From left to right: Howse Williams Bowers partners Kevin Bowers, David Coogans, Linda Heathfield, Chris Howse and David Kan. ()

Hong Kong’s emergence as Asia’s preeminent financial center has drawn the big-name firms from London, New York and elsewhere in droves. To date, however, it has proved somewhat less of spur to the expansion of homegrown firms.

In 2008 Johnson Stokes & Master, the biggest Hong Kong firm, merged with U.S. giant Mayer Brown, joining a host of smaller firms that combined with international players. The disappearance of JSM as a stand-alone firm left 200-lawyer Deacons as the only large independent firm left in Hong Kong.

Enter two-year-old Howse Williams Bowers, which now counts 60 lawyers and is aiming for 100.

“That is the space we’d like to fill, to be a credible and viable alternative to Deacons,” says Christopher Howse, one of Howse Williams Bowers’ founding partners.

Howse sees a moment of opportunity for independent firms in Hong Kong now. Historically, the rise of large local firms has been stymied by the ease with which foreign firms have entered the market. A British colony until 1997, Hong Kong has long been regarded as home turf for leading U.K. firms. More recently, U.S. firms have greatly increased their presence in Hong Kong, especially in capital markets.

But Howse says all the international firms are heavily focused on big-ticket transactions, leaving an opening in the market for firms that handle similar corporate, finance and dispute resolution matters, just on a smaller scale. In fact, he sees the larger firms as rich sources of referrals to Howse Williams Bowers, which doesn’t compete with them back home.

“No London law firm is going to send work to one of their London competitors in Hong Kong,” he says.

Hong Kong’s latest independent firm is actually the legacy of a former U.K. firm. Back in 1983, when Hong Kong was still a British colony, Howse moved from London to take the helm of the local office for Richards Butler. He was still in charge when the office, following the rest of the firm by about a year, agreed to merge with Reed Smith in 2008.

But Howse says the merger didn’t take for him and the four other partners and 15 other lawyers who left to launch Howse William Bowers in 2011. Some 85 lawyers, including 27 partners, stayed behind at Reed Smith.

“The difference in culture was underestimated,” Howse says. He calls Reed Smith “highly structured” and a contrast with the more independent culture Richards Butler’s Hong Kong office had developed before the merger. The office was, in fact, run independently from the rest of Richards Butler, albeit mainly for tax reasons, which is why it merged separately with Reed Smith.

Deacons executive partner Keith Cole sympathizes and thinks the trend may be moving away from big mergers in the region.

“These things go in cycles,” says Cole. “There has been lots of consolidation in last decade or so, but personally I think a number of partners in these firms feel they have lost something by being a part of something that is essentially a conglomerate.”

Howse also notes that the Reed Smith merger raised client conflicts for some of the legacy Richards Butler partners. While Richards Butler Hong Kong derived much of its litigation work from representing insurers, Reed Smith’s U.S. offices often acted against insurers. Reed Smith had ambitions to advise banks, while Richards Butler Hong Kong was occasionally on the opposite side of financial institutions.

Roger Parker, Reed Smith’s London-based managing partner for Europe, Middle East and Asia, said: “Combination has at heart a coming together of historic cultures and businesses. Successful integration involves a thoughtful application of organizational adjustment, flexibility and a willingness to change. We are pleased that our Hong Kong business continues to maintain its premier position in market and as one of the very highest performing businesses in our global firm.”

Eversheds Hong Kong partner Ivan Ng calls Howse Williams Bowers’ founding partners “a formidable force in Hong Kong,” and he expects them to succeed in their core practice areas. But he also says that they are a “special case” in the market, and that “generally people will stick to larger organizations rather than having own venture.”

Though Howse Williams Bowers launched with 20 lawyers, it has steadily grown. On the disputes side, litigation partner Andrew Kinnison joined the firm last May from U.K. law firm Green & Greene, and Jill Wong came aboard as a partner in November from King & Wood Mallesons, where she was counsel. Howse Williams Bowers focuses on litigation in the shipping, insurance and financial sectors. The firm also has a family and matrimony law practice, capitalizing on what Howse describes as “the preponderance of high-profile family disputes in Hong Kong,” as well as wealth management and regulatory disputes.

The firm has also bolstered its corporate practice with lateral hires. Finance partner Jonathan Silver joined from Norton Rose Fulbright in August. Earlier last year, Howse William Bowers also brought aboard as corporate partners former Reed Smith Richards Butler associate Chia Ching Tan and Stephenson Harwood London partner Peter Bradley.

Howse says the firm is looking for mid-market capital markets deals and mergers and acquisitions, and last December advised the sole underwriter in Hong Kong water company Excel Development (Holdings) Ltd.’s $7.7 million initial public offering. Corporate partner Brian Ho, who joined from an in-house position at Standard Chartered in December 2012, led the firm’s work on the deal, its first-ever IPO.

“If you want to do major corporate transactions, banking transactions, major dispute resolution matters, you need to have strength and depth and resources to be able to look after your clients,” says Howse. “That is our intention.”

But he also adds that the firm is taking a cautious approach in building out its transactional practice, noting the high level of competition in the market.

“There is currently a decline in corporate work in Hong Kong,” he says, “and as a result Howse Williams Bowers is not looking to expand its corporate practice significantly until the market picks up.”

In the face of intense competition from U.K. and U.S. firms, and now Chinese firms that are opening offices in Hong Kong, Cole says independent firms need to look for areas in which they can stand out. At Deacons, he says, those areas include intellectual property, insurance, real estate and financial restructuring.

Cole also says that receiving referrals from large international firms is a major benefit of remaining independent. While he couldn’t offer specific figures, he said referred matters accounted for “a very substantial part” of the firm’s business.

But Mayer Brown JSM Asia chair Elaine Lo, the former head of JSM, says the benefits of linking up with a global far outweigh those of staying independent.

“Referrals are not significant from my experience,” she says, adding that they are also not reliable in the long run. “There’s no guarantee that your friend sending you work today will not be practicing in your home country in two years.”

International reach is also more crucial to serving clients these days, says Lo.

“The world is a more and more connected one,” she says. “If your clients are the global banks or institutions or companies that have ambitions to be international, you have to ask yourself [if] you can serve them without a capability in a different part of the world.”

Still, some lawyers disagree with Lo’s take.

“You don’t need all of the trappings of the global international law firm to deliver services to clients in this town, whether those clients are in Hong Kong or not,” says King & Wood Mallesons Hong Kong partner Denis Brock.

Howse Williams Bowers stands as a counterargument to the logic of law firm consolidation. And Howse thinks others will stand with them at some point. He ventures that any number of Hong Kong lawyers at these merged firms may be frustrated with the stresses of working in a large international firm.

“I would not be surprised if you don’t see more firms like this in the future,” he says.

Email: tbrennan@alm.com.