For those corporate lawyers wanting to take on a challenge, a move to Asia might be just the ticket. Where law firms in the UK and Europe are struggling to find new work and grow revenues, Asia’s economies are booming, and the demand for legal services in areas such as capital markets, mergers and acquisitions, and arbitration, continues to rise.

For UK citizens, visas are relatively easy to obtain and arrange. And given that English law and the English language are the favoured modes of working, UK lawyers have a serious advantage over lawyers from the rest of Europe as well as the US. One of the key markets in the region is Singapore. Over the last 20 years, the city-state has established itself as a well-developed and sophisticated legal market, acting as a hub covering south-east Asia for arbitration law following the establishment of the Singapore International Arbitration Centre in 1991. Its proximity to developing markets such as Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam has prompted more foreign law firms to set up offices there: in the last five years the number of registered foreign law firms has doubled to 116, with over 1,200 foreign lawyers.

Thriving market

Jeff Smith, 43, head of south-east Asia at Norton Rose, moved to Singapore in 1998 at the age of 28: 14 years later he is still there. ‘It’s simply a great place to be and there’s a lot of work here. It’s an exciting time to be in corporate law and the market just continues to grow,’ he says. Smith is one of many commercial lawyers to find Singapore a thriving market for legal services. Rob Bratby, 42, managing partner for Olswang Asia, moved to Singapore in November last year to set up the office with two other partners from the UK. It is the first time he has lived in Asia, although he had previously visited the region.

‘Singapore is completely different to London,’ he says. ‘Business is still being done here and the atmosphere is vibrant. There is a real confidence about the future and people are prepared to take risks to do business, so for a commercial lawyer it’s great to be here. The most negative thing people say is that their business might only grow by single-digit figures next year – that’s fantastic.’

‘Asia seems to be the right place to be doing business for capital markets work,’ says Stephen Revell, who heads the Singapore office and capital markets group at Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer. Revell, 55, moved to Singapore in September after spending the previous year working in the Hong Kong office. ‘Most of the practice’s capital markets work is coming from here, and the range and depth of the work is much broader than in London.’

Richard Wise, 30, a managing associate at the Singapore office of Addleshaw Goddard, observes: ‘When we opened in May, Singapore was the firm’s first international office, and to be one of the two people – Jamie Harrison moved at the same time – tasked with setting up a new office focusing on international arbitration in south-east Asia and India was a great opportunity. Having moved from an established office in London, there is a different emphasis to my role in Singapore, with a real focus on establishing the firm’s identity in Asia and building a practice.’

Matthew Hopkinson, 32, an associate at Baker & McKenzie.Wong & Leow in Singapore, came with his life partner in August: ‘I had been working on M&A in the UK for years with CMS Cameron McKenna, but when the crash happened the work slowed and I moved into insolvency work, which I did not enjoy as much. An opening came up with Baker & McKenzie in Singapore where deals are still being done and I jumped at the chance.’

Friendly reception

For others, Singapore represents an ‘English-friendly’ Asian market. Henry Cort, 41, an associate principal at Baker & McKenzie.Wong & Leow, moved back to Singapore in 2009 after working there for four years between 2002 to 2006. Initially, he had considered trying Hong Kong, but decided against such a move: ‘To work in Hong Kong you need to have the language skills to speak and understand Cantonese and Mandarin because a lot of the work there now is China-facing. However, in Singapore, the working language is English, while English law has a real foothold here for dispute and arbitration work, and it is commonly used for contracts and finance work.’

But some are not put off by the language barriers in Hong Kong. Simon Chapman, 32, senior associate in the international arbitration team at Herbert Smith Freehills in Hong Kong, says he came to the island in July 2011 because the work opportunity was ‘too good to miss’. He says: ‘The level of activity and type of work being done in Hong Kong is different to London. And because the office is smaller, there’s a greater opportunity for me to get involved in a greater variety of work and to take on more responsibility. A lot of the work here is China-related, and that presents new challenges as well but it’s a great experience overall.’

