Nisha Chugh is Head of Legal & Compliance for ConnectedGroup, based in Hong Kong. In this interview with Asia Law Portal, she explains the state of legal and compliance recruitment in the Asia-Pacific region during COVID-19, what inspired her career in legal recruitment, the importance of lawyer purpose as part of the recruitment process — and what advice she has for lawyers seeking a new role in 2020.
You’re Head of the Legal & Compliance Division for ConnectedGroup based in Hong Kong. What’s your focus in this role?
I have been in recruitment for over 13 years. Prior to my career in recruitment, I practised as a lawyer for 7 years with top international law firms. In my current role, my ambit is Legal & Compliance roles both in private practice and in-house.
Having been in the legal industry for so long, my clients include a wide network of highly regarded contacts across the APAC region. I work for both large and boutique international firms, MNCs within various industry sectors covering FMCG, conglomerates, hospitality, insurance, pharmaceuticals, financial institutions and governmental and regulatory bodies.
As to what my focus has been in my job, simply put, I could say that it has been to match the right roles with the right candidates in the legal space. However, what this has meant for me personally has been to try and introduce ‘purpose’ to what I do and help others understand their purpose. It is quite easy to find great candidates and put them in with a top client but this does not necessarily result in long term value on both sides.
My purpose/focus has always been to add value so I can enrich lives and businesses.
You concentrate first on the well-being of lawyers when working with them on career placements. Tell us more about this
People spend so many hours of their lives working so it is important that they enjoy what they do and find something meaningful in their careers. This not only allows them to stay in their roles longer but ultimately tends to be what gives them job satisfaction, more so than money and status.
I noticed that it I was only once I started understanding my own sense of purpose that I felt completely happy doing what I did. Today I see this more and more in the younger generations who are not just out to make money but are truly looking for a way to bring meaning to their work and understand the contributions they are making to the company and to society. And for candidates to feel fully engaged in their daily work they need to find their own meaning in their work. They need to know that the companies they work for care about their society and are environmentally conscious.
I also have a personal interest in, and have studied, alternative medicine and nutrition and I try and bring this holistic view of personal health into my conversations about career balance and wellness.
What inspired you to pursue a career in legal recruitment?
I had always dreamt of being a lawyer however, whilst I was a practising employment lawyer, I was often disheartened by the work I did which involved large companies terminating employees or making people redundant. I always felt that the larger corporations were always looking for ways to get out of their payments to employees and I had to advise them how to do that. That definitely did not sit well with my purpose of wanting to enrich lives. So, I decided to explore other options, and initially I left private practice and did pro bono employment work for a few charitable organisations. After a while, I realized perhaps I needed to rejoin the legal field so thought I would give it another shot. I went to a recruitment company to look for a job as a lawyer and was asked if I would consider being a recruiter. This had never crossed my mind but it was the perfect solution as I was very familiar with the legal industry and knew how it felt to work in a legal environment and felt the need for change. So, I decided I would try and work to see if I could help lawyers find roles they would enjoy doing. I do not believe in coincidences and do believe that everything does come to your path for a reason and this has definitely been the right direction for me.
What’s the current state of the Asia-Pacific market in legal and compliance recruitment?
The Asia-Pacific legal and compliance market has been significantly impacted by Covid-19. My conversations with clients have shifted from helping with their next vacancy to establishing stronger relationships and understanding their business challenges with empathy. I am looking at seeing how we can assist clients even if it means re-strategizing and working on project/contract/interim roles for them as they struggle to obtain permanent headcounts and budget for legal and compliance positions.
I have noted that firms are adapting to work from home and are now learning to be more agile. The development of digital tools has now allowed lawyers to work undisrupted and the client experience seems to remain unfettered. I feel there has generally been a new awakening and acceptance to the work from home policy and companies have noted that productivity has remained steady. This has actually led to firms reconsidering their work practices where for years the standard of performance was related to a high degree of face time in the office. Also inevitably travel, which has been a crucial element to most lawyers’ job, is restricted and now virtual meetings are the new accepted norm.
The industry in Asia Pacific was the first to deal with the effects of the pandemic and hopefully will be the first to come out of it. However, we could still see firms adopting or extending pay cuts and implementing mandatory unpaid leave policies. Hong Kong has been particularly hard hit as the toll of the protests and then the pandemic has severely disrupted businesses on the whole.
Aside from the pandemic, the introduction of the National Security law has also raised concerns about the longevity of doing business with HK. The US, as an example, has signed the HK Autonomy Act 2020 to suspend or eliminate different and preferential treatment for Hong Kong in relation to China. We will need to wait and see how other countries react and decide to deal with businesses in HK. But for now, the uncertainty has further delayed businesses recovery in Hong Kong.
China seems to have had the most solid rebound and other Asia Pacific markets are slowly recovering from the pandemic. Full physical return to work is still sporadic however. Bright spots are that clients have begun expressing a need for good employment, arbitration and compliance lawyers especially with FCPA and competition law experience.
What advice do you have for lawyers interested in a career move in the Asia-Pacific region in 2020?
The Asia-Pacific region has always been a fascinating place to work with groundbreaking deals and lots of good transactional work to get your hands on. In the past, I would inform candidates that the main hurdles they would need to face is having relevant APAC experience and the necessary language skills especially for China related matters (even for roles based in Hong Kong). However, apart from those considerations which still hold true, now I would also ask them to consider and reflect on the uncertain times we are in worldwide.
I think my advice to all lawyers anywhere in the world right now would be to think very carefully before moving cross borders. With travel restrictions in place and quarantine measures in most countries, job security is in a very fragile state. Companies are more hesitant to take on relocation costs and risks and there are often technical barriers to securing visas. If you are highly motivated to move to Asia, keep tracking the opportunities of course and, if possible, talk to your own employer about overseas postings because an internal move will always be easier than an external one when relocating.