A rising regulatory burden and the need to support front-office deal-making are forcing global banks in Hong Kong to hire more lawyers and give their current legal teams more specialised work.
“There’s been a pick-up in hiring for in-house Hong Kong lawyers,” says Nathan Smith, director of search firm Eximus Law in Hong Kong. “Regulatory lawyers have been pivotal to the successful translation and implementation of newer Hong Kong regulations coming from SFC and HKMA as well as the Competition Commission and insurance regulators.”
Banks are also keen to reduce their spending on external legal advice, says Liam Richardson, managing director of Pure Search in Hong Kong. “Improved market conditions have also meant busier front-office departments requiring more legal support,” he adds.
As their legal teams grow in size and become more specialised, banks in Hong Kong are focused on recruiting litigators, non-contentious regulatory lawyers, lawyers with investigations experience, and lawyers to support their global-markets, private-banking and asset-management divisions, says Richardson. Global banks typically use Hong Kong rather than Singapore as their main Asian legal base.
HSBC and Standard Chartered are two of the most active recruiters of rank-and-file legal talent in Hong Kong this year – earning results indicate that regulatory costs have been rising substantially at both firms. There have also been a series of senior appointments in recent months. Dewi Potter has relocated from Barclays in London to Hong Kong as Asia Pacific legal head of the firm’s investment bank. He replaces David Poureshagh, who has moved to J.P. Morgan as an MD and Asia Pacific legal head of capital markets. CLSA, the Hong Kong-based brokerage currently planning to expand into investment banking, has hired Jaclyn Jhin, a former Morgan Stanley MD who left the bank in 2012 to set up a sportswear company, as general counsel.
Lawyers in Hong Kong are also joining compliance teams at banks as the pool of qualified compliance officers in the city is failing to meet hiring demand. Law-to-compliance moves are more common at a senior level, where roles are advisory-focused and require less hands-on monitoring and surveillance work, says Richardson.
“Compliance teams have responded swiftly to hire for positions where specialist legal skills are now required, such as advisory and litigation for AML and sanctions breaches,” says Pathay Singh, managing director of search firm The Compliance Grid in Hong Kong. Smith from Eximus adds: “Lawyers are also entering compliance roles in data-privacy and anti-bribery functions. The blend of a legal background and regulatory knowledge is sought after for managing complicated cross-jurisdictional regulatory environments.”
Prior in-house banking experience isn’t needed for most legal and compliance jobs – financial lawyers in private practice at Hong Kong law firms are prime candidates. “Banks are recruiting lawyers mainly at AVP and VP level as they try to make their teams less top heavy. These hires tend to come from private practice as a VP from one bank is less likely to move laterally to another VP role, preferring a step-up to director,” explains Richardson from Pure Search. “It also depends on skill set – it’s easy to find someone with capital-markets, funds, litigation or derivatives experience from a law firm, but it’s much harder to get prime-brokerage or private-banking experience.”
Recruiters aren’t finding it difficult to convince candidates to move from law firms to banks, however. “The salary potential in banking, coupled with fact that banking roles are perceived as having a lighter workload and no business-development work have made this type of shift attractive,” says Singh.