In one sense, law firms in much of Asia can be categorized relatively easily. There are local firms and there are international firms. The international practices can be sub-categorized as UK firms, US firms and others. Although there are exceptions, certain rules tend to apply. For example, local firms tend to pay less than international firms and UK based international firms tend to pay less than those from the US. Similarly, US firms are usually considered to expect more billable hours than other firms. But none of that is news to most lawyers and, besides, it is far too general to be of any real value. Before embarking on a job search, it is sensible to undertake more detailed research into the market or markets you are planning to explore. Recruitment consultants can be extremely helpful. However, beware those with an insufficient level of knowledge to be able to advise properly on what are relatively complex Asian markets.
“...you cannot necessarily rely on the overriding international reputation of a firm in a particular practice area.“
The principal East Asian capitals are environments which differ significantly from the big Western legal centres such as London and New York. Nowadays, with the tendency of firms to adopt a focused approach to Asian markets, there are relatively few full service law firms, particularly amongst the international players. This means you need to know which firms specialize in what kind of work. Just as importantly, you need to know which firms are market leaders in which practice areas.
By comparison to the West, practice groups in Asian offices are typically small. It is one reason why you cannot necessarily rely on the overriding international reputation of a firm in a particular practice area. Accordingly, having reliable information on specific key individuals can be of prime importance.One avenue of investigation open to you is the various law firm directories where you will find a great deal of useful information. However, one aspect of potential employers that is sometimes overlooked by candidates is a firm’s culture. In my opinion, the single most important factor in finding the right job is matching a firm’s culture with your own personality. Unfortunately, it is extremely difficult to do on the basis of perhaps two interviews. There are certain factors you should take into account alongside the advice of a good recruiter.The overseas offices of the biggest firms, for example the Magic Circle, tend to retain the overall firm culture very well. This is particularly the case if key partners are moved internationally at regular intervals. On the other hand, if an Asian office has a majority of long term, effectively local, partners it is far more likely to have developed an identity of its own.
“...the single most important factor in finding the right job is matching a firm’s culture with your own personality.“
At your interview, ask to be shown around the office. Your tour can provide good pointers to the atmosphere in a firm. Are most partners’ doors open? Are you introduced to people as you are shown around and, if so, what does their demeanor tell you? Are secretaries talking to fee-earners or do they look isolated? Does the office look tidy and organized? If you keep your eyes open, you can learn a great deal.
If you are considering a local firm, look at the professional background of the most senior partners. Have they worked for international firms and, if so, which ones? Lawyers who have worked in such an environment for an extended period, and particularly during their early career, tend to model their own practices along similar lines. Be extremely wary of gossip. One disaffected lawyer can do a great deal of damage to the perception of a firm amongst other lawyers. A few bad words or a couple of “horror stories” will spread like wildfire. We have all heard them. However, there are two sides to every story and you have to be careful that you are not unduly influenced by such things. Positive stories are rarely considered to be as “interesting” and thus are less likely to reach your ears.Lawyers who are happy in their work environment are usually those who are most successful. Therefore, do not take a job at a firm simply because it has a good name. Like any good lawyer should, make sure you have exercised due diligence before making a decision. A high proportion of candidates do not and it is the main reason why too many of them leave new jobs within a few weeks of starting. Spending a little time now to make sure there will be no surprises waiting for you on your first day can save a great deal of time later.
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