2020/2021’s financial year presented a host of challenges for law offices in Hong Kong.
Faced with a pandemic, social unrest, and political shifts, Hong Kong has experienced both global and uniquely personal narrative shifts that have had many ripple effects into the legal sector from remuneration decisions, to regaining firm revenue by generating a larger client base, and much more besides.
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In particular, we have seen a notable amount of movement and changes in the market.
We have seen many law firms become busier than ever in 2021 and others sadly have been unable to ‘get out of the red’. Firms that exhibited agility and were able to predict what clients would need during this pandemic time were well-positioned to gain market share.
Law Firms in Asia and law firms globally, had to instantaneously find ways to protect their revenue and profitability, as well as find different cost-saving measures. As we now enter into a period of acclimatising to constant disruptions, lockdowns, unrest and the like we see many law firms continue to recover from the initial adverse effects of the Covid-19 Pandemic.
One of the biggest challenges faced in 2020/21 by law firms across Asia was deciding how and where to streamline costs and how to retain key fee earners. Consequently, we saw many law firms grappling with remuneration.
Last year we saw a 305% increase in the number of readers of our remuneration commentary from 2019/20 figures.
Moving into remuneration decisions for 2022 we still see an array of economic, social and demand/supply based factors placing continued and new pressures on salaries and remuneration. This is due to the fact that law firms across Asia continue to recover from the adverse effects of the pandemic. Furthermore, 2019’s political unrest in Hong Kong added extra pressures on law firms and their operations.
This resulted in a few international law firms closing their offices in Hong Kong or some firms opting to downscale.
While there will continue to be unprecedented unknowns and unpredictability moving into the new year, so too do we see unprecedented opportunities for individual attorneys and law firms alike.
Many law firms shifted their focus to retaining their client base, and many more focusing, with extra strength, on moving collections above 95%.
Law firms have also been quick to shift their focus to finding alternative means of generating more business by strengthening ties with current clients, looking at strategic hires and partnerships, prioritizing certain areas of practice and restructuring the firm and its resources.
This includes ensuring the safety of staff, whilst trying to continue business operations.
Many of the attorneys we have spoken with feel a great amount of uncertainty for the new financial year, not per se from any lingering pandemic related uncertainty but more that it is unclear how the Hong Kong’s position as a global financial hub, international arbitration centre, and strategic entry point into the APAC region will be affected by increased mainland influence and recent overhaul of their political system.
Rob Green’s Market Commentary
CEO, GRM Group
2022 will be a defining year in Lawyer remuneration in Hong Kong.
I’ve made some bold predictions, and some may not be popular and a few people may not agree, but I believe them to be accurate and we at GRM Search are preparing to tackle the legal talent market accordingly.
- HK’s move towards being the financial capital of the GBA will continue at a pace. Those with strong Mandarin skills and law firms with a presence in Shenzhen and Guangdong, alongside HK, will be the real winners in the end. This will continue to shape your client base, the skills and people you hire for, the way you hire, the fees you charge and therefore the remuneration strategy for your Partners.
- Between 2022 and 2025 we will see the death of the lockstep. We’ve seen the move away from the lockstep remuneration model for Partners gather at a ferocious pace in the past 24-36 months, and I believe, in the next 3 years, less than 10% of global law firms will continue to pay partners in this way. There is a huge push to pay people based on merit, rather than tenure and focus on one’s personal collections will be magnified.
- Market Splintering – Many more sole proprietorships (SP’s) are being set up, and this is set to continue in 2022. Whilst many in the bigger firms scoff at the minimal threat posed by the sole proprietor, 100 SP’s, working together, can damage one’s bottom line. Maybe you believe a small firm can’t take on the big work, but more collaborative collectives of SP’s, working together on specific deals, do have the insurance and capacity to deliver. One only needs to look at virtual law firms and distributed law firms to see the impact they can have on the traditional big law firm.
