In Asia, the largest law firms are getting even larger. Thanks to global mergers and local marketconsolidation, the gap between bigger and smaller law firms in Asia last year widened by 13.6 percent from a year earlier. It’s almost 400 percent larger than it was six years ago, the first year we collected data for our annual Asia 50 lawyer head count survey.
Unsurprisingly, leading our list of largest Asian firms is global giant Dentons with a worldwide head count of 7,445, up 13.5 percent year-on-year. Six years ago Dentons, then Dacheng Law Offices, also led our very first Asia 50 list, but with only 2,027 lawyers. Meanwhile, the smallest firm of today’s Asia 50, India’s Luthra & Luthra Law Offices, had 301 lawyers, 19 more than the head count at last year’s No. 50, China’s East & Concord Partners.
In 2016, 10 Asian-based firms had more than 1,000 lawyers globally, with all but one of them based in China. (Australia’s Ashurst is the exception.) Chinese firms now occupy half of the Asia 50. Through domestic and overseas expansion, Beijing DHH Law Firm saw the largest year-on-year growth on our list, 82 percent, and reached 1,035 in global head count.
To compile our rankings, we rely on three sources of data. For the Asia 50, we survey firms based in the Asia-Pacific region. We also rank the non-Asian firms with the largest head counts in Asia, drawing on information from the NLJ 500 survey of U.S. firms and on data gathered from our U.K. sibling publication Legal Week. We categorize a firm’s nationality based on the market where it has the most lawyers. All lawyer numbers are full time equivalents (FTEs) for the previous year, 2016. Under this methodology, Ashurst, despite its U.K. legacy, is considered an Australian firm and is thus ranked on the Asia 50, while Herbert Smith Freehills, although prominent in Australia, is treated as a British firm.
China’s Yingke came in second place on the Asia 50 with 6,278 lawyers, up 27 percent from a year earlier. Unlike Dentons, whose expansion has followed a decentralized approach that the firm calls “polycentric,” Yingke’s and Beijing DHH’s growth is powered from their bases in China. Driven by Chinese clients’ legal needs in outbound investments and overseas operations, both firms have been on an expansion spree since last year. In 2016, Yingke launched new branches in Zurich; Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia; and San Juan, Puerto Rico. This year it opened offices in France and Argentina and has launched in 42 countries globally.
Beijing DHH, which was rebranded a couple of years ago from the little-known Shandong Deheng Law Firm, has a similar approach. Since last year, it has opened eight new offices in Chengdu, Guangzhou, Wuhan and Changsha in China, and in Washington, D.C., Toronto, Moscow and St. Petersburg.
But not all Chinese firms saw dramatic growth. The elite corporate firm JunHe reported 454 lawyers, not many more than its 452 lawyers in 2011. JunHe is famously inclined towards organic growth and prefers independence to becoming part of an international entity. Still, JunHe’s lawyer numbers in 2016 increased by 12 percent from 2015, and this year it opened two new domestic offices in Tianjin and Qingdao, six years after its last office opening in Guangzhou.
The biggest Indian firms also grew larger. This is the second year that Cyril Amarchand Mangaldas and Shardul Amarchand Mangaldas & Co have appeared on our list since their predecessor firm, Amarchand & Mangaldas & Suresh A. Shroff & Co., split in 2015, and the distance between the two firms has widened. With 619 lawyers, not only did Cyril Amarchand inherit the status of India’s largest law firm, it managed to come very close to the legacy firm’s peak 690-lawyer head count in 2014. Shardul Amarchand reported 430 lawyers in 2016.
In most other Asian markets, the rankings of indigenous firms remain almost unchanged in recent years. Our survey found that South Korea’s Kim & Chang (860 lawyers), Japan’s Nishimura & Asahi (541 lawyers) and Singapore’s Rajah & Tann (543 lawyers) are still the biggest firms in their respective markets, just as they were a year ago and in 2011.
Australia has seen significant growth seen in mid-market players such as HWL Ebsworth, which added 11 lawyers to reach 574 in 2016, had just 379 in 2011. But the so-called Big Six—King & Wood Mallesons (2,397 lawyers), Herbert Smith Freehills, Ashurst (1,355 lawyers), MinterEllison (789 lawyers), Clayton Utz (689 lawyers) and Allens (614 lawyers)—continue their dominance.
Differences in head count among U.S. and U.K. global firms in Asia have also widened, but less dramatically compared to the indigenous firms. Baker McKenzie remains on top with 1,125 more lawyers than the 50th ranked firm, a gap that widened slightly from 2015’s 1,129 but has increased 11 percent in five years. In 2016, Seyfarth Shaw ranked 50th with 32 lawyers; in 2012—the first year we collected data for the largest international firms in the Asia-Pacific region—legacy SNR Denton and Debevoise & Plimpton tied at 50th with 22 lawyers. Herbert Smith Freehills claimed second place with 875 lawyers in Asia and Australia in 2016, down 4 percent from its 916 regional lawyers in 2015.
Our list of global firms with the biggest presence in Asia saw several newcomers this time. The U.K.’s Reynolds Porter Chamberlain made it to 44th place with 45 lawyers in Hong Kong and Singapore. Last year, RPC entered into a joint law venture with Singaporean firm Premier Law, doubling its head counts in the city-state to 27. King & Spalding was ranked 49th with 33 lawyers in Singapore and Tokyo.
Dropping off the list were two American firms, Winston & Strawn, which closed Beijing and Taipei offices in late 2016, and Weil, Gotshal & Manges. Winston & Strawn said closing in Beijing and Taipei was aimed at focusing its Asia practice more efficiently in Hong Kong and Shanghai. (That practice consolidated further this year when a six-lawyer corporate team left Hong Kong for Withers.) Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe also reorganized its China practice, a move that resulted in nine partners leaving for Morgan, Lewis & Bockius in early 2017.
But as the widening gap indicates, when some scale back, others stay put. Baker McKenzie Asia-Pacific chair Gary Seib says the firm has continued its commitment to the region by adding locally based lawyers: 110 so far in 2017. Morgan Lewis, after taking the nine-partner team from Orrick for a Hong Kong office launch, also expanded in Shanghai with a five-lawyer employment law group.
“If you have a strong and integrated global platform,” firm chair Jami McKeon said earlier this year. “I’m convinced size is an absolute advantage.”