Baker leaders expect greater APAC opportunities and competition

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Baker McKenzie has recently shaken up its regional leadership with the appointment of Michael Wong as Asia-Pacific chair and Loo Shih Yann as the new member of its global executive committee. Both serve as Asia-Pacific representatives on the firm’s most senior leadership team.

Wong’s appointment puts him in charge of setting regional strategy for 17 offices in the Asia-Pacific region. Loo, meanwhile, has played a key role in implementing the firm’s China strategy, including the establishment of the Baker McKenzie FenXun (FTZ) joint operation office in 2015.

Steering a firm with an extensive global and regional presences during global uncertainty is not an easy task. Wong has seen clients going through tough challenges, with some barely surviving the pandemic, while others are actually thriving. Overall, he expects the Asia-Pacific legal landscape to stay on course.

“Asia-Pacific is probably turning the corner, and likely to come out of the pandemic first among all the regions in the world,” he told Asia Business Law Journal. “And with that, we are confident that we can grow with our clients, and look at the opportunities for growth.”

Loo said that as the recovery seemed to be quicker and stronger in Asia, a lot of clients are now starting to pivot back into activity. With the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) recently signed, he said he expected companies to take their chances.

“Companies in Asia are doing relatively well. China continues to be looking very strong and Japan is looking at new opportunities in Asia,” said Loo.

Speaking on the client side, Wong admitted that global demands on legal service were soft. As business activities slowed down, the firm has seen the busiest activity shifts to advisory areas in taxation, employment and restructuring, while other areas such as transactions, mergers and acquisitions and private equity tended to adopt a wait and see attitude.

“We also track from an industry or sector perspective,” added Wong, “and the winners, obviously, are in life-science and healthcare, and also in technology.

As we see Asia is coming out of this tunnel quicker than the other regions, we probably will see Asia take the lead in looking at investments offshore.”

The pandemic has changed the landscape of the legal market globally, putting a premium on technology, workforce mobility, the ability to provide backup support in different places, and to get back quickly to clients with very urgent needs. Wong said the competition from local and regional firms, alternative legal service providers and tech startups would also be increasing.

Having served on the committee that oversees firm’s offices and member firms in mainland China, Hong Kong and Southeast Asia, Loo said he believed this competition would also bring greater specialisation and consolidation as many law firms grow their market significantly.

Using the huge numbers of lawyers and firms in China as an example, Loo said many firms had expanded through alliances and collaborations.

“If you look at the number of PRC firms that are starting to set up in Hong Kong, the numbers have increased fairly significantly over the years,” he said. “If you look at the emphasis on the Greater Bay Area (the GBA plan), which is a huge initiative of the PRC government, it essentially links up all southern China.”

Loo also has seen similar patterns among Japanese and Singaporean firms in setting up alliances in Southeast Asian countries to bring a number of firms under either alliances or mergers.

“ I think the competition will increase significantly with more players in the market,” he said.