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Law Graduates Head to Asia as IPO, M&A Boom Creates Talent Shortage

As Asia’s economy powers ahead, the surge in M&A and IPO activity is creating high demand for corporate lawyers. International law firms in the region are beginning to ramp up hiring, particularly for their Hong Kong and Singapore offices. But in doing so, they are increasingly facing a talent shortage.

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That's providing an opportunity for law school graduates from the U.S., who two years after the outbreak of the global financial crisis, still face an anemic job market at home.

“Many attorneys and business people in the U.S. and Europe see Asia as the new land of opportunity. America is no longer the new world, Asia is,” said Alexis Lamb of legal recruiting firm Kinney Recruiters.

Manoj Bhargava, a Singapore-based partner at U.S. law firm Jones Day, says activity has been strong in Asia across a number of sectors for his firm, including telecommunications, media and technology and power and energy. But he says the talent pool in the region is limited.

That means firms are increasingly hiring graduates from North America and Europe, who feel relieved to have escaped the sluggish job market in those regions.

“If you're not one of the lucky ones who happened to pick a firm that didn't conduct mass layoffs, you can stick it out in the States and be underemployed or unemployed, or you can move to Asia where things are hot,” said an American associate at international law firm in Singapore, who asked to remain anonymous in order to protect his career prospects.

“I’m happy with the decision, the sooner in your career you come to Asia, the sooner you make contacts, learn the market and gain credibility,” he added.

While the operations of international law firms are smaller in Asia, recruiter Lamb points out that attorneys get more responsibilities and are able to develop faster than their peers at offices in New York or London.

However, the limitations of working in Asia, according to some lawyers that have recently relocated to the region, include a lack of "diversity" or "complexity" in the deals they get exposure to.

One lawyer, who requested to remain anonymous, explained that the structure of the deals generally mimic what has already been done in the U.S. or Europe. "We are unlikely to try anything truly ground breaking because the rules in Asia aren't as tight as in the West so we don’t need to get as creative," he said.

Among the lawyers most in demand are mid-level capital markets associates. According to Lamb there is also high demand for graduates with experience in Indonesia or India, because firms are looking to expand their practices in these two markets. She also noted that candidates with oil and gas, mining, or general project finance experience stand a good chance of landing a position.

“For all of these positions, lawyers who have experience and training at top international law firms will be the ones who are most likely to be considered."

In terms of remuneration, U.S. qualified lawyers can expect to be compensated according to the New York pay scale of $160,000 per year for 1st year associates, $170,000 per year for 2nd year associates and $185,000 per year for 3rd year associates. Recruiters in the law industry say firms are also beginning to reintroduce expat packages into compensation schemes in order to secure the best talent.