In the Search for Talent in Asia, Do Work-Life Balance and Diversity Matter? | International

Law firms have taken to touting their commitment to diversity, sustainability, and work-life balance. While many are sincere about their efforts because it’s the right thing to do, most hope they also will help them attract talent at a time when around the world, demand is often larger than supply. In Asia, however, do these commitments make a difference in attracting top talent?

I’m Jessica Seah, International’s senior reporter for Asia, bringing you another edition of The Asia Legal Briefing — our weekly summary and analysis of major news and trends affecting the legal industry in the Asia Pacific.

A Better Workplace for Talent or a Better Mousetrap?

I’ve had a pretty jam-packed schedule these past couple of weeks chatting to a long list of partners about COP26 and all things law. Many of those conversations evolved into discussions about talent shortages and then about what firms are doing to attract young talent.

A few months back, a senior partner at a U.K.-headquartered firm told me that back in the day, jumping from one firm to another — even once — was frowned upon. “You pick your firm, and you stick with it,” he said.

A general counsel told me that he had always thought it was crazy that lawyers would move firms just for a 10% or 20% pay hike. “There are so many factors beyond money,” he said.

Those factors are worth talking about. I mean, the quality and type of work, strength of practices — those are all a given, I should think.

But in recent weeks, International has written about associate expectations of what they are being paid to do. We’ve also written about tokenism, diversity and how the offer of work-life balance are all impacting recruitment. But I’m just not sure that any of those are prevalent in Asia.

“When you get paid Kirkland money, you work Kirkland hours, I don’t think people are naïve to expect otherwise,” one of Kirkland & Ellis’ rival partners said to me.

I spoke to a partner who heads up the Asia region for a U.S.-based firm and asked her if she thinks that associates in Asia see a direct correlation between how much they get paid and how late or hard they should be expected to work. She nodded.

One recruiter told me that it’s common in Asia for associates to jump firms every couple of years. More often than not, it’s for more money — or perhaps for the thrill of being wanted by a firm that has a stronger brand.

Another Asia-based recruiter I recently spoke to agreed. The whole buzz around work-life balance, law firms’ commitment to diversity and inclusion, sustainability and climate change — that’s all considered secondary, if considered at all, by associates and partners in this part of the world, the recruiter said. A lot of what firms are touting is part of a global agenda that is being pushed by the firms’ Western headquarters.

That is not at all to say they are not important issues — they are, in fact, supremely so. I’m just saying I don’t think they matter as much to potential hires in Asia — at least not yet.

Above all, many partners say the most important thing is the cultural fit, and that trumps all the other factors. After all, we are talking about a region that is one of the most culturally diverse in the world.

This week, I spoke to a partner at an elite Chinese law firm who emphasized the importance of new hires being able to fit in culturally. That often weighs more heavily than the book of business that a candidate can bring in. His firm has learned some hard lessons in this respect.

So, what’s the most important factor in recruiting talent?

When I was living in London last year, I spoke to a couple of associates at a Magic Circle firm who enthusiastically talked about how their firm has an unspoken “no assholes” policy, which prompted me to ask, “So, are there any assholes in your office?”

My question was met with an awkward silence.


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