- In addition to this, Freelance lawyering will continue to grow and grow. Projects, short term on-off contracts, the lawyer being in control of their own work and destiny. Post covid, this will increase. We cannot tell if this will have a long term detrimental effect on one’s career/CV yet, but there is a growing demand for this across the world when it comes to client demand for legal services. We have seen a 57% increase in demand for project/freelance lawyers in 2021 and with the advent of LinkedIn marketplace for professionals, and other such platforms, the pressure will likely be downward on legal fees as the market for services grows and affordable options increase. Think “Fiverr” for law as the price for legal services gets less and less.
- Massive growth for the distributed law firm – If you have been following the growth of Rimon, Spencer West, Keystone, and others, like I have, then you will have seen them becoming a staple in their legal markets, able to compete on quality, price and timeframes with your more traditional law firms.
- On the whole, billings will continue to slide in 2022, collection percentage will rise, but billings are down – they’ll stay down – meaning remuneration is lower. Lawyers who may have billed 80m in 2017, are billing 20m now, whilst collection % has gone up in that time, revenue and profits have decreased since 2019, year on year.
- Law firms take less and less chances on Partner hiring. More emphasis on what the firm can give the Partner (by way of clients) at the same time as people protect their client base more and tighter non-competes, and more focus on what the candidate is bringing
- In house roles, especially for short term stints, will be a preferred way to increase headcount in in-house teams – short term commitment, no long term employment. This trend will continue in 2022.
- The HK legal market is an interesting, combative market that is ripe for JV and M&A activity. I predict 2022-2025 we will see much more collaboration and tie-ups between offices, across the GBA.
Opportunities in the legal market
The two of the three big trends for HK’s legal market in 2022 will be centred around the escalated pertinence of the already important book of business.
Firstly, lawyers who have a transferable client base will always be employable and will be able to find opportunities should their current law firm no longer be the ideal employment opportunity.
We have seen a host of Partners and even Senior Associates taking their book of business and leaving to a law firm with a better office policy, better commission split, better stability (in particular we have seen Partners leaving to firms with no expectation of equity refinance in the short to medium term), and better benefits and working conditions.
Secondly, lawyers who have had a ‘free ride’ in the past by being fed work to do without actually generating any clients themselves are now realising that irrespective of how well-known or respected the law firms they have worked for are or how big the deals they have advised on are their current value is rapidly declining without an actual book of business.
We see many of these ‘no book’ lawyers struggling to find new employment opportunities and many of them are being moved onto salary only arrangements, or one step further and offered commission only.
Lastly, we have seen firm movement in the HK legal market. We have seen numerous international law firm exits recently (including Osborne Clarke, Orrick, Vinson & Elkins, and Locke Lord to name a few). Having said this, we also note a number of international firms seemingly ramping up their Asia presence during this same period.
Highlighting the diversity in business reactions to uncertainty and disruption. There is significantly more movement in the market in 2021 than in 2020 and we predict that 2022 figures will surpass this financial year’s figures.
There is a mistaken perception from certain lawyers we chat with that there are no opportunities in the market. The more accurate perspective would be that there are many opportunities but they are mostly reserved for top fee earners, certain specialisms or in non-traditional firms. The legal market provides for an array of new opportunities for employment for attorneys/lawyers aside from your traditional legal practitioners being Junior Associate, Senior Associate, Junior Partner, Senior Partner. There has been an increase in legal consultants, freelancers, legal advisors and short-term contracts which in turn leads to law firms having to focus on matching remuneration, various benefits, work-life balance in order to continue to retain their top talent as well as attract new hires.
We still see a splurge of strategic lateral hiring taking place in a plethora of different specialisations. The biggest factor both for prospective employees and employers considering hiring is uncertainty. Legal professionals who can validate their value, and preferably have highly specialised skills or a transferrable book of business, are likely to secure employment even during the pandemic.
Legal recruiting activity has predominantly been in more senior roles and concentrated on M&A, CM, and Finance roles. We have noted firms taking advantage of competitors’ strategic decisions causing disgruntlement to encourage top billers or keyu teams to make a move.
Law Firms have placed more weight on approaching Partners who are able to provide a transferrable book of business indicating both their past and current involvements as well as future predictions. This makes Partner hire a more stringent and lengthy process as compared to Junior hires as firms need to ensure that the Partner is able to add value to the firm.
