week to emphasize their commitment to certain strategic hires despite the uncertain environment.
Of course, not all hires are of equal priority. For example, one of our BigLaw clients has frozen an associate opening in one of their Asia offices, yet forges full-steam-ahead on a different associate need in another Asia office.
Two of our partner-level candidates had their hiring processes at US firms in Seoul and Singapore put on hold at the 12th hour due to the global crisis. On the other hand, another US firm is moving ahead with the partner hire of one of our candidates in Hong Kong. Although outside of Asia, one of our partner placements started in New York yesterday and was placed by our Asia-based team, while an associate started in this same firm’s Singapore office two weeks ago.
Hiring Shift from Associates to Partners
More than one top international law firm has reached out to us to discuss strategic Asia partner searches. In our experience (and this is our co-founder Evan Jowers’ third recession in the industry), severe economic downturns are usually accompanied by some partner-level hiring, but very little associate-level hiring.
Downturn volatility can force a minority of partner-level attorneys to examine whether they are best serviced by their current platform.
More Travel Restrictions, More Logistical Slowdowns
In some cases, we have seen travel restrictions make it logistically difficult for some of our clients to continue the hiring process. Two senior in-house roles have gone on hold as a result of travel restrictions, since face-to-face meetings with the GC and other key decision-makers were a key part of those hiring processes.
US-to-Asia BigLaw hiring is not affected by the impracticality (or inability) to schedule in-person interviews. Law firms have, in recent years, become increasingly more reliant on in-home videoconference technology (e.g., Zoom) in hiring for overseas offices, and we have yet to see law firms cite travel restrictions or social distancing protocol as a reason for putting key roles on hold.
Instead, associate hiring at most US and UK law firms in Asia has been put on hold more so because of the uncertainty in the markets, rather than logistics.
With respect to start dates, we have seen cases of law firms coordinating with immigration authorities to allow first-time visa applicants entry into their new country, notwithstanding varying levels of new temporary border restrictions due to the COVID-19 crisis. Other firms are having new hires start work in their passport country. However, with so many international commercial flights grounded, it has been difficult for some new hires living abroad (such as PRC citizens living in New York) to return home, thus leaving a handful of start dates delayed.
Our most recently-placed associates in Hong Kong and Singapore have started their new positions on 14-day home self-quarantine.
The good news is that we have yet to see any accepted offers pulled or start dates indefinitely delayed as a result of COVID-19. Firms and new hires seem to be finding ways to address virus-related logistical problems.
MARKET BY MARKET
Singapore is arguably the safest major city in the world at present during the Coronavirus crisis.
In response to its first two COVID-related deaths and a second wave of infections from citizens and residents returning home from abroad, Singapore shut its borders to non-citizens on March 24. Gatherings of more than 10 persons are now prohibited outside work and school. Bars and nightclubs are shut until April 30; however, malls, public areas, and restaurants – including Singapore’s famous hawker centers – can remain open as long as they follow social distancing protocol. Some are even describing the on-the-ground situation in Singapore as a post-COVID new normal.
Our co-founder Evan Jowers is kind of stuck (happily) in Singapore for the rest of the Coronavirus crisis, as a 7-day work trip turned into an indefinite stay. He arrived to town before self-quarantines were enforced on anyone arriving from abroad. For the past few weeks, he has had almost daily client meetings (especially with everyone grounded from any travel by their firms since mid-February) and life has been almost normal, with rush hour traffic jams, half-filled restaurants, cafes and shopping areas. However, this week there has been a very noticeable drop in activity in the city and the bars and pubs were closed down last weekend. Some law firm offices are still open, but most BigLaw attorneys in Singapore have been working from home for the past two weeks. A few weeks ago, nightclubs and movie theaters were closed. Starting about two weeks ago, many buildings (including Evan’s) started airport-style temperature checks at their entrances and lobbies.
Hong Kong is currently fighting a second wave of COVID infections. Many believe this resurgence has been caused by Hong Kong residents returning to the city from abroad.
For 14 days as of March 25, Hong Kong has banned non-residents (read: tourists and business travelers) from entering. Hong Kong residents can return from overseas, but must self-quarantine for 14 days. This self-quarantine comes with strings attached (virtual ones at least), as returning residents and citizens are forced to wear a tracking bracelet that connects to an app on your phone and tracks your movements.
Evan is a resident of Hong Kong, but elected to not deal with the hassle and remained in Singapore two weeks ago, when these new measures were put into effect in Hong Kong.
Bars and restaurants may remain open in the city, though chief executive Carrie Lam has threatened to halt alcohol sales in certain venues.
