International law firm HFW maintains one of the most significant Asia-Pacific presences for a foreign-headquartered firm – with a total of 7 offices in the region.  And not long ago, the firm launched a transactional practice in Shanghai.  In this Q&A interview with Asia Law Portal, HFW’s Shanghai office head Nicholas Poynder provides his views on China’s hyper-competitive legal market and the firm’s goals for Asia going forward.

HFW recently launched a transactional practice in Shanghai and moved into larger offices. What led to these decisions?

The firm has been focused on expanding our transactional capability globally – we hired seven new transactional partners across our international network in 2018. We’ve long recognised the significant opportunities in China for transactional work, but we always want to make sure that we have the best possible team in place before launching a practice to clients. We now have corporate and finance teams in China, Hong Kong, Singapore and Indonesia, meaning we can provide specialist transactional advice to clients across the Asia-Pacific region.

Our hiring of a transactional team is just the beginning of our plans to strengthen and broaden our practice in China. Our new office is 80% larger, which should give some indication of the level of our ambitions.

China’s domestic legal market has been seen for years to be hyper-competitive, particularly for foreign firms. What ingredients have led to HFW’s success in the market?

It’s certainly very competitive, but we’ve succeeded by staying focused on the areas that are strengths for the firm globally. We’re not trying to be a full-service law firm in China. Instead, we’ve made sure that we’re offering clients the absolute best expertise in our specialist areas, like shipping, where we are the world leader.

We’ve now been in China for more than 20 years. That longevity shows the strength of our commitment to the Chinese market, which clients and potential recruits really appreciate.

Our international network has also been very important. So much of the work we do in China is cross-border, both inbound and outbound, so having high-quality lawyers in offices across five continents has been really important to our Chinese clients. We also have an association with Chinese firm Wintell & Co – we were just the second international firm to secure a local tie-up under the Shanghai Free Trade Zone rules – that gives us national coverage.

Finally, we’ve benefited from really investing in our people. We always look to hire the best lawyers and to give people opportunities to develop and progress. That has served us well.

HFW has a significant presence in Asia-Pacific, with offices in Hong Kong, China, Singapore, Indonesia and Australia. What has driven HFW’s considerable investment in the region and what are your plans for future growth?

Everything we do strategically as a firm is client led. We seek to have close and long-term relationships with our clients, and that means building capability in the practice areas and markets that are important to them. Asia-Pacific is a key region for each of our six core industry groups: aerospace, commodities, construction, energy and resources, insurance and reinsurance, and shipping. As such, it’s long been a key part of our international strategy – we’ve had a presence in Asia-Pacific for more than 40 years and now have 220 fee-earners across seven offices in the region.

Looking ahead, we will continue to invest in our existing offices, and will always consider opportunities in new markets if they make sense for our clients and our strategy.

HFW is globally recognised for its sector focus and its leading practices in aerospace, commodities, construction, energy, insurance and shipping. What are the future prospects for these practices in China and Asia-Pacific?

We see significant opportunities across the region for all of our core sectors and services. We will seek to maintain our leading position in shipping and asset finance, and will continue to expand our broader transactional offering, building on our new team in China. We also have plans to further strengthen our disputes practice – we are already one of the most active firms in the HKIAC and the Hong Kong High Court. It’s a huge market and we’re just scratching the surface.

HFW has been in China for more than two decades. How has the market and the firm’s approach changed during that time?

The Chinese market has changed beyond all recognition over the past 20 years. It has become a lot more competitive. Chinese clients are extremely sophisticated and know exactly what they want from their legal advisors. And the Chinese law firms have also evolved into serious rivals to the international firms.

We’ve seen international law firms reassess their approach to China in recent years. Several have downsized their presence and some have even pulled out of the market entirely. We’ve seen both growth and challenges in China over the years, but our commitment has never wavered. We’re very positive about the outlook for the firm and the market in China, and will continue to develop and expand our practice to support our clients.

Posted by John Grimley

John Grimley edits and publishes Asia Law Portal. A writer & digital publisher to international businesses and organizations, he's the author of: A Comprehensive Guide to the Asia-Pacific Legal Markets (Ark Group 2014).

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