Despite initial adverse effects of uncertainty on revenue, lawyers and law firms can bounce back quickly and can even be billing more than pre-pandemic times. Law firms that have a wide range of clients (in terms of size, practice, sector, and needs) have been better positioned during this time. However, law firms who mainly specialise in one or a few sectors in law or who solely rely on a specific client base may have struggled more to adjust to the various changes and developments. In many instances, these firms have struggled financially to keep afloat.
Law firms looking to attract new Partners in some cases have been and continue to be faced with questions as to the firm’s performance, future growth and development. This is due to the fact that many Partners may at their current firms have a clearer view of their current finances and plans, they may have also closely followed other practices and their strategies as well as how these firms have fared during the difficulties and uncertainty faced in 2020 and 2021.
Most big fee earners, whether it be of Partner or Associate status, are currently steered towards law firms who have demonstrably continued to see innovation, growth, and financial stability.
While this has created opportunities for HK lawyers in the PRC, however there seems to be a strong reluctance to take up these new offered opportunities. While the PRC, Macau and HK are now strategically connected they have very different legal systems. While our connections on the ground foresee increasing need for collaboration and cooperation by these three legal markets there still remain many hurdles.
We suspect to see law firm alliances, JVs and other strategic law firm relationships popping up over the next year. We suspect policy to follow in the longer term but naturally the private sector will react much faster in establishing business ties. It would seem that lawyers in all three regions believe that they could benefit from perceived legal certainty presently but tensions nevertheless remain high.
In light of Covid restrictions in many instances law firms were steered towards having certain employees, such as admin staff work from home/remotely. This led to many firms becoming more flexible in their approach to how offices and working times are arranged. With the actual physical office space becoming less pivotal to fee-earning we correctly predicted an uptick in Partners running smaller teams within a larger firm banner.
These teams utilise the trust account, branding, and support but remain independent, self-regulated, and rather pay a percentage of billables or a fixed fee to the wider firm. We predict that this will only become increasingly prevalent in 2022.
Furthermore, seeing as this trend is in fact global there is a spate of new forward-thinking, profitable, and attractive US and UK firms offering a similar arrangement within their international brands whereby local lawyers can aid in the firm’s internationalisation strategies while the local attorney benefits from an international brand and a wider network.
These teams are being targeted by the firm for revenue but then left to their own devices; small pods where Partners almost create a firm within a firm.
For the most part law firms have not adopted a uniform approach on how to address remuneration and promotions during 2020 and this is most likely to be the case again.
Many law firms had to make changes to remuneration in order to keep afloat, firms that were able to avoid reducing remuneration (particularly for top billers) by finding alternative mechanisms to bolster cash flow were in a position to retain staff and appear to be faring well. A big lesson for many law firms has been that the bitter taste of feeling unfairly treated by one’s firm often lasts longer than the time of financial strain. Having said this – the firms that protected their top earners while getting the attorneys who have been taking a free ride and not actually covering costs have been able to transcend their businesses into new levels of profitability.
During the beginning of 2020/21, we did see many small and medium-sized firms facing cash flow issues. While some firms have had to rely on the government’s Employment Support Scheme which provides wage subsidies to selected employers. Some of our local clients mentioned that the government has offered additional support by addressing the importance of law firms using IT systems during this time.
This is being done through a government Lawtech fund to assist small and boutique sized law firms in updating their IT systems and to further provide training. However, many more firms appear to have resorted to cost-cutting measures such as retrenchment, cutting salaries (sometimes entirely), and removing or reducing bonuses, overtime, urgent matters and other financial and non-financial benefits and remittances.
Static remuneration policies with heavy base salaries and small commission components have been shown up. Remuneration strategies that are more performance-based and are aligned to output have outshone more traditional structures in 2020. As we move into a post-COVID space we are more likely than ever before to see a rapid move away from antiquated salary brackets to embrace a more holistic merit-based compensation model based on billings, tech use, training, and brand ambassadors etc.
