Mayer Brown agrees to split from Hong Kong partnership citing 'strategic priorities'

US firm will continue to operate in Hong Kong, but bulk of office will resurrect historic Johnson Stokes & Master brand
Central, Hong Kong - Jun 6, 2023: Motion blur of Chinese people, crowd Asian commuter walk cross road, car, bus, taxi traffic transportation at night. Asia transport lifestyle, urban city life concept

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Mayer Brown is splitting with the bulk of its Hong Kong arm, the top 30 US firm confirmed today, in a move that will resurrect the historic Johnson Stokes & Master brand.

The arrangement, agreed in principal and due to be finalised by the end of the year, will see Mayer Brown maintain a smaller presence in Hong Kong while the Hong Kong partnership will revert to its legacy name, Johnson Stokes & Master (JSM), a prestigious Hong Kong firm that merged with Mayer Brown in 2008.

The firm currently has around 160 lawyers in Hong Kong – a figure that makes it the fourth largest international firm in the city by lawyer headcount – with another 10 across offices in Beijing and Shanghai.

“We are immensely proud of our 15-year combination with legacy JSM and the success we have achieved together, and the strong relationships that have formed between our lawyers, our staff and our clients,” said Jon Van Gorp, chair of Mayer Brown.

“Our strategic plan prioritises the development of core products and industries that are most relevant to our clients in the world’s global financial centres, including Hong Kong. This arrangement allows Mayer Brown to continue its presence in Hong Kong with a practice that aligns with our strategic priorities.”

Mayer Brown did not provide details of the leadership of its new partnership in Hong Kong but said it would focus on corporate and finance work including capital markets and M&A, as well as the development of its projects and infrastructure and energy industry offering.

The agreement is subject to the approval of the Law Society of Hong Kong.

News of the move, which first emerged earlier this week, comes amid escalating tensions between the US and China, the Chinese government’s tightening of cyber security and data protection laws on national security grounds, and a prolonged market downturn that has seen a raft of prominent law firms scale back their presence in the country.  

In 2021, Mayer Brown became embroiled in political tensions in Hong Kong after it announced it would no longer assist its longtime client, the University of Hong Kong, in efforts to remove a monument commemorating the Tiananmen Square massacre. The incident led to Hong Kong’s former chief executive, Leung Chun-ying, calling for a ‘China-wide boycott’ of the firm.  

Terence Tung, senior partner of the Hong Kong partnership, said: “We will continue to support clients with a full-service offering in Hong Kong and through offices in the Chinese Mainland, which is consistent with our roots as a home-grown law firm with a deep understanding of the region. It is now the right time to build upon this legacy to establish a new direction for the Hong Kong partnership as a leading independent law firm.”

The Hong Kong partnership will keep its status as one of the largest law firms in Hong Kong with established representative offices in Beijing and Shanghai, as well as the intellectual property agency office in Beijing. 

A raft of international law firms have shuttered offices in Greater China in recent years, although a large number of leading firms continue to maintain a significant presence in Hong Kong.

Last summer, Dentons broke off from its China arm, Dacheng Law Offices, citing “an evolving regulatory environment for Chinese law firms in China – including new mandates and requirements relating to data privacy, cybersecurity, capital control and governance”.

The move came shortly after Eversheds Sutherland’s international arm and King & Wood Mallesons’ China business formed an exclusive alliance that saw KWM close its six offices in the UK, Europe and the Middle East. Eversheds portrayed the deal as a practical alternative to having a large presence on the ground in China.

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