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 five years. You can reach them by email: [email protected]

Happy Chinese New Year! We were extremely busy the past few months, including most of our US based team working from our Hong Kong offices during November and December.

As a follow up from our recent post, which listed our 62 US associate and counsel placements in Asia last year (vast majority in HK / China), please note that thus far in January ’12, we have already made nine US associate and counsel placements in Asia. This is an especially impressive number, considering the biglaw lateral hiring market in Asia is down right now (see state of the market brief overview below). These new placements are of new hires in Hong Kong, Beijing and Shanghai, who were interviewing with their new firm for a month or more and they are spread out among different practice areas, including project finance, litigation, fund formation, M&A and cap markets. We are close on four additional new associate placements, in Hong Kong, Tokyo and Shanghai, that we expect to close soon. We do not discuss partner placements in these articles, but the pace of partner recruitment in Asia (a large part of our business) has continued.

Hedge Fund In-House Openings in Hong Kong

We are seeing a small run of new in-house openings in Hong Kong at hedge funds. We are currently filling three different in-house positions at three different hedge funds in Hong Kong, two of these searches we are handling on an exclusive basis. All three will most likely be filled by a US associate, with about 4 to 6 years of experience. Mandarin not required. Candidates from NYC and London will be considered, but at one of these funds the new hire will likely come from Hong Kong / China or Singapore (with HK being the strong preference).

Please feel free to reach out to us at [email protected] if you are interested in these hedge fund openings. As you probably would expect, the competition for these spots will be fierce and the funds will be very selective when choosing which candidates to interview.

Basic Overview of the Lateral Hiring Market in Asia

We are fortunate to meet regularly in-person with senior US corporate and cap markets partners in HK / China, especially when Evan Jowers and Robert Kinney are visiting our Hong Kong office. Evan and Robert are friends with many key US partners in HK / China and the region and have at least close business relations with most key US partners in HK / China and Singapore. It is, in large part, through such in-person meetings during their many trips to HK (usually 6 such trips a year for Evan and 4-5 for Robert) and also other Asia markets, that we get a great read on the market and what US partners are thinking about the near-term and long-term prospects for their deal flow. We are very fortunate that such senior partners go out of their way to make time to meet Robert and Evan when they are in town. Further, we have Alexis Lamb permanently on the ground in HK having such meetings and Asia based partners also meet in the US with Evan and Robert when they are visiting there. Yuliya Vinokurova, our Russia-based recruiter, also works out of our Hong Kong office from time to time.

During Evan and Robert’s last three recent trips to HK, occurring from August to December ’11, the outlook of most of the US corporate partners they regularly meet with in HK improved substantially. While lateral US corporate associate hiring has not picked up yet in HK / China, the outlook for future deal flow has improved over the situation only a few months ago.

The general feeling in the market from most US corporate associates that we are speaking to these days is that hiring is very slow in Asia and will be for a long while, but the reality is not nearly as dire as this common view. While US associate lateral hiring has indeed slowed down significantly in the Asia markets, the slow-down has mainly been in US cap markets, but not necessarily in other practice areas. Cap markets hiring, especially at the top US firms, has always been the key driver for US associate hiring in Asia. Thus, when hiring in US cap markets is down, the entire lateral hiring market for US associates in Asia is significantly down.

US Cap Markets hiring in HK / China has not stopped entirely though. For example, in the past three weeks, we have made two US cap markets associate placements in HK, at a top US firm and a Magic Circle firm. We predict that US cap markets hiring in HK / China will not pick up that much until spring though and we don’t expect a repeat of the early ’11 US cap markets hiring boom in HK / China for years to come.

Keep in mind that in the first half of ’11, we were in the tail end of a two year IPO boom in HK / China and for most of that boom period, many top US firms’ HK / China offices were either on hiring freeze or only allowed limited hiring by their global firm management. By the end of ’10, most US practices in HK / China were finally given the full green light to hire as many associates as the partners’ on the ground felt they needed, but by that time most US cap markets practices in HK / China were woefully understaffed. Thus, the unprecedented hiring boom commenced.

As you know, late summer ’11 onwards brought on a slow down in IPO activity in HK / China. The slow down was caused mainly by volatility in the global markets, due in large part to the Europe crisis. Many clients of top US cap markets practices in Asia decided to put scheduled IPOs on hold. At the height of the Europe crisis and the volatility in the markets last fall, there was a realistic fear that many IPOs could be put on hold for a year or more. Despite the gloomy outlook at the time, it was a much more healthy market than in late ’08, when pencils were basically put down at cap markets practices in Asia. Late last year, cap markets practices in HK / China were still working on deals scheduled for closing in 4th quarter, but the expectation was that most of those deals would ultimately be put on hold, perhaps long-term. Things picked up in the markets late last year and some law firms’ clients pushed through their IPO 4th quarter closings after all. Most importantly, the feeling in the market is now that IPOs put on hold late last year and 1st quarter this year could come back in first half ’12, instead of in late ’12 or ’13.

Of course, there are many variables at play in the global markets that will determine things (our brief overview here is overly simplistic due to this being a blog post, rather than a dissertation), and there are surely economic challenges that China must overcome in ’12, but the outlook has improved substantially in the past 3 months. The Europe crisis has been put on hold, at least for a while, and the threat of a significant slow down in China’s economy has not materialized. Economists are now predicting China’s sizzling growth will slow some in ’12,and will still be at boom levels of around 8.5%. The predictions were far more dire several months ago by some economists, who were predicting a “hard landing” for China’s economy in ‘12.

China’s growth rate in ’11 was 9.2%, down from the 10.4% in ’10. The outlook for the first three months of ’12 is expected to be around 8.3%, but then pick up afterwards for the remainder of ’12. China’s growth in the 4th quarter ’11 slowed to 8.9%, a much smaller decline than what was expected.

We believe that starting after the extended holiday season of late December through an earlier than usual Chinese New Year presently upon us, a few more US cap markets practices in Asia will consider hiring again. It will likely be no earlier than spring though before we see a real increase in cap markets lateral associate hiring though.

We expect to continue to make placements in other practice areas though during 1st and 2nd quarters, especially as many US law firms in Asia continue to diversify and add new practices. While cap markets placements have been down, we have had higher than usual numbers of placements in Asia in fund formation, project finance and in new US litigation practices (mostly FCPA work). Our partner friends in fund
formation are flat-out busy for the most part. M&A placement numbers have been down a bit, but in better shape than cap markets.

IPO activity still is the driver for a lot of the US associate hiring though in Asia and when cap markets work slows, it can be difficult for partners busy in other practices in Asia to get clearance to make the hires they need. Firm management back in US or UK can be heavily influenced by the overall numbers of an Asia office, numbers driven by cap markets deal flow at many of those offices, when deciding whether to give the green light on hires in general.

Also, keep in mind that during slow hiring periods like this one, there is an abundance of very high quality cap markets and corporate US associate candidates on the market in Asia. When a hiring partner is unsure he should pull the trigger on new hires just yet and he has seven great resumes on his desk, it is much easier to hold off. Hiring decisions are rushed, on the other hand, when Asian background candidates from top 10 firms become scarce and that can happen very quickly in an obviously improving market. It could happen in spring or summer this year, if the markets continue to improve.