1) You are not alone
As an executive search firm, we have a steady flow of resumes coming in from the US and Europe. Asia is perceived by many as offering more opportunities and continuous growth, as well as an attractive lifestyle. This means ex-pat packages (housing, schooling, relocation bonus etc.) are almost unheard of, unless you are moving with your current employer, and even then it is common to move onto a local package soon after arriving. Hong Kong and Singapore are no longer seen as hardship postings, though more far-flung locations may still compensate your risk/lack of comfort. Even if your skill-set is in demand, you will still be competing with local talent and your peers in the US.
Increasingly it is becoming vital to speak (and ideally read and write) Mandarin Chinese for jobs in Hong Kong. Whereas previously this primarily applied to Private Equity, M & A and Capital Markets, it is now true for derivatives and general banking. You will need to demonstrate exceptionally rare qualities for the employer to justify a hire direct from the US without language skills. That said, we have placed a number of lawyers into US investment banks without the language skills, as they had such strong, rare product knowledge. Singapore has less of a need for languages, although for the Private Equity firms in the region any knowledge of Bahasa Indonesia would be very valuable. Singapore’s banking industry, while catching up with Hong Kong’s, is still less developed and there is still a lack of local talent for more sophisticated banking products, so potentially offers more opportunities to non-Chinese speaking ex-pats from top tier banks and law firms in more developed markets such as the US. Commodities are also an area for which languages are not necessary and commodities lawyers are in frequent demand in Singapore.
If you have children, look into schooling as soon as possible. You should be making enquiries during your interview process as places in international schools are very competitive and very few employers will be able to guarantee you a place. They will, however, offer guidance and assistance, and there are a number of alternative education solutions if a place in a mainstream international school is not immediately available.
As mentioned, employers are primarily focused on hiring from the local pool of candidates, so generous relocation packages are no longer the norm. The employer will usually pay for your flights, first month in serviced apartments and the shipping of your possessions. If you can cover these costs yourself, it may give you the edge if you are in close competition with another candidate, so ask your consultant’s advice in these situations.
5) Areas in demand and your USP
At present in Hong Kong and Singapore, US lawyers are most in demand in the areas of debt capital markets, structured products and derivatives within in-house teams. There is also some need for US lawyers to work within law firms in Hong Kong on behalf of Chinese companies currently delisting from the US stock exchanges and relisting on the Hong Kong Exchange. In mainland China, there are a large number of opportunities within corporate entities for US-qualified, Mandarin-speaking lawyers, though ideally those with some PRC legal experience. We have placed a number of returnees into such roles recently, with backgrounds ranging from intellectual property, funds, corporate, commercial and banking.
In conclusion, Asia is an excellent place to build a varied legal career, in a dynamic environment with many ground-breaking deals. Salaries in Hong Kong and Singapore are comparable with US legal counsel and PRC based roles will sometimes pay a premium (though this can vary wildly!). It is highly competitive, however, and well worth partnering with a local executive search firm to ensure you are properly represented and have access to unpublished opportunities.
Ben Cooper, Barrister-at-law, Executive Director GRMSearch, can be contacted at +852 2836 6382, or email@example.com. This post is also published on GRMSearch’s blog, which has other content of interest if you are seeking an in-house legal job in Asia.