The way competition has been playing out in the Asian legal scene lately has been almost comically predictable. One New York firm decides to practice Hong Kong as well as U.S. law; one year later, they all do. One large Australian firm inks a deal with an international partner; a few months later, four of the Big Six Aussie firms are spoken for.
Absolutely no one wants to be left behind. Managing partners have all heard that the axis of the world economy is shifting to the East, that the next century will be the Asian Century, and that the future of the profession is going to be decided in Hong Kong, Singapore, Beijing, Mumbai, or maybe Perth.
But, while Asia is undoubtedly the future, there is reason to be skeptical that the future is arriving quite as quickly as international law firms think it is.
For one thing, there’s the stubborn fact that it remains very, very hard for firms to make money in the region. Initial public offerings in the United States remain marquee deals that can generate several millions of dollars in fees. But in Hong Kong, which has led the world in IPOs by value for the last three years, commodity pricing reigns; firms typically handle such offerings for flat fees of around $1 million. M&A deals are also usually competitively bid and handled on flat fees far lower than comparable billables on a stateside deal.
Firms have made this pricing work with various forms of labor arbitrage; many observers think the latest moves Down Under are mainly about lowering those international firms’ cost bases, as Australian rates—and salaries—are much lower than their U.S. and U.K. equivalents. Yet, whenever things seem to be stabilizing, the rug gets pulled out. Lately, with deal flow considerably down in the first half of 2012, partners active in the Hong Kong market say that the price point for IPOs has dropped toward $500,000.
This cut-rate pricing is not a new problem. Almost a decade ago, Cravath, Swaine & Moore left Hong Kong because it said it could not command the kind of deal fees that it could in New York. Many firms active in the market said then that it was only a matter of time before either Asian clients saw the value of paying a premium for top-quality legal services, or certain firms emerged as market leaders with commensurate pricing power.
All this time later, neither condition has yet materialized. Asian companies, whether state-owned oil companies or private tech start-ups, continue to drive hard bargains with law firms. This is, of course, related to the continuing arrival of new firms in the market, many of them eager to build a track record and willing to work cheap to win deals.
Lawyers in the region often privately grumble that their Asian clients are just not sophisticated enough to understand why they need to pay more for legal services. It is undoubtedly true that many Asian companies remain far less attuned to legal and regulatory concerns than their Western counterparts, but that brings up another point worth pondering: Why are international firms counting on relatively unsophisticated companies to engage in all manner of sophisticated transactions?
Almost all Western law firms in the region say that they are positioning themselves for a boom in outbound investment by Chinese companies. It’s true that Chinese companies are venturing abroad more, but, by and large, they are still heavily focused on the acquisition of strategic, hard assets: mines, oil fields, and also—when they can get it—technology. The day when a considerable number of Chinese companies start acting like multinationals and buy actual companies to operate overseas is probably still some time away. Most such Chinese companies would probably admit that, right now, they lack the management sophistication to operate on a global scale.
That sophistication will come with time, but how much time? It could be a few more years, it could be another generation. Yet law firm heads who hire star Hong Kong laterals on multimillion-dollar guaranteed three-year contracts are clearly looking for things to happen right now. Indeed, managing partners can be counted on to talk up how their Asian offices are going to make up for lagging U.S. and European practices.
In all likelihood, Europe and the U.S. will have time to go through a few more economic cycles before Asia can be considered a true counterweight. But it probably won’t take that long to figure out who’s made the right choices in the region.