《经济学人》杂志近日发表的一篇文章对中国香港特别行政区的法律版图做出了一个有趣的观察。该文章说,“香港中环长期以来聚集着世界上最精英的律师事务所。而最近,其中一些国际老牌律所,如贝克·麦坚时(Baker McKenzie)、英国博闻律师事务所(BCLP)和富而德律师事务所(Freshfields),都已经离开中环,搬往租金更便宜的地区。”

“中环仍然有很多律师,只不过更多人现在为中伦、君合、方达这样的中国律师事务所工作。”

结合疫情期间一系列国际所关闭香港办公室,或其合伙人团队跳槽中资所的新闻,似乎在香港这座城市,国际所显露疲态,而中资所飞速发展,法律服务的“统治权”正在易手之中。不过在专家看来,现在就下结论可能为时尚早。

“我们的确看到少数国际所离开了香港,但很多成绩卓越、在香港有40余年发展历史的律所仍打算留下来。”Jomati咨询公司负责人Tony Williams告诉ALB, “武断地认为国际所的衰落是必然,且会被中资所取代的想法太过片面。”

在他看来,“与香港的一些国际大所相比,所谓‘红圈所’的规模仍然相对较小,但其显著的发展也是不争的事实”。

在过去的20年里,中国法律行业发展势头迅猛,这一发展态势也不免影响到了香港。 Williams 表示: “他们(中资所)正在寻求更多的国际影响力,显然,香港是实现这一目标的关键地点。他们将努力抓住为在港中国公司服务的一切机会。”

多伦多大学法律社会学家刘思达的一项研究显示,1998年,香港注册的49家外资所中只有一家来自中国大陆;到2017年,84家类似律所中,约有30%的总部设立在北京或上海。“关键问题在于:他们会以牺牲其他律所为代价进行扩张吗?又或者他们会给香港法律行业创造出更大的市场份额?” Williams 补充说。

竞天公诚律师事务所合伙人高翔律师近年来领导了一系列备受瞩目的香港IPO项目,这也使他成为了这一格局变化的前排观察者。他告诉ALB,英国所、美国所和中国所未来在香港法律市场的份额变化将会非常有趣——尤其是在资本市场领域。

“那些一直在香港有优势的国际所将持续占有主导地位。” 高律师观察道, “然而原本就不以香港IPO为主要业务发展方向的外资所,在这两年中便已精简其香港办公室。” 例如谢尔曼·思特灵律师事务所(Shearman & Sterling)经历了几位IPO律师的离开;奥睿律师事务所(Orrick Herrington & Sutcliffe)在其IPO团队离开后也没有另建团队。

但Williams指出,需要从更广阔的角度理解这一问题。“需要在全球趋势的背景下看待这个问题。在过去十年中,世界各地大型律所的盈利能力都大大增强。因此,他们会(从经济角度)审视其在各地的业务。而香港作为一座高成本的城市,一直是个极具挑战性的市场。”

“香港的主流外资所仍然对许多大型项目感兴趣,特别是资本市场、争议解决和东南亚地区的基建项目等。”Williams补充说。

中资所的雄心

目前,已有近40家中国所在香港设立了办公室,其中还包括像金杜律师事务所香港办公室这样人员规模超过200人的办公室,中资所无疑雄心勃勃。然而,作为香港法律市场的“外来者”,他们该如何在这里找到自己的定位?

Williams表示,对于这些律所来说,最大的好处在于能够在香港“为来自中国大陆的客户提供一系列法律服务” 。中国大陆企业近年来赴港上市的热潮就是一个很好的例子。在这些项目中,企业至少需要四个法律顾问,而法律规定,其中两个必须是中国所。

“他们将继续把内地客户带到香港,为他们提供不需要牵涉其他国际所的服务。这是他们的策略之一。”Williams补充说。

“他们也希望与各种中介机构发展更好更深入的合作关系,包括投资银行和其他在香港经营的机构。”

此外,人才招聘则可能是另一个竞争领域。因为 “香港的人才一直很抢手,这里法律行业的高素质人才库相对较小”。但在Williams看来,去不去中国所,主要还是 “看个人的意愿” 。

有趣的是,香港或将成为观察和检验中资所发展野心的最佳地点——显然,他们未来不会只停留在这里。“观察‘红圈所’的进一步发展很有意思。我们已经看到一些中资所在伦敦或纽约等地设立代表处,随着他们的野心越来越大,这样的情况也会越来越普遍。” Williams说。

 

Chinese firms are making inroads in Hong Kong, and they have momentum on their side

A recent article in The Economist made one interesting observation about the legal landscape in Hong Kong. According to the piece, “Hong Kong’s central district has long housed the offices of the world’s poshest law firms. Recently a few of them, such as Baker McKenzie, BCLP, and Freshfields, have left for parts of the city with cheaper rents.”

