In 2006, Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson made a dramatic entry into the Hong Kong legal market, raiding Simmons & Simmons for nine partners. With the opening of a Shanghai office the following year, the New York firm’s push signaled its intention of becoming major player in Asia.

This past April, Victoria Lloyd, who was most recently Asia capital markets practice head, joined the Hong Kong office of Ropes & Gray and became the seventh of those former Simmons partners to leave Fried, Frank. Two of the group—Huen Wong and Phillip Nunn—are still at the firm but are now consultants rather than partners.

The other Simmons partners—Joseph Lee, Raymond Kwok, Gilbert Ho, Stephen Mok, Liang Tsui, and Michael Hickman—had already moved on, most of them in the first two or three years after their arrival. Edward Kim and William Yoo, two lateral partners from other firms, have also come and gone.

Fried, Frank now has only three partners in Hong Kong and its Shanghai outpost currently has no full-time lawyers at all. In 2009, the firm ranked 15th in Mergermarket’s Asia Pacific mergers and acquisitions legal advisors league table by deal value, having worked on transactions valued at over $11 billion—but it hasn’t appeared in the top 20 since, in either value or number of deals.

How did the firm’s ambitions in Asia fizzle?

The Asian Lawyer spoke to seven former partners from Fried, Frank’s Asia offices, none of whom agreed to be quoted by name. All seven, however, agreed on certain things that went wrong.

The firm believed that its reputation for capital markets work and a close client relationship with Goldman Sachs in New York would carry over to Asia, providing work for its partners there. When that didn’t pan out, the ex-partners say, the firm’s U.S. management was slow to switch strategies. A number of the former partners also said that Fried, Frank’s Hong Kong office was split by internal disputes over which practices deserved priority.

Fried, Frank declined to comment for this article but said in a statement that the firm and its Hong Kong lawyers are “committed to servicing our clients in the Asia region and are currently working on a number of private equity and capital markets matters.”

The onset of the global financial crisis certainly hit Fried, Frank’s Asia offices hard, but six former partners say problems were evident before then.

“When they came out here, they thought it was mainly to do work for Goldman Sachs because they were already doing so much work for them back in New York,” says one of the ex-partners. “But they later realized that they didn’t have that type of relationship with Goldman in Asia.”

Even the most elite firms have generally found they need to pitch for work in Asia, with long-term relationships from their home markets often given less weight than firms would like.

“Firms tend to make assumptions that their relationships with clients in the U.S. can be leveraged in Asia, but, in reality, that’s not always the case,” says one Hong Kong partner with a Wall Street firm. “Institutional relationships are much less entrenched here.”

He says financial institutions and private equity funds tend to be very practical about hiring law firms in Asia, taking into account factors like the size of the firm’s office as well as price. The relationships that matter are between the local partners and the local in-house team. “Even if New York partners come down to your Hong Kong office, they are not the ones with the relationships with the local in-house here,” he says.

Fried, Frank has gotten major assignments from Goldman—in May, it advised the bank as financial advisor to the special board committee of U.S.-listed Chinese telecommunications software company AsiaInfo-Linkage Inc. on an $890 million take-private transaction. But so have Sullivan & Cromwell, a firm arguably even better known for its relationship with Goldman in New York; Simpson Thacher & Bartlett; Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer; and a number of other firms.

“I don’t think they realized how steep the competition was out here [in Hong Kong],” says one former partner.

While other New York capital market firms responded to the competition by seeking out new clients among Chinese corporations rather than just handling work for international banks, one former partner says Fried, Frank's management didn’t strongly encourage such client development. Notably, the partner recalls, chairperson Valerie Ford Jacob and other senior partners virtually never came to Asia to help sell the firm, much less work on matters. Jacob did not respond to requests for comment.

“Deals here are all about relationships and politics,” says an ex-partner. “At that time [2007], other firms were getting a lot of work because they naturally were more willing to sit down, have a meal, spend time with Chinese company heads and officials without one eye on the clock.”

The firm did send some New York lawyers to Hong Kong, including partner Joshua Wechsler, but five of the ex-partners say the relocatees’ lack of previous experience in Asia prevented them from expanding the practice. Wechsler did not respond to a request for comment.

According to three of the former Fried, Frank partners, the broad mix of practice specialties among the Simmons laterals—a third were in capital markets with others focusing on M&A, foreign investment, real estate, and construction—eventually led to internal conflicts in the office. Some of the Asia partners thought the office should focus on capital markets, while others argued for more resources into private equity and M&A. The result was inertia.

Hickman and Liang were the first of the Simmons crew to leave Fried, Frank when they moved to Dechert in 2008. Hickman is now with Beijing firm Haiwen & Partners while Liang is now China counsel for private equity shop PAG. Kwok left in 2009, working at Blank Rome and then Latham & Watkins before taking on his current role as head of legal for Macau casino operator Galaxy Entertainment Group. Mok left for Eversheds in 2009. Lee left to join Jones Day in 2010 and subsequently joined Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft. Ho also departed in 2010, leaving the legal profession entirely to eventually become head of brand management company Luxba Group Ltd.

Edward Kim, who joined Fried, Frank as a Hong Kong partner from Ashurst in 2006, left in 2009 and is now a foreign lawyer with Lee & Ko is Seoul. William Yoo, who came on board in 2007 from Paul Hastings, became a director at investment fund Bei Capital Partners in 2012.

Fried, Frank has brought in some lawyers to replace some of the lawyers who left. In 2011, the firm brought on O’Melveny & Myers corporate partner Douglas Freeman—who now heads Fried Frank’s Hong Kong office—and Victor Chen, who focuses on private equity deals. Last year, capital markets partner Carolyn Sng also came on board from the former Herbert Smith. The trio in July advised a consortium of investors on the $64 million delisting of Hong Kong-based gemstone jeweler LJ International Inc. from the Nasdaq stock exchange.

Email: jseah@alm.com.