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April 29, 2011 10:13 AM

Simpson Thacher Launches Hong Kong Law Practice with Magic Circle Recruits

Posted by Anthony Lin

From The Asian Lawyer

Simpson Thacher & Bartlett is set to announce today that it is hiring partners from Linklaters and Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer to launch a Hong Kong law practice.

Celia Lam, the joint Greater China managing partner for Linklaters, and Christopher Wong, the former head of Freshfields's China corporate practice, will join Simpson Thacher in the fall.

The hires make Simpson Thacher the latest Wall Street firm to move into local Hong Kong practice after previously only practicing U.S. law in the region. Simpson Thacher has had an office in Hong Kong since 1993.

Lam, who formerly headed Linklaters's Beijing office before becoming co-China head in 2009, is a veteran of several large-scale capital markets and mergers and acquisitions transactions. Last year she advised China Mobile on its $6 billion acquisition of a 20 percent stake in Shanghai Pudong Development Bank. She also led Linklaters's representation last spring of the underwriters in the $707 million Hong Kong initial public offering of French skin care and cosmetics company L'Occitane.

Wong, who also was previously Beijing managing partner for his firm, has a similar practice focus. Last year, he represented Chinese auto dealer Zhongsheng Group on its $370 million IPO, as well as the underwriters in the $548 million IPO of Chinese department store and supermarket operator Springland International Holdings Ltd.

Lam said in a statement she welcomed the opportunity to join Simpson Thacher as it launches a Hong Kong law practice. "Simpson Thacher is ideally suited to advise sophisticated clients, including corporations, state-owned entities, leading private equity firms, and other financial institutions, across a broad range of international corporate and finance transactions involving Greater China," she said.

Wong said:  "I have known Celia for over ten years and have worked with Simpson Thacher lawyers on numerous transactions and appreciate the high level of expertise and professionalism that they always offer to their clients."

Simpson Thacher's move into Hong Kong law follows that of several of its New York-based competitors. Davis Polk & Wardwell; Shearman & Sterling; Milbank, Tweed, Hadley & McCloy; and Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton all launched Hong Kong law practices last year. Wall Street firms in Hong Kong were previously satisfied to advise companies on either U.S. listings or U.S. law aspects of Hong Kong transactions, letting other firms handle the generally lower-yielding local counsel work.

But the explosive growth of Chinese listings work in Hong Kong, which has led the world in IPOs the last three years, has convinced them to take the plunge into local practice.

Simpson Thacher was slightly slow off the mark. To meet Hong Kong Law Society requirements to practice local law, half of a firm's partners must be Hong Kong-qualified. While partners from Davis Polk, Cleary, and other U.S. firms got ready by taking the once-a-year Hong Kong bar exam in 2009, Simpson partners only took it last fall.
But Simpson knew right away who it wanted to launch its Hong Kong practice, according to China practice partner Leiming Chen. "We only talked to two people, and those are the people we hired," says Chen. "We were very lucky they saw the same possibilities we did."

The New York's firm's choice of recruits illustrates the vulnerability of the major British firms, which have long dominated Hong Kong capital markets practice, to poaching by their American competitors. Davis Polk hired Freshfields partner Antony Dapiran and Linklaters partner Paul Chow for its Hong Kong team. Cleary hired Norton Rose's China corporate finance head, Freeman Chan, to head its Hong Kong practice.

Simpson Thacher's move also undoubtedly puts pressure on the handful of remaining elite New York firms without Hong Kong practices, most notably Sullivan & Cromwell. Chen, who was himself skeptical of the need for a Hong Kong practice just last year, says that he and the firm changed their minds in part because of the moves by peer firms Davis Polk and Cleary.

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