Originally published here on LinkedIn on March 13, 2020
Since the Chinese New Year, much of Hong Kong – the bustling and “never sleeping” global financial hub – has been on lockdown. Streets are surreally quiet. SoHo and Lan Kwai Fong – once lively nightlife hubs – are ghost towns. Events in Asia such as the Tokyo Marathon, Art Basel Hong Kong, and Hong Kong Rugby Sevens were canceled, postponed, or fundamentally altered in a way that limited mass participation. Schools and offices are closed or adapting to remote work and learning. Brick-and-mortar businesses of all sizes are shuttered. Mass transit systems and courier and shipping services have been suspended, and borders with mainland China were all but shut down. An iconic restaurant that had once served the Queen has shut its doors, while many restaurants that do remain open now insist on airport-style body temperature checks before entering, as do many residential buildings. Disney parks have been closed since February. Markets plunged. And yes, facemasks were on most faces but they were sold out in stores – a story we are all familiar with. There was also a strange run on toilet paper, with some folks hoarding enough for a year’s supply it seems.
We are now just seeing the same panic (and understanding) happen en masse in the US and in other parts of the world.
All of this is very much secondary to the tragic fact that people all over the world are becoming critically ill and dying of the novel Coronavirus, especially our beloved elderly.
Our co-founders Evan Jowers and Alejandro Vargas are both based in Hong Kong and have witnessed firsthand Asia BigLaw’s evolving response to the novel Coronavirus – including changes to BigLaw hiring procedures and (unfortunately, in some select situations) hiring needs.
Alejandro has been “on the ground” in his home of Hong Kong since the dawn of the COVID-19 pandemic that has put the world – and, initially Asia – in its crosshairs. His wife is the head of DCM for a major investment bank, and many of his friends and former colleagues (and our clients) are partners or senior attorneys in Asia BigLaw.
We have a new recruiter/partner joining our Hong Kong-based office this month and he has also remained in Hong Kong with his wife and children, whose schools are closed until April.
What does the Coronavirus pandemic mean for Asia BigLaw hiring?
The good news is that Asia BigLaw’s response has (so far) been free of the full-scale panic and long-term hiring freezes that accompanied the blood-letting in 2008-2009.
Procedurally, not much has changed. US-to-Asia hiring has always taken place primarily via videoconference and phone. Asia BigLaw firms rarely, if ever, request or require in-person meetings or Asia travel prior to making an offer.
From an administrative standpoint: the novel Coronavirus caused its first major disruptions during the Chinese New Year holiday, which occurred in late January. During this time, many Asia-based BigLaw attorneys with family in or connections to the U.S. chose to remain in the States to “wait out” the then-epidemic, as did co-founder Evan Jowers, who has similarly been in the States since Chinese New Year (though he is heading to Singapore this week). In fact, during a recent business trip to New York, Evan and some of our Asia team caught up with just as many Hong Kong-based clients and friends as New York-based. It was surreal to be sharing meals and drinks with so many fellow Hong Kongers, but in New York.
Because of this temporary diaspora of hiring partners and other key personnel, the Coronavirus has slowed down many aspects of legal hiring in Asia, both administratively / procedurally and substantively.
Many firms are continuing to make associate offers to candidates, but, since law firm offices in Asia have either shut down or encouraged their employees (including key hiring personnel) to work from home, the actual process has slowed as a result. Hiring should resume at a “normal” pace as partners and key HR execs return to their offices – though many have decided not to return until as late as April or even May.
A number of firms have put active associate candidates on hold, even if they have completed multiple rounds of interviews and were on the verge of an offer. For senior strategic hires (such as partner hires), most law firms’ global management has been more cautious about committing to hiring lateral partners in Asia until the Coronavirus situation has stabilized or achieved a predictable “new normal” – thus stalling the process with many of our partner-level candidates, too.
This has happened even with our partner candidates who were at the cusp of an offer after months of discussions. It’s understandable and reasonable that any firm’s global management would exercise caution and delay Asia expansion in light of uncertainties created by the pandemic. This situation has been quite frustrating for the partner candidates and sponsors of their recruitment at their target firms. The worst part of it is just the unknown re how long the process may be delayed if it continues at all in the coming months. If we were in a full-blown recession, rather than a unique situation that we all hope is only a temporary drastic setback on the markets, things would be more clear and predictable.
On the other hand, a smaller (but still material) number of our BigLaw client firms remain in aggressive expansion mode in Asia. They have continued, without interruption, their partner-level recruiting and hiring. The same can be said for a few of our major Asia based tech company clients, regarding senior in-house hires (in both Asia and the US).
In terms of post-offer slowdowns, work visas took approximately 2 weeks longer to process, thus delaying start dates. On March 1, Hong Kong’s government employees returned to the office after a month of working from home in self-quarantine, so we do not expect this to be a factor going forward.