Legal Search Practice Names Top China Law Firms

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July 1 – Metcalf & Q, the legal search practice, has just produced its annual guide to the best foreign law firms in Beijing. The firm interviewed over 100 lawyers in foreign firms in Beijing, asking them about their current practice, and the firms they would or would not like to work for. Metcalf & Q also asked what the interviewees felt was important in the firm’s work, such as positive and negative aspects of the job, management and leadership and comparisons with competing firms.

Of those interviewed, 2/3 of them were women, and of these 94 percent were Chinese lawyers. As mentioned, all incumbents were employed in foreign law firms. Positives for Chinese lawyers working for foreign firms were the general work atmosphere, with many firms demonstrating a friendly, cooperative environment. However, negatives were the poor integration of Chinese and foreign lawyers, and the poor integration of rainmakers and non-fee earning personnel.

While the former would tend to crop up in multi-racial firms, the latter is no real surprise. Neither too, is the complaint about long work hours, and poor work and life balance. Criticism here can be measured against performance driven packages and the fact that China is a hot destination. No surprise then that Chinese lawyers echo the same sentiments as lawyers elsewhere—it’s not exactly a profession guaranteed to provide an easy life, especially at the younger stages of career—and China only liberalized its legal profession a little over ten years ago. A useful statistic here would be a comparison of lawyers previously engaged in state-owned firms, and their lives now as corporate firms.

Leadership issues were also analyzed. The recent spate of mergers of various firms has produced a wide range of differing management styles, leading inevitably to conflict. This trend is unlikely to cease anytime soon, although the reverse trend of Chinese firms buying into or taking over foreign firms in China will have an interesting impact later on the 6 percent of foreign lawyers interviewed. It’s also worth pointing out that 80 percent of foreign firms have Chinese partners, so not all criticisms can lie with foreign lawyers riding rough over local staff.

Leadership was generally considered confident and trustworthy, approachable, and having a genuine interest in their colleagues professional development. On the downside, poor integration crops up again, leading to frictions in teamwork, and an inability to win clients and retain staff. The integration aspect is still there; however it would be pertinent to establish how much cultural issue play a part, and how much is understanding of the differences between Chinese legal standards and international ones. A breakdown of client types, international or domestic, would also be useful to further assess the lack of integration issue.

Staff retention in emerging markets such as China can always be a problem—there are simply not enough good, qualified Chinese lawyers to go around. Coupled with a tendency to jump ship every two years anyway, and money issues, more research needs to be conducted into the retention issue. Also not mentioned is the ability for the Chinese lawyers to work overseas in a head or branch office elsewhere. Did that count as local attrition or not?

The survey listed the most as well as the least attractive ten firms. For the sake of the bottom ten, we will list here the winners only:

1. Clifford Chance
2. Freshfields
3. Simpson Thacher
4. Sullivan & Cromwell
5. Allen & Overy
6. O’Melveny & Myers
7. Shearman & Sterling
8. Baker & McKenzie
9. Davis Polk
10. Linklaters

While Metcalf & Q’s survey is of interest, perhaps next year a more comprehensive and detailed analysis could be given. It’s also difficult to say whether or not the firm interviewed lawyers from firms who were not their clients. In the meanwhile, it seems that the most attractive firms also happen to the be some of the region’s and world’s largest, and generally most established in China. Congratulations to those who won. Copies of the full report can be obtained by emailing Rob Metcalf of Metcalf & Q at rob@metcalfq.com.

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