Chapman had only previously visited Hong Kong once before – for a long weekend in April before taking the position: ‘I expected the change to be very big and that I’d go through an enormous culture shock, but actually the transition has been a lot easier than I thought. There is a large ex-pat community here which makes it easy to meet other people. Everyone is very sociable and I had no real problems finding accommodation as the firm helped with all that.’ Chapman believes other lawyers should grab the opportunity of working overseas if a position becomes available.

DLA Piper’s head of restructuring in Hong Kong, 38-year-old Jonathan Leitch, moved there at the end of August. It is the first time he has lived and worked abroad. While the job involves lots of travel and long working hours, Leitch says the decision to go to Hong Kong was easy: the opportunity came at the right time. ‘My wife and I have twin four-year-old girls, so it was easy to relocate them. They had not started school and it has been easy for them to make new friends here.’

Pattie Walsh, partner and head of employment, pensions and benefits (Asia Pacific) for DLA Piper in Hong Kong and Sydney, relocated to Asia in 2005. She believes that work experience in Asia can accelerate an individual’s career. ‘Given the focus on the region at this time of economic challenge in EMEA and North America, time in Asia is a very logical step. There are work opportunities, but also opportunities for personal development and adventure here,’ she says.

Work-life balance

She also believes that some could benefit from the different working environment and lifestyle. ‘Work-life balance is very much a matter of individual needs and preference, and for some this could be more readily available in Asia,’ says Walsh. ‘For example, reduced commute time, increased affordable domestic support, and smaller, tightly knit communities can increase one’s work-life experience.’

Malaysia also provides plenty of opportunities. Like Singapore, it is only a relatively short hop from other major markets – countries such as Indonesia, China and Australia are only four to five hours away. Nick White, 54, regional manager at the Kuala Lumpur office of Trowers & Hamlins, is an old hand at living abroad, although his posting in Malaysia to open the firm’s latest Asian office is the first time he has lived in the region. He currently divides his time between Asia and Dubai, where he has headed the firm’s office for the last 14 years.

White says Malaysia is an easy place in which to operate: ‘As a former British colony, its bureaucracy and way of working administratively is very British. It is an open and transparent country and is well-run. Importantly, it also uses English commercial law, and English is spoken and used widely here for commercial and everyday purposes.’ Naturally, China is also a big draw for law firms and ambitious lawyers.

Nick Beckett, 40, managing partner and head of the life sciences and intellectual property practices of the Beijing office of CMS Cameron McKenna, moved to China in June. His wife and three young children joined him in August. While he had been a frequent visitor to Japan for many years, his first visit to China was only in February. ‘For many years I have done intellectual property work for some leading Japanese pharmaceutical and medical equipment firms, and often these firms would send in-house lawyers or parts of their team to the UK and we would have meetings with them,’ says Beckett.

‘Then these firms started sending their staff to China, and I realised that we were in the wrong place to serve our clients. I therefore suggested we build up the office in Beijing – our Shanghai office was much more established – but I did not really think it would be me they would ask to go out and set it all up largely from scratch. But here I am,’ he adds. Beckett says the circumstances were favourable to make such a big move: ‘I have two children aged nine, and a six-year-old, so it has been relatively easy and undisruptive to move them to a British school here before they enter secondary education. My wife has also been very supportive. They all love it out here and they are learning Mandarin – and putting me to shame.’

Beckett is committed to staying in China for four to five years: ‘I think I’d be happy to stay in China if that’s required, but you move where the work takes you. A key consideration for me is my children’s education: wherever I am posted after my five years here comes to a close would need to last for the term of their secondary and sixth-form education – I can’t disrupt that.’

But while many lawyers may sing Asia’s praises, the far east may not be for everyone. Although the weather and travel may look and sound exotic, the work can be exacting. Revell warns that it is no holiday: ‘It is hard work. The hours are long and the demands on you can be tough