KPMG has launched a law firm in Hong Kong and plans to open another in Shanghai later this year—evidence that the Big Four accounting firms’ huge push into Asian legal markets continues.
KPMG’s Hong Kong firm, called SF Lawyers, joins the auditor’s global legal services network and forms an association with KPMG Law in Australia. SF Lawyers will initially have nine lawyers joining in the next few months, including four principals: Shirley Fu, Rodney Chen, David Murray and Leo Tian. The firm aims to have 20 lawyers in total by the end of the year.
Fu, who focuses on corporate and commercial transactions in China, joined from offshore firm Harneys after two years as counsel. Previously, she practiced at rival offshore firm Maples and Calder, Winston & Strawn and DLA Piper. Earlier in her career, she did a stint at KPMG as a tax consultant in Sydney. Fu is the only principal who has already joined SF Lawyers.
Chen, an infrastructure projects specialist, is currently in-house as principal legal adviser of projects and international business at Hong Kong rail operator MTR Corp. Ltd. He previously practiced at Pinsent Masons and at Australian firms Allens and the legacy Michell Sillar (now HWL Ebsworth Lawyers).
Murray will transfer internally from KPMG China, where he is general legal counsel, advising on various legal matters, including contracting and commercial, litigation, regulatory, privacy and employment law. He was previously senior legal counsel at Big Four rival EY and had stints at boutique firms, plaintiffs firm Maurice Blackburn and Clayton Utz in Australia.
Tian, who focuses on transactions, will join from Shearman & Sterling, where he is an associate. Previously, he practiced at Faegre Baker Daniels and Paul Hastings in Shanghai and did a stint in-house at semiconductor giant Intel Corp. in Beijing.
SF Lawyers will collaborate closely with KPMG and deliver integrated business solutions to clients, said Fu, particularly in mergers and acquisitions and infrastructure projects in China.
In Shanghai, KPMG plans to launch a 25-lawyer firm, which will include four or five partners, focusing on general commercial work, mergers and acquisitions, infrastructure, regulatory compliance and employment law.
Despite the big Asia expansion, KPMG is, to date, the only Big Four firm that does not have any legal offering in Singapore. And the auditor currently has no plans to launch a law firm in the city-state, though it is being closely studied, according to Lachlan Wolfers, KPMG’s head of legal for China and Hong Kong who is helping establish SF Lawyers and the Shanghai firm.
“It’s a key market, but you need that local, on-the-ground support,” Wolfers said of Singapore. “If the KPMG global legal services network is able to launch successfully in Hong Kong and Shanghai, I would expect it would give a lot of confidence around a proposition in Singapore. But ultimately it’s a decision that needs to be supported locally [by KPMG Singapore].”
Stuart Fuller, the former King & Wood Mallesons global managing partner who now leads KPMG’s Asia-Pacific legal services, added that the support of KPMG Singapore is needed to build a credible law firm in the city-state, so clients can be served an integrated offering including legal, auditing and tax.
Currently, in addition to China and Australia, KPMG also has affiliated law firms in Cambodia, Taiwan, Thailand and Vietnam.
In 2018, all three of KPMG’s Big Four rivals launched new practices in Singapore. PwC and EY launched new Singaporean law firms, while Deloitte launched both local and foreign law practices that year.
But despite missing out in Singapore, KPMG’s legal services lawyer head count in the Asia-Pacific region grew 40 percent last year, said Fuller, outpacing global growth of 30 percent.
Globally, KPMG’s legal services network spans 76 markets with 2,300 lawyers, up about 500 since November last year—mostly in Australia, the U.K. and Germany. The auditor is aiming to expand its legal services arm to more than 3,000 lawyers in the next few years, U.K. legal services head Nick Roome told Law.com affiliate Legal Week in November.
In addition to Singapore, KPMG’s Big Four rivals are also expanding in Hong Kong. EY and PwC expanded their own Hong Kong firms last year, adding partners from international firms. Also, Deloitte told Law.com’s The Asian Lawyer in November that it will launch a 25-lawyer firm in Hong Kong this month, making it the largest Hong Kong firm of the Big Four.
While EY and PwC have stocked their legal teams with recruits from international firms, KPMG’s Fu said her team’s in-house experience gives her firm an advantage.
“[Some members of SF Lawyers] actually have been the users of legal services, so they can really understand the clients’ challenges and understand what the client really wants,” Fu said. “Our ultimate aim is to provide integrated legal solutions to clients, not just opinions.”