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Political Unrest and a Pandemic: What’s the future for international law firms in Hong Kong?

aerial photography of cityscape during night

A rundown of what’s going on in Hong Kong

  • On 1 July 1997, there was an official handover of Hong Kong from Britain to China as Hong Kong was a former British colony.
  • There was an agreement in 1984 to be in place until 2047 between Britain and China to introduce “One country, Two systems.” before Britain handed back control to China,
  • In effect, Hong Kong would have its own legal system and borders, the protection of rights such as freedom of assembly, free speech and freedom of the press.
  • Protests started in June 2019 against a bill to allow criminal suspects to be transported and tried in mainland China under certain circumstances. The bill was subsequently scrapped. Still, political tension has been at an all-time high since then.
  • On 30 June 2020, the passing of a new security law granted a new level of Chinese control on Hong Kong’s legal framework. It’s been the subject of criticism as it’s made it easier to punish protesters and drastically changes the city’s rule of law.
  • The problem is Hong Kong is described as the legal hub for finance, commerce and international dispute resolution. Furthermore, Hong Kong’s legal system has been internationally renowned for being “transparent, trustworthy and fair.”
  • Many have criticised China for violating International law threatening its international image.

The Law Society of Hong Kong provided some assurance that Hong Kong will continue its legacy as Asia’s legal hub in 2019 despite the growing number of protests. President of the Law Society of Hong Kong, Melissa Pang made this statement due to a rise in foreign law firms opening offices in the city. Indeed, it has been a challenging year for Hong Kong amidst the spark of anti-government protests throughout last year. It now has to face the consequences of the economic disruption from Covid-19 and the national security law. The former partner of Clifford Chance, Tony Williams opined: “Hong Kong has flourished on the basis that it recognises the rule of law, a concept that doesn’t exist on the mainland…The international law firms have been deafening by their silence – but that is understandable and inevitable.”

However, there may be hope for legal life in Hong Kong in a post-pandemic world. International firms are likely to continue to operate in Hong Kong despite the change in the rule of law from the national security law. The international firm, Holman Fenwick & Willan (HFW) was one of the first international law firms to open an office in Hong Kong over 40 years ago. Patrick Yeung, head of the Hong Kong office, stated a pledge in their commitment in 2019, and Hong Kong partner Noel Campell stated,

 “We remain committed to the Hong Kong and China markets and the clients we advise across this region. Our Hong Kong office opened more than 40 years ago, and our Shanghai office for more than 20 years. During this time, we have witnessed much change, and our commitment has endured. We believe that Hong Kong will continue to prosper as a global hub for finance and business, in a safe and stable operating environment.”

Mayer Brown partner Terence Tung commented: “International firms with broad legal service offerings will be resilient and rise above any challenges”.

This year technology has more than proved that a diverse range of work could virtually be achieved; however, face-to-face meetings still remain an essential feature for law firms. Post pandemic, we may see law firms downsize large and expensive international offices for smaller hubs for collaborative workspaces and face-to-face meetings. Nevertheless, there is concern that there may be resistance in convincing people to move to Hong Kong.

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