With redundancies, pay cuts and the odd ﬁrm closing shop in Asia, lawyers in private practice face prolonged uncertainty. But while many ﬁrms are playing it safe and avoiding any additional costs, there are still a few that are hiring, and doing so strategically.
Katherine Fan, managing director at Hughes-Castell Hong Kong, tells Asian Legal Business that law firms are undoubtedly “remaining cautious regarding headcount this year,” with a number announcing a headcount freeze for associate and non-partner hiring.
Her view is echoed by Oliver Allcock, a senior manager at Robert Walters Hong Kong, says that hiring within the city’s legal community has been significantly affected by the pandemic. While he expected to see hiring trends emerge, global hiring freezes have quashed many ﬁrms’ plans.
“Whilst we expected international law ﬁrms to hire in disputes, restructuring and insolvency, many are subject to a global hiring freeze and accordingly we have not seen this materialise,” Allcock says.
However, law firms continue to consider partners with expertise in practice areas that have synergy with their current offerings, says Fan. She adds that while many law ﬁrms may be taking a wait and see approach, others continue to ﬁll roles and seek out new talent to meet a sudden uptick in speciﬁc types of COVID-19 related work. Restructuring and insolvency, litigation and dispute resolution are among the areas that Fan anticipates an increase in hiring needs.
“We have observed that ﬁrms are also investing in areas such as a private client and investment funds lawyers. Firms continue to boost their expertise in debt ﬁnance,” she says, adding that another trend that has continued is the growth of Red Circle Firms in Hong Kong, and their expansion across capital markets, M&A, private equity and funds.
Allcock notes in terms of in-house roles, that the businesses that remain actively hiring tend to be from Greater China. Additionally, the most active companies are in fintech — “driven by the developing virtual banks and cryptos industries,” and private equity platforms.
As a result of law firm office closures and rounds of redundancies, there is a larger number of jobseekers in the market, recruiters ﬁnd.
And with more job seekers in the market, law firms looking to add to their headcount are in a prime position. Although employees are likely to have to suffer through longer wait times as employers — even those hiring — proceed with care.
“Employers have become more cautious about candidate selection and offer terms. We’ve observed that hiring processes are taking one to three months longer than before the Covid-19 pandemic and that law ﬁrms have been more conservative regarding sign-on offers and any guaranteed terms,” says Fan.
Meanwhile, employers hiring at senior levels are looking for candidates who are adaptable leaders with crisis-management skills, “who show empathy and compassion, and can lead a team through change,” she adds. Perhaps unsurprisingly, a high level of digital literacy is also expected of candidates.
The future of legal hiring may also look quite different in the next few years. “As our clients continue to assess COVID-19 conditions, they also continue to reﬁne their value proposition and hiring methodology,” says Fan, adding that the skills gained during this period are likely to last.
“We foresee practices such as working from home and additional technology use such as video conferencing to last beyond COVID-19. In terms of hiring needs, we have seen the market already pick up in May (compared to say February/March), and we anticipate it to continue to improve in the latter half of 2020,” she adds.
The Attributes of Job Seekers Most Sought After by Employers in the Age of COVID-19
Katherine Fan, Hughes-Castell Hong Kong
Employees that are going to succeed during a pandemic will need to be able to adapt to fast-evolving workplaces and have the ability to continuously refresh their skills.
During the pandemic, we have seen a spike in fake news and misrepresentations of data. Employees who can objectively evaluate information will be valued.
The ability to control our emotions and be empathetic to others’ emotions is a highly coveted attribute. Employees with high EQ will be highly preferred by all industries.
The way we work has rapidly evolved in the age of COVID-19 and demands for new skill sets have emerged. Employers will prefer employees who continue to up-skill themselves.
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