According to our co-founder Alejandro Vargas, a permanent resident of Hong Kong:
“The BigLaw and finance sectors continue to operate but office time has been either reduced or is optional. Law firms initially had requested their lawyers and staff to work from home, but most have now moved to an optional policy, with many associates and partners choosing to go to the office from time to time.
Because there are many who continue to choose to work from home (at least for part of their days), offices are not full and people feel quite safe. Certain investment banks have put in place continuity plans where they have split teams into two: the “home” and the “office” teams. Members of each team are not allowed to interact in person (even when not at work!) in order to prevent a situation where the entire team contracts the virus and is unable to operate.
However, even those who are required to be working from offices have been experiencing shortened face time at work, and will optionally work from home for 14 days if anyone in their entire buildings is reported to have contracted the virus—the Hong Kong government keeps track and reports buildings affected on a daily basis.”
Our Hong Kong-based recruiter Jason Gerber has faced the same challenge many of the city’s families have during the past few months (as opposed to only 1 or 2 weeks so far in the US) – working from home while his beloved kids’ schools have been closed now since January. It’s a full house!
China has closed its borders to foreign nationals as of Saturday, March 28, though new cases appear to be sharply dropping. While concerns of asymptomatic transmission linger, life in China looks to be returning to a new normal.
While it would be a stretch to say that South Korea has beaten the virus, its response has been globally hailed as the closest thing to a success story. South Korea has managed to slow the spread of the virus without resorting to the types of blanket stay-at-home orders that have shuttered businesses and brought lives to a standstill in much of the world.
Much of this success can be attributed to ease of access to tests. Getting tested in South Korea costs $134, but is free for anyone with a doctor’s referral, or who has come in contact with an infected person. Even undocumented foreigners are encouraged to get tested, with public health officials under no obligation to report the immigration status of anyone who shows up for the test.
If you test positive for coronavirus, government websites will track your movements during the prior 14 days via mobile phone and credit card use, as well as CCTV footage. Text message alerts will be sent to those in the vicinity of a known positive case.
BigLaw hiring in Seoul was very slow prior to the Coronavirus outbreak, especially for associates, and nothing has changed. Strategic Korea-focused partner searches are still active and we are currently helping two US firms with their partner-level needs.
Japan’s official numbers (just over 2,000 confirmed cases, 59 deaths as of 3/31) are far fewer than South Korea’s and China’s. As early as this past weekend, malls were “bustling”.
However, after declining to implement nationwide containment or widespread testing measures, Japan is, unfortunately, experiencing a spike in positive cases. Were mitigation and testing strategies put off in hopes that the Olympics could proceed as planned? One can speculate, but it looks like Japan is heading for some challenges.
Foreign nationals from the U.S., China, South Korea, and several European countries are banned from entering Japan. As of 3/31, Japan has yet to declare a nationwide lockdown.
Japan was already experiencing an economic slump before the worst of the Coronavirus hit, and Tokyo BigLaw hiring on both the associate and partner fronts have remained quiet for some time.
Australia seems to be a few weeks ahead of the rest of the world when it comes to the COVID curve, yet they are not letting that “head start” stop them from adopting similarly drastic measures to stop the spread. Bars, beaches, and restaurants have been shuttered as of mid-day on Monday, March 23, with restaurants only open for take-out. The government has banned all overseas travel by Australian citizens as well as shut the borders to non-citizens.
On March 19, Australia locked its borders to any incoming travelers that were not citizens or residents (following right behind New Zealand). This decision came about as most of the cases of Coronavirus in Australia originated from travelers who were coming from overseas. Social distancing orders were not taken very seriously at first, as residents / tourists in Sydney flocked to the beach in herds when the sun came out following a few days of rain.
Once they started shutting down beaches and non-essential businesses, you saw residents taking it much more seriously. By the time I left Sydney on March 31, it seemed everyone was being far more careful and truly keeping their distance.
On Sunday (3/29), Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced any gatherings are limited to a maximum of two people, and fines will be handed out to any individuals breaking this rule. In New South Wales, it was announced on Tuesday (3/31) morning that police will be monitoring the streets and enforcing fines of up to $11,000 or six months’ imprisonment for those who leave the home without a reasonable excuse (obtaining food, necessary travel for work or education, exercise, or medical care).
While the cases in Australia haven’t reached exceedingly high volumes like in other parts of the world, the country’s quick response has allowed them to slow their daily growth rate for new cases of Coronavirus. While they’ve got a long way to go, Australia is making solid strides toward flattening the curve.
While there are only a small handful of firms in Australia with a U.S. Law practice, there were pockets of hiring in the latter half of 2019. One Australia-based search for a U.S. qualified associate was put on hold in early 2020, several weeks before the Coronavirus crisis gripped the world.