Salary cuts have been noted across Asia. Of the law firms implementing pay cuts we find most firms are opting for around 5%-10%, however, some firms have been noted to implement up to 30-50% cuts. There have been instances where these cuts have been labelled temporary as opposed to permanent.
Having said this we have found most firms having reinstated pre-pandemic remuneration packages with several firms raising salaries higher than in 2019-2021 levels. The increases tended to range between 1-5% with an overall slight general increase of just under 1.5% overall.
As a result of the factors mentioned above, we have noted an increase in the reduction in firms following the Cravanth scale to determine salaries. However, COLA continues to be a relevant remuneration strategy during this time. Furthemore, Hong Kong continues to be one of the most expensive cities to send expats (2nd place as of June 2021) due to factors such as high costs of rentals and housing.
The demand for top fee earners and lawyers with a book of business has never been so rife. Even younger lawyers are being expected to be more involved in generating new clientele. Increasingly, this is being incorporated into performance indicators. Further to this, we see legal tech-savviness, ability to run a practice remotely, and a willingness to buy in as key hiring factors.
Lawyers that are high earners or bring a large book of clients to the table need to be protected from salary drops and delayed promotions during this period.
We have seen countless top earners leaving long term positions over disgruntlement due to remuneration cutbacks, requests to refinance the firm and the like. As a result of pay cuts, reduction in benefits, unreasonable increase in targets, there has been a rise in top lawyers moving to other firms or setting up on their own.
There has been a rise in younger lawyers steering towards less “traditional” law models, this includes new developments including; legal tech, LPOs, and non-traditional legal advisory firms. This would mean that there is a current battle for top lawyers. We have seen from 2009, that lawyers who are unable to meet targets or build a credible book of business are most likely to leave the more traditional forms of private practice, going into more advisory roles, or even leaving law practice in general.
It must be remembered that when we conduct our studies, we speak to lawyers from all sizes of firms. From on-person shops through to the majors.
GRM has seen a spate of lateral partner hires. These partners typically all have a book of business ranging from HKD1,000,000 – HKD3,000,000 on the more Junior Partner front and upwards of HKD5,000,000 for general Partners with most Equity Partners billing in excess of HKD15,000,000.
Most law firms appear to be contending with headcount considerations. Those who are struggling financially are faced with the difficulty of reducing the headcount of low billers while hiring top billers in a country with highly contentious labour laws. Profitable firms are eagerly waiting on every corner to scoop up anyone with a book.
With deal flow and types of deals being difficult to predict in 2021/22 the required headcount and whether (and if so which) staff should be retrenched can be a difficult and pertinent challenge that we have assisted several law firms to traverse. On the one hand, retrenchments may result in heightened anxiety around the firm’s longevity and job continuity amongst the remaining staff, on the other hand, it is a risk to carry staff who are not covering their cost during this time. The correct path forward is unique to every law firm’s unique position
As previously mentioned in previous GRM salary surveys, there is a growing demand for Chinese language skills as a result of increasing Chinese investment, particularly by red chip and high growth firms.
Every reasonable effort was made to maintain data integrity and provide accurate and useful information.
Data was analysed by employing univariate descriptive statistics, including mainly cross-tabulations, frequencies, frequency distributions, and some averages. To provide deeper insight into the compensation trends a percentile analysis was used over and above the traditional average only analysis.
Percentiles used include; the 10th, 25th, 50th, 75th, and 90th percentiles. Please note that in salary data, the median may be lower than the mean due to the fact that there is no upper limit to the rates that can be paid for a job. However, the lower limit is zero. Therefore, the distribution of salaries
tends to be skewed with a few salaries at the extreme high end of the range.
How to read our salary percentiles:
Percentile salaries tell us how much a certain percentage of an overall sample in a geographic area or within a given industry or field makes. In other words percentiles indicate the percentage of people’s salaries that fall below a particular value. Percentiles are useful in understanding salary ranges in that they tell one where a salary stands relative to other salaries..
The most commonly-used percentile salaries are the 10th, 25th, 50th, 75th and 90th. These are the percentiles included in this report.