“Central still teems with lawyers,” it continues, “except that more now toil for mainland firms like Zhong Lun Law Firm, JunHe and Fangda Partners.”

When this is combined with recent news of international law firms either cutting back on their presence in Hong Kong – or losing key personnel to mainland Chinese law firms, it might seem like the latter are marching towards domination of the former British city, but some industry watchers feel it might be too early to jump to conclusion.

“We have seen a few international firms leaving Hong Kong, but many that are more established and have been there over 40 years, are intending to stay,” Tony Williams, principal at Jomati Consultants, tells ALB. “I think the idea that there is an inevitable decline of the international firms and their place taken by the Red Circle Chinese firms is just too simplistic.”

In his view, “compared to some of the international firms in Hong Kong, the Red Circle is still relatively small, but are clearly growing.

The growth of the Chinese law firms in the past two decades has indeed been spectacular, and Hong Kong is a natural first port of call for those with overseas ambitions. “It’s inevitable that they are looking to develop more of an international presence, and obviously, Hong Kong is a key place for this goal. It makes absolute sense that the Chinese firms are doing more in Hong Kong and they will seek to capture more of the work being done in Hong Kong for Chinese entities,” Williams says.

According to one study done by Liu Sida of Toronto University, in 1998, just one of Hong Kong’s 49 registered foreign law firms came from mainland China. By 2017 about 30 percent of 84 such firms had their headquarters in Beijing or Shanghai. “The question is, will they expand at the cost of the other firms? Or will they create a larger market for everyone?” Williams asks.

Gao Xiang, a partner at Jingtian & Gongcheng who has led a number of high-profile Hong Kong IPOs in recent years, is a firsthand observer of this shifting landscape. He tells ALB that it would be very interesting to observe how market share changes in the future among firms from the UK, the U.S. and mainland China, especially in the capital markets area.

“Those international law firms that have always had a dominant presence in Hong Kong will continue their development.” Gao says. “However, for those who do not originally have Hong Kong IPOs as their main business may have streamlined their Hong Kong offices over the past two years.”

Even law firms that count capital markets as a strength might not feel too secure. For example, Shearman & Sterling has seen several main IPO lawyers’ leaving, and Orrick Herrington & Sutcliffe did not rebuild another Hong Kong IPO team after their initial core left.

Williams points out the cutting back of international firms is indicative of finance-driven decision-making. “You need to see this in the context of the global trends. Major law firms around the world over the last ten years have become significantly more profitable. As a result, they look at their operations around the world (from a more economic perspective). Hong Kong has always been a challenging market in terms of the financial performance because it's a high cost location,” he says.

“Major international firms in Hong Kong are still interested in big work, such as capital markets, disputes resolution, and infrastructure projects around Southeast Asia, due to their long-term nature and the involvement of international agencies,” Williams adds.

CHINESE AMBITIONS

With nearly 40 Chinese firms having set up offices in Hong Kong, and firms like King & Wood Mallesons having a large Hong Kong presence with more than 200 lawyers, Chinese firms are not lacking in ambition. But how are they approaching this market.

According to Williams, the natural strength of these firms is “advising clients from mainland China on a range of issues” in the city. The IPO frenzy of mainland Chines companies in Hong Kong in recent years has provided impetus. The law requires that the issuer must have at least four legal advisors, with two of them being Chinese law firms.

“They will continue to bring their clients to Hong Kong and do the work without involving other international firms. That will be one of their approaches,” Williams adds. “Also, they will want to develop bigger and deeper relationships with the various intermediaries, including the investment banks and others operating in Hong Kong,” he says.

Recruiting talent might be another area of competition, as “Hong Kong has always been a tight market for talent because it has a relatively small pool of high-quality people in the legal sector.

While Hong Kong might be a perfect place to test and launch their overseas strategy, Chinese law firms will not stop there. “It’s interesting to observe the extent to which the Red Circle firms wish to develop further. We've seen some Chinese firms developing representative offices in places like London or New York, and we'll see more of that as they get more ambitious,” Williams says.

 

To contact the editorial team, please email ALBEditor@thomsonreuters.com.