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August 9, 2011 4:56 PM

Kirkland Grabs Skadden, Latham Partners for Hong Kong Push

Posted by Anthony Lin

Update, 8/9/11, 11:00 p.m. EST: Information about two Allen & Overy partners joining Kirkland & Ellis and comments from Kirkland partner David Eich have been added to the story.

Update, 8/9/11, 8:30 p.m. EST: Confirmation by Latham & Watkins of the departures of three partners to Kirkland & Ellis has been added to the third paragraph of the story.

Kirkland & Ellis has made a major Asia push with the recruitment of several top partners from the Hong Kong offices of Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, Latham & Watkins, and Allen & Overy.

Skadden confirms that Nicholas Norris and Dominic Tsun, the Hong Kong-based coheads of the firm's Asia corporate practice, have already resigned to join Kirkland. A third corporate partner, Li-Chien Wong, is also making the move.

Latham likewise confirms that three of its Hong Kong partners—former global corporate vice-chair David Zhang, John Otoshi, and Benjamin Su—will be leaving to join Kirkland. "We wish them well in their future endeavors," a firm spokesman says.

The eight-partner group also includes Allen & Overy partners Ashley Young and Douglas Murning, according to Kirkland & Ellis Hong Kong senior partner David Eich.

The moves immediately give Chicago-based Kirkland a high-profile corporate team in Hong Kong, where it has had a small office focusing on private equity since 2006. Eich says the partners Kirkland has recruited cover the full spectrum of major transactions in the Hong Kong market. Norris focuses on public company mergers and acquisitions, while Tsun and Wong both specialize in Hong Kong initial public offerings and other capital markets transactions. The Latham group, on the other hand, focus on U.S. law capital markets transactions out of Asia, and have advised on several major New York Stock Exchange IPOs by Chinese companies. The Allen & Overy lawyers are leveraged and acquisition finance specialists.

"I think that, as a result of these transactions, we'll be able to offer a leading product," says Eich, a private equity lawyer. "And we want to lead."

According to Eich, the Skadden partners cannot formally join Kirkland until the firm receives regulatory approval from the Hong Kong Law Society, a process that can take a few months. During that time, Norris, Tsun, and Wong will practice at an independent firm called NTW Associates. After approval, the NTW firm will be folded into Kirkland. The Latham and Allen & Overy lawyers are still at their firms serving out notice requirements are expected to join Kirkland in a few month's time.

Kirkland's expansion comes amid a swirl of recruitment activity by leading U.S. firms in Hong Kong. In particular, several have launched Hong Kong law practices after previously only practicing U.S. law in the region. In June, Sullivan & Cromwell recruited Hong Kong law partner Kay Ian Ng and counsel Gwen Wong from Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer. In April, Simpson Thacher & Bartlett launched a Hong Kong practice with former Freshfields China corporate head Christopher Wong and former Linklaters Beijing managing partner Celia Lam. Before that, Davis Polk recruited former Freshfields Beijing managing partner Antony Dapiran and former Linklaters Beijing managing partner Paul Chow. Milbank, Tweed, Hadley & McCloy; Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton; and Shearman & Sterling are other elite New York firms that have moved into Hong Kong practice in the past 18 months.

American firms have been motivated to move into local practice as a result of the surge of capital markets activity in Hong Kong, especially among companies from mainland China. Most of the U.S. firms' recruits have come from British firms. Norris and Tsun, for instance, were partners at Simmons & Simmons and Linklaters, respectively, before joining Skadden.

Scott Simpson, the London-based partner who heads Skadden's international corporate group, says the firm is committed to its Hong Kong law practice and will be looking to bolster its capability again following the departures of Norris and Tsun. "We were a first-mover among U.S. firms in Hong Kong, and we are committed to remaining a leader," he says.

The firm's remaining Hong Kong law partners include Jonathan Stone, Edward Lam, and Alec Tracy.

A search by Skadden will no doubt further shake up a market that has already seen unprecedented lateral movement in recent months. In the meantime, Simpson says that the firm already had one new recruit ready to join its office before Norris and Tsun left. Clive Rough, a former managing partner of Freshfields's Hong Kong office who retired last year, has joined Skadden as a finance partner and will relocate to Hong Kong in the next several weeks. Though Rough is not a capital markets practitioner in the mold of Norris or Tsun, Simpson says that Rough's long experience in Asia will be a boon to Skadden.

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