10th Percentile = earn more than 10% of people and less than the other 90%
25th Percentile = earn more than 25% of people and less than the other 75%
50th Percentile/median = earn more than 50% and less than the other 50%
75th Percentile = earn more than 75% of people and less than the other 25%
90th Percentile = earn more than 90% of people and less than the other 10%
For example, in the picture below if you earned a salary of HKD100,000 per month and everyone to the left earned less than you, and everyone to the right earned more of you. We might want to understand what percentile your salary was.
In this example, you earn more than 80% of the sample and less than 20% of the sample and therefore your salary would be at the 80th percentile.
How to read a floating percentile graph:
This salary survey provides a snapshot of the market situation at a set time, allowing the user a guide from which to work. Salaries do however move at varying rates throughout the year due to staff turnover, supply of and
demand for skilled and unskilled workers, social pressures, and inflation. Consequently the analysis and benchmarking component of this report will add additional insight into the longer-term trends prevailing in the legal sector.
It is important to note that we interview Lawyers at all sizes of firms, and take the averages. So at every level, there will be some outliers.
There have always been huge disparities in Partner salaries in small firms or boutique and local firms compared to Partners in larger firms or international firms, whether the focus is based on equity, salaries or different forms of remuneration.
Generally when GRM compiles salary surveys we find that Partners working at local and boutique firms are of the view that our reported numbers are too high, whilst Partners at your larger firms as well as international law firms (typically US, UK & offshore) feel that these numbers are too low.
As indicated earlier, we see firms place more weight on Partners who have a transferable book of business. This in turn requires many senior Partners to be more proactive in finding new clients and bringing on new business in order to be able to generate more revenue for the firm. We have been saying this for several years, and every year it becomes increasingly pertinent.
Law firm Partners who reach or exceed targets are typically offered a higher base salary as compared to those who fall short. Furthermore, we are starting to see a rise in greater commission splits being offered to Partners with a solid track record in order to encourage these high fee earners to move from larger more established firms to smaller growing firms.
GRM Intelligence has spoken to many Partners who have been asked to recapitalise the firm to keep it afloat. In other instances we have also seen firms try to squeeze Partner draws in an attempt to protect cash flow which has often failed and resulted in jumping ship with all one’;s clients and either joining a competitor or establishing a sole proprietorship. This was a rising trend we noted in last year’s findings as well.
The Silver Circle, Magic Circle, and White shoe firms continue to remain the top payers in the market, BUT, lawyers can earn significantly more if they have their own client base, and choose a style of firm that offers them a larger slice of the pie.
In order to retain talent during this uncertain period, we have seen firms opting to promote Associates to Partners arguably prematurely with almost little to no increase in salary or other forms of remuneration. Oftentimes this is more about paying staff with prestige due to a lack of funds or certainty to agree to salary increases. We have, of course, also seen Partners at some firms make a career move into a more profitable law firm as a Senior Associate but securing a higher salary and more benefits despite the title promotion.
We have seen Partner distributions being reduced given reduced profit and or uncertainty regarding future billings and collections. These reductions in Partner distributions are circa 10-50% from our intelligence on the ground, and have also at times differed between equity and non-equity partners. We will most likely continue to see some firms affected financially have Partners carry the financial strain of the firm. On the flip side we have seen many firms being protectionary of Partners and placing the burden of firm financial pressure onto Junior and support staff. On the collections front we typically see HK attorney’s collecting 80-90% of billings on average. An interesting trend we are seeing in 2021 is some lawyers boasting collections higher than billings given that their clients have bounced back and are now settling their overdue accounts.
With the increased pressures on individual attorney performance and a downward pressure and reduced reliance on remuneration being the general trend Partners are not being spared from our discussed pressure to cover one’s costs, be a solid BD person, and to ramp up billings and collections. Furthermore, with the rise in performance-focused remuneration over static and rigid remuneration structures for Partners, many attorneys have found themselves unable to bring home the guaranteed sizable paychecks accustomed to.
