Lawyers Guide to Living & Working in Hong Kong

Life in Hong Kong

World-class restaurants and nightlife; a vast array of shopping from high-end brands to historic markets; an iconic cityscape surrounded by mountains, parkland and beaches, and all in a location that makes weekend trips across Asia both feasible and affordable.  It is not hard to see why crowded, chaotic Hong Kong remains one of the most sought after destinations in the world for ex-pat lawyers seeking an international move.

Professionally it ticks all of the boxes.  You will be advising on huge matters and getting exposure in what is the key economic region of the 21st century.  Experience gained here will be respected globally.  It is no easy ride – lawyers can expect to work just as hard as they would do in London or any other major financial centre – but few find it to be anything other than an exhilarating and highly rewarding experience.

The Legal Market

  • World class firms
  • Major international financial / legal hub
  • Long established legal firm market
  • Instructing on highest-value matters
  • Challenging work

The international law firm market is long established in Hong Kong, with many firms having been there for decades.  Its position as both a major international financial hub in its own right and as a gateway to the huge Chinese market make it a must have location for any firm with global aspirations.

The legal directories are dominated by the big Anglo-Saxon firms.  Most are localised and practice Hong Kong law, fielding sizeable teams advising across multiple practice areas.  These firms are typically instructed on the highest-value matters so you can expect to be doing work that is every bit as challenging (and sometimes more so) as that in a top firm in London, New York or Sydney.

Recent developments in the market have seen the rapid growth of offshore law firms in Hong Kong, with teams focused on advising Chinese clients on the BVI/Cayman law elements of major cross-border matters, and the growing influence of the ‘Red Circle’ of leading PRC headquartered firms.

Ex-pat lawyers moving into the onshore market will likely practice as Registered Foreign Lawyers until they gain admission in Hong Kong, meaning that there will be limitations on what you personally can sign off.  In practice this is rarely a draw back for new entrants to the market as the requalification exams can usually be completed within the first year or two.  Offshore lawyers will practice as Cayman or BVI qualified attorneys.

The Recruitment Market

  • Buoyant market
  • High demand areas
  • Fierce competition for talent
  • Knowledge of Mandarin opens doors

The market for skilled lawyers in Hong Kong remains buoyant and shows little sign of decline despite some cooling of growth rates in China.  The competition for talent is as fierce as ever in high-demand areas such as corporate, banking and finance, private equity, investment funds, capital markets, financial services/regulatory, dispute resolution, commercial litigation and insolvency.

Limitations on opportunities for ex-pat lawyers can come principally in the form of languages.  It is commonplace for roles to stipulate Chinese (usually Mandarin) language skills as a requirement.  If you have experience from a good UK, US or Australian law firm and you speak Mandarin, your biggest dilemma may just be choosing between the many opportunities available to you.

If you do not have Chinese, all is not lost.  For applicants with strong credentials from a leading law firm in one of the high-demand areas outlined above, there are likely to be options, just somewhat fewer and perhaps a little further between.  Alternatively, the offshore firms routinely hire across these core areas into roles that are far less likely to need language skills.

Salaries

  • High average earnings
  • Low taxation
  • Excellent benefits
  • Relocation allowance

Virtually every international law firm of note has a Hong Kong office, so naturally the spread of salaries mirrors that in London or any of the other major financial centres.  Typically, there will be a good uplift on salaries elsewhere with NQ’s in the Silver Circle firms able to command up to HKD 80k/month, and those in the Magic Circle up to HKD 88k/month.  By three years’ PQE a Silver Circle lawyer could be earning HKD 95k/month, with their Magic Circle counterparts as high as HKD 105k/month.  Hong Kong employs a progressive tax system up to a maximum of 15%.

Packages typically include the usual benefits; private healthcare, insurance, gym membership, pension contributions and bonus schemes, whilst your relocation allowance will invariably cover flights out and shipping of belongings.

Accommodation

On arrival, your firm will provide you with some temporary accommodation to give you the time to consider where you want to live and to start meeting with real estate agents.  Availability of property is generally good but prices are high and there is no escaping the fact that Hong Kong is expensive.  Size, location, transport links and facilities will all impact the price and like any major city around the world, the range is vast.  As a general guideline you could expect to pay somewhere between HKD 12k and HKD 17k per month for a one bedroom apartment and between HKD 20k and HKD 40k per month for a three bed family home.

Education

Hong Kong is renowned globally for the quality of its school system and there is a good range of private international schools, many of which teach the International Baccalaureate curriculum.  Whilst these schools will teach in English, ex-pat children will have the valuable opportunity to develop their Chinese language skills.

Transport

As a global aviation hub, Hong Kong has multiple direct flights daily to destinations worldwide, including London (c.12 hours) and Sydney (c.10 hours).  Locations across Asia are within easy reach for a weekend away making this an ideal base for someone who enjoys travelling in their downtime.  Once in Hong Kong, whilst some choose to drive, heavy traffic and a shortage of parking mean that many ex-pats prefer to use the extensive public transport network.  The MTR (Mass Transit Railway) has multiple lines serving every major district and into mainland China.

Visas

Your new employer will sponsor your employment visa.  Whilst you will need to collate documents and fill in some forms, the application itself (and the fees) will be handled by the firm.  It is likely to take no more than six weeks.  Once yours is approved you will be able to apply for residency permits for your spouse and children.

Interested?

If you would like to find out more about the market, discuss potential opportunities or just ask a few questions about working or living in Hong Kong, please get in touch or find out more information in the Resources section of our website www.originlegal.co.uk

Jason Horobin

About The Author | Jason Horobin

Jason is a graduate of the University of York and has placed lawyers at all levels from NQ to Senior Equity Partner. He has personally recruited into more than twenty jurisdictions worldwide and has managed teams that have recruited into many more. Formerly head of the International Private Practice division for a major Global legal recruitment agency, Jason founded Gladwin Law in 2011 before merging the business into Origin Legal in 2015.

[email protected]

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