Hiring at partner level in China? What are the options?
Despite market uncertainties and financial pressures, most international law firms in China are still seeking to grow their businesses in Beijing and Shanghai. One major challenge many firms face when hiring is what level of partner they should recruit. Here our consultant Shawn Chen discusses some of the options.
Day 1 Partners
A few international law firms have recently recruited or are trying to recruit rising stars who are senior associates/counsels in their current firm to join as day 1 partners. Over the last ten years within the Chinese offices of the first tier US/UK firms we have seen the development of a group of bilingual, top quality lawyers with Chinese backgrounds. They tick many of the boxes of the usual partnership criteria but due to the current market - both in China and globally – many of these talented lawyers cannot be made up to partner in their current firms. This is often because of more and more limited equity pools. Fortunately, some firms still want to invest in China and in this level of talent. They believe these high caliber individuals can quickly create new business contacts and synergy with existing partners, and therefore generate a strong business case within their firm to take on these additional partners.
These lawyers with around ten years of experience at partner level are in the prime stage of their careers. They are able to generate consistent fees for the firm, manage a sizable team and have developed a reputable name for themselves. This group of individual partners ticks all the boxes of requirements for firms trying to grow an existing office or set up a new practice. Interestingly, more partners in this group are currently working at PRC law firms rather than international law firms. This is because Chinese law firms have grown more quickly in recent years and some top billing partners have jumped ship in recent years from international law firms to PRC firms. It is therefore becoming extremely difficult for an international law firm in China to hire partners with mature business and an established name. In order to do this and attract these high caliber partners, international law firms often need to break away from their western dominated financial and management structures.
Hiring more senior partners obviously means a higher cost to the business but it does usually mean the hire brings established business with them. The challenges are how to identity the gap between financial investments and return and get the right balance between short-term pain and long-term gain. There are very few of these senior partners in China, but they are right at the top of the food chain. They have the most valuable business contacts and generate the most profitable work. Their career may be starting to slow down naturally as they begin to think of retirement, but their resources and influences will still take many years to transfer to the next generation. This is particularly true in a very locally sophisticated market like China. Known for lacking transparency, businesses in China are more attached to personal relationships and these are more difficult to transfer between generations and between firms than they are in the developed London/US legal markets.
Hiring a team of different seniorities
In the current uncertain market, a team hire is often safer than an individual one. In particular, a team consisting of partners of different seniorities is much more likely to bring the firm everything it is seeking – a solid client base, strong execution and time-tested team stability. Of course this brings the bigger challenges of integration to the hiring firm but that can be well managed and addressed with time. We may see more and more team moves across both international and domestic Chinese/HK law firms in the years to come. However, to spot such opportunities and for them to materialise takes time and in many cases requires expert help from either a search agent or a dedicated partner/senior hiring team within the law firm.
Hiring partners in China, at whatever level of seniority. is never easy. A lot has to fall into place on both sides of the deal in order for the move to happen. And, while considering a team hire can be daunting and seem like a big challenge, sometimes it is the best option for a law firm looking to bring in expertise at the partner level. Moving as part of a team is often far more attractive also from a candidate perspective and therefore the deal becomes much more likely to happen.
If you are thinking of expanding your team at the partner level or for more information on hiring partners and teams please contact Shawn Chen on +86 21 6103 7331 or via email [email protected].