Herbert Smith Freehills to close Kuala Lumpur office

Move follows February’s decision to pull out of Seoul; firm restates commitment to grow Asia revenue

HSF is quitting the Malaysian capital Shutterstock

Herbert Smith Freehills (HSF) has announced plans to close its Kuala Lumpur office, the second Asia branch it has axed this year.

The Anglo-Australian firm has put the move down to the changing needs of clients, using similar language to that deployed when it announced its withdrawal from South Korea in February.

The office, which houses 15 lawyers according to the firm’s website, will close by the end of April next year. The firm declined to comment on any plans for the local workforce, save to say that it would “fully support them as closure plans progress”.

Asia managing partner Graeme Preston said in a statement: “We remain committed to our successful and longstanding relationships with Malaysian clients but also recognise that their needs have changed dramatically since we opened in Kuala Lumpur in 2017. 

“Those needs are now more regularly met from our other seven offices in Southeast Asia, China and Japan, our three local law alliances, and the rest of our international network.”

The move nevertheless signals a significant strategic rethink for HSF, which opened the office in 2017 amid some fanfare, identifying it as a key hub for servicing clients in Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) states.

HSF was, however, one of only two international firms to take advantage of a relaxation in Malaysian bar rules to allow international firms to set up there, the other being Trowers & Hamlins.

There are a number of conditions attached to setting up shop in Malaysia, both in relation to permitted practice areas and a stipulation that at least 30% of lawyers based there must be nationals.

Most international law firms have been content to serve the region from Singapore, whose status as a major Asian legal hub has been strengthened since China’s quashing of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement.

Preston said: “We remain committed to our clients in Malaysia, as an important part of our plans for Asia to contribute 20% of firm revenue by 2027, and will continue to support them with international legal expertise and insight.”

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