Mayer Brown confirms split with Hong Kong partner JSM

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Mayer Brown splits with JSM
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US-based law firm Mayer Brown has confirmed that it will end its 15-year partnership with Johnson Stokes & Master (JSM).

Mayer Brown said it would continue to operate in Hong Kong through a “new partnership”, while the law firms would revert to their respective pre-merger names. Going forward, JSM will operate as a Hong Kong home-grown law firm.

The delinking, subject to the approval of the Law Society of Hong Kong, is expected to take effect before the end of the year, with a transition period of around one year for both parties.

Mayer Brown’s chairman, Jon Van Gorp, said: “Our strategic plan prioritises the development of core products and industries that are most relevant to our clients in the world’s leading global financial centres, including Hong Kong. This arrangement allows Mayer Brown to continue its presence in Hong Kong with a practice that aligns with our strategic priorities.”

Terence Tung, senior partner of the Hong Kong partnership, said services would continue to be provided through offices in Hong Kong and the mainland.

“Whilst we have always been known as ‘孖士打’ in Hong Kong, it is now the right time to build upon this important legacy to establish a new direction for the Hong Kong partnership as a leading independent law firm, responsive to the challenges and opportunities our clients navigate today,” said Tung.

Currently, JSM maintains Beijing and Shanghai offices, and an intellectual Property Agency Office in Beijing. Mayer Brown will focus on Hong Kong’s capital markets, M&A, projects and infrastructure, and energy sectors.

Before the split was finalised, the Hong Kong office had 160 lawyers, including 57 partners, making it the largest of the seven Asian offices, according to Mayer Brown’s website.

A lawyer close to the matter told China Business Law Journal that the split between the two firms was “on good terms”, and the majority of staff in the Hong Kong office were expected to remain with JSM.

The lawyer dismissed the speculation that the split was driven by geopolitical and data security concerns, asserting that the two firms had different focuses, and the separation decision was made based on a “commercial perspective” that would benefit JSM.

“JSM’s strength is in serving Hong Kong and the mainland, and it hopes the growth in these markets will continue. After the split, it will be easier for JSM to formulate strategies and allocate resources,” the lawyer said.

The source believed that the seperation would not impede co-operation between the two firms. However, clients will no longer have access to legal services from multiple jurisdictions within a single firm, raising concerns about the firm’s overall appeal.

Another source familiar with this issue said some of the firm’s partners held an internal vote earlier this week that approved the split.

The split had been under consideration for a while, due to controversies surrounding the firm’s management of a local political matter in 2021, which negatively impacted its revenues, according to the second source.

In 2021, the firm decided to end its representation of the University of Hong Kong removing the Pillar of Shame. This decision led to former Hong Kong chief executive Leung Chun-ying advocating for a boycott of the firm.

The history of JSM can be traced back to 1863, when it was founded by Edmund Sharp, one of the earliest solo practitioners in Hong Kong. It is one of the oldest law firms in Asia and was once the largest in Hong Kong.

In 2008, JSM merged with Mayer Brown and changed its name to Mayer Brown JSM until 2018, when the JSM in the name was dropped to maintain the consistency of the brand in the international market.

The last major law firm split occurred in August 2023, when Dacheng Law Offices and Dentons delinked. Dentons attributed the decoupling as a “response to an evolving regulatory environment for Chinese law firms in China, including new mandates and requirements relating to data privacy, cybersecurity, capital control and governance”.

In July 2023, King & Wood Mallesons’ China office signed a formal co-operation agreement with Eversheds Sutherland to facilitate the transfer of legal matters from the UK, Europe, Middle East, Africa, and Latin America to Eversheds.

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