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The Asia Chronicles: State of the US Associate Lateral Hiring Market for Asia and Middle East

2.17 re.JPGAsia Chronicles logo.jpg[Ed. note: This post is authored by Evan Jowers and Robert Kinney of Kinney Recruiting–sponsor of the Asia Chronicles. Kinney has made more placements of U.S. associates and partners in Asia than any other firm in the past two years. You can reach them by email: asia at kinneyrecruiting dot com.]

Evan here. Today’s post covers (in a very basic way) a) the current poor state of the short-term lateral hiring market in Asia and the Middle East; and b) the strong possibility remains that qualified US associate candidates, who are focused on settling down in Asia, can still land there at top firms in the next 3 to 18 months (it is more unpredictable in Middle East, but also possible). As always, please feel free to comment and I will reply to all (please note, however, that these posts are not memos and I am simply too busy to spend more than thirty minutes or so writing them, so no need to point out spelling and grammar errors).

Before we get started, here are two unique and interesting urgent needs we have:

PE / M&A senior associate in Dubai at major US firm – UK qualified is strongly preferred

Mid-level to senior corporate associate in Eastern Europe at major US firm – specific type of corporate experience not required, Russian language fluency preferred, willingness to work and live in less than fully modernized city required (ok, it is not Asia, but we work Eastern Europe and Russia markets too, thanks to efforts of my colleague, Yuliya Vinokurova.

As mentioned in prior posts and / or comments, the global downturn, while affecting US market lateral hiring since late ’07, started to affect lateral hiring in Asia significantly in late ’08. In the first three quarters of ’08, lateral hiring in Asia was down from the record breaking ’07, but not nearly as significantly so as in the US markets. However, starting in October ’08, we started to notice a more severe drop off in lateral hiring in Asia. In the Middle East, we have noticed a drop off in lateral hiring since late summer of ’08 and, unlike in HK / China (but similar to Japan), there has been only a very small amount of US associate hiring since then (HK / China lateral hiring is substantially down, but not as much as Dubai, for example).

More after the jump…

As the US lateral markets continued to decline substantially for a full year by fall ’08, and up to that point the Asia and Middle East markets were still considered relatively busy and there was much made in the biglaw related media regarding US attorneys moving abroad, and in particular Asia and the Middle East. As an example, see the following links to a November ’08 article from the New York Times and an October ’08 article from American Lawyer. We were quoted in both articles (including my mug landing on the cover of the NY Times business section).

Although we have continued to make US associate placements in Asia and the Middle East through January ’09 (3 in January, in Shanghai, Dubai and Hong Kong), things have slowed down very significantly. Most US and British firms in Asia and the Middle East are not considering any US associates at this time, with some having official hiring freezes being directed from their home US or London offices (this trend started at a couple of firms in late summer ’08 and has spread to more since then).

In November and December ’08, a number of our client firms in Asia were hopeful that they could consider new associate hires by end of the lunar new year. Thus, as we entered February ’09, there was some hope for an uptick in the lateral hiring market in Asia. However, even though there are some associate needs in Asia (less in Middle East, but some, especially in Abu Dhabi), it is difficult for Asia offices to hire now, in the face of so many lay offs happening at their firms globally. Layoffs have been and are happening in Asia as well. Starting in September ’08, we started to notice silent layoffs in Asia, mostly junior cap markets associates. Since December ’08, there have been more mostly silent layoffs in Asia, again mainly affecting cap markets associates (mostly at junior and senior associate levels). The majority of these persons being laid off in Asia are fortunately given a three month notice period, but it is unfortunately a long-shot for them to find new positions in Asia or the US within three months in this market. Many of the affected associates have contacted us for help and we are doing the best we can to help them, but our assistance is turning in many cases to advising on steps to take when out of work that will help land them back in biglaw once the economy significantly picks up (at beginning of upturn, firms are still going to be very selective and usually still not hire those laid off, unfortunately).

With that said, after a very disappointing first 10 days of February, we are starting to see some interview processes get started in HK / China for our best PE / M&A associate candidates (mainly mid-level and senior associates). We also see firms following through on plans to diversify their practices in Asia, by looking to build new or better practices in M&A (if focused too much on IPO work in past few years), IP, real estate and arbitration. The key area of expansion right now is PE / M&A and there are a number of firms looking for mid-level to senior PE / M&A associates. In the Middle East, we have are seeing hardly any lateral associate hiring in Dubai (a few mid-level senior associate positions in PE / M&A and project finance, but for most part not so urgent), but there are some needs in Abu Dhabi (and there will likely be some more hiring in Abu Dhabi later this year).

Most likely February ’09 will be the first month in over two years that I do not make a single associate placement in Asia or Middle East. I would be surprised (but not shocked) to also not make a US associate placement in March, as some of those interviewing now will likely get hired by March, April and May (firms are taking much longer than usual to give offers). The HK / China firms that have the most flexibility to hire are PE / M&A focused offices that are fairly new in the market, still building up critical mass, and not affected by having a large group of cap market associates with no work.

On the partner side in Asia things are as busy as ever. This is not surprising as usually a) there is more movement of partners in down cycles; b) most partner movement happens in the first quarter of a given year; and c) in an emerging market there is going to be more partners looking to move than what is typical in an established market (as some firms change strategies from the day the particular office opened).

Notwithstanding the very poor state of affairs in the biglaw lateral hiring globally, and Asia being severely affected as well at present, I am very confident that qualified US associates who have long planned to move to Asia for the long-term are going to be able to do so in the next 3 to 18 months. Many of our firm clients have been in preliminary conversations with candidates that have been on hold since late last year, even though hiring may not happen at such firms until much later this year. Thus, Asia job searches are long-term at this point and will be for a while. While the right PE / M&A candidate can land in HK / China relatively quickly, most new associate hires in Asia in ’09 will be in the second half of the year.

Some of our recent new candidates are now starting potentially long-term job searches in Asia (an option for some M&A associates, for example), whereas others are choosing to gather information from us and waiting to formally apply to firms when the market picks up (recommended for cap markets associates in particular). Most of the associate openings we have are PE / M&A (mainly mid to senior level), but we also have some small amount of openings in project finance / energy (junior to mid-level), IP (mainly mid to senior levels), real estate (mid-level), and even a couple in cap markets (mid level), surprisingly. Most openings are not urgent and hiring decisions could lag.

For several years we have been advising potential US associate candidates on possible / probable / planned future moves to Asia and Middle East. Most of our candidates we work with 6 months or longer (many over one year) before they are ready to start a job search and we advise on when is the right timing, considering long-term career goals. Thus, this aspect of our work has not changed and we simply have more long-term candidates than before. If you are interested in moving to Asia or the Middle East for the long-term, in the big scheme of things it is not going to make much of a difference if you were able to move in first quarter of ’09, second half ’09, or even some point in ’10.

Next week our post will deal with reasons we believe the HK / China market will turn around before US markets and why the lateral hiring market in HK / China could be strong by late ’09. Of course, we are not economists (and would it matter these days?), but are fortunate to be in regular conversations on the market with senior US attorneys and some business leaders in Asia and Middle East.

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