23 Jan 2020

Australia shines as legal recruitment market in Hong Kong and Singapore slows

Research finds political unrest taking its toll on hiring in Hong Kong as in-house pay rises in Australia

Unrest in Hong Kong has dampened recruitment demand

Demand for international lawyers in Hong Kong and Singapore has slowed while the Australian legal recruitment continues to remain buoyant, according to data released by recruiter Beacon Legal. Beacon Legal’s 2020 Asia Salary Survey and Market Report notes ‘limited’ opportunities for international lawyers in Singapore in 2019 compared to previous years while Hong Kong’s market slowed noticeably after a strong start as a result of the ongoing protests.

By comparison, the recruitment firm identifies Australia as a hotspot, especially for in-house lawyers after an ‘exceptionally strong year’ in 2019.

A bright start for Hong Kong in 2019 saw corporate and finance associates in high demand  - especially those with mid-level experience - with the ability to speak fluent Mandarin or Cantonese being a key requirement.

The recruiter reports lateral movers achieving an average increase in their salaries of 10%, with higher increases for those with in-demand skills, which included lawyers with GDPR experience.

Associates at international firms in Hong Kong with between four and seven years of post-qualification experience (PQE) can expect to earn between $140k and $260k, with those at US firms earning a premium on those figures. This makes them the highest paid associates at that level in the three key markets of Hong Kong, Singapore and Sydney (see table).

The recruiter does not expect the Hong Kong market to reignite until ‘the political climate has stabilised’.

Location Experience Salary ($)*
Hong Kong  4-7 PQE 140,000 - 260,000
Singapore 4-7 PQE 156,000 - 230,000
Sydney 6 PQE 104,000 - 117,000

Source: Beacon Legal; *Hong Kong and Singapore rates are for non-US international law firms

The report attributes a slowdown in opportunities in Singapore throughout 2019 to ‘the cyclical nature of a small legal market as well as modest economic conditions across the globe’.

It adds: ‘This is combined with a more aggressive Government drive to increase job opportunities for local Singaporeans, which has reduced the demand for overseas legal professionals.’

In Australia, however, Bacon Legal reports that 2019 was another strong year for recruitment ‘without achieving the record role volume of 2018’.

‘The market demand for litigators has grown significantly over the past year and recruitment has remained constantly high,’ the firm’s Australia private practice report states

‘This is a trend we expect to continue into 2020, with a number of firms establishing on-going recruitment drives for their disputes practices for the foreseeable future,' the report states. ‘The main drivers have been the Banking Royal Commission, increased regulation within Financial Services and the banks requiring more legal services than ever before to protect from, and fight, disputes.’

It reports one litigation associate lateral hire with two years’ PQE earning $82.5k with a $3.5k sign on fee.

The stand-out sector, however, is the in-house market with hiring fuelled by external regulatory pressure on companies.

Fifty percent of the in-house roles placed by the recruitment firm were in the fields of financial services and technology with this demand narrowing the gap between private practice and in-house pay.

‘One of the most promising signs in 2019 has been the alignment of in-house and private practice salaries. In the past, law firms would typically pay 10-15% more than a company when hiring a lawyer. This gap is gradually being reduced, as companies are appreciating the commercial value of their legal teams and viewing them as value-adds, rather than cost centres.’