Larger and international law firms have the capital to be more structured in their approach in remuneration and overall performance of Partners. In some cases we do find that some partners’ costs are higher than their billings, however, they bring necessary or additional benefits to the business, such as added employment equity points or skills shortages.
Extra scrutiny on every Partner’s personal billings and collections and their “take home” will be reflected in what they are actually, monetarily, bringing to the firm and a gradual move away from guarantees and lockstep models, firstly in-house and especially when hiring additional Partners.
The Covid-19 Pandemic has brought about a host of challenges and uncertainty in the legal sector in 2020 which has had persisting impacts into 2021 and all evidence suggests into 2022 as well. While the landscape is constantly shifting and changing it is undeniably shakinging up the status quo. We continue to see many firms coming out better than ever, others are struggling and trying to pivot and sadly many law firms have been unable to make it through this time leaving market share for the taking. Times of uncertainty and change are always a time to innovate and seek opportunities.
Some firms have opted to reduce salaries across the board and reduce or remove bonuses in order to maintain the firm’s cash flow during this time. We have noted that in some instances, firms have decided to cut salaries of support staff and associates in order to protect partner remuneration. However, there have been cases in which Partners have borne the financial burden of the firm in order to reduce effects on the rest of the employees.
Many firms have and continue to restructure the firm and its business in order to continue operations and become more profitable. Larger or more capitalised/profitable firms have been able to delay or completely hold back on salary cuts. In some instances, there have been firms which have delayed various promotions and increases in salary.
There are many cases noted that some firms were able to continue with their annual bonus (whether it be a reduced amount or performance based), increase in salary as well as promotions (which we have noted earlier, such promotion was not necessarily coupled with an increase in salary). We have spoken to numerous partners who advised that disbursements have been cut and in some cases even cancelled to partners to protect cash flow during this time.
There are many firms who were able to adjust to the new “normal” and restructure and develop their business, maintain their cash flow/ capital. Many firms have also highlighted the importance of attracting and retaining top talent in order to generate more business for the firm.
For the most part law firms and the Justice system have been able to continue their normal operations. With the current developments, control of the pandemic and economic activity resuming, deal flow is already on a rise. We will most likely see a rise in the salaries but more so, a rise in commission of lawyers.
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This report contains compensation and performance data gathered during the past 12 months during our normal course of business, by our Transaction teams and our dedicated Research and Analytics teams, based in Hong Kong.
This includes data gathered from candidates (job seekers and job applicants) and from clients (job specifications and actual successful placements GRM have made). Data was also collected through our annual private practice salary survey.
The sample included data from more than 580 professionals, in various positions. Having a large number of participants results in a high measure of reliability.
GRM Intelligence also attempts wherever possible to gather wage data by specific salary figures as opposed to ranges which further improves the reliability of our research findings. Where a range of data was given by the participant or client the average of the range of data was calculated and used in the final survey results or otherwise deleted.
Wage data is occupation-specific (in this case within the Legal Sector) and is also collected across multiple levels (levels of seniority) and departments thereby ensuring greater accuracy in our findings. Due to the great variance in compensation trends across law firms, GRM Intelligence can also analyse data across law firm types.
GRM Intelligence’s ability to gather data from a wider participation pool minimizes the likelihood of a skewed sample, which can occur when only one type of organization participates in a survey.
For the purposes of this report, we have not differentiated between starting salaries and salaries for individuals who have been working at a particular firm for some time. Typically we find merit calculations weigh far more heavily on salary increase calculations than years of tenure.
Due to the sample, each year including both new respondents and historical respondents with updated data GRM Intelligence is able to avoid relying on completely new and unique datasets for each year. Comparisons between completely unique samples year-on-year in many instances result in over-reaction to fluctuations or changes in salaries, referred to as sampling error.
GRM Intelligence salary surveys collect and report data from a 12-month time window. This allows us to spot year-to-year market shifts and overall trends in the market. Where data expired (over 12 months old) our team of Knowledge Consultants updated the data telephonically.
Where data gaps exist, our researchers used cold calling data collection techniques to ensure that respondents from all positions across all requested firms were included in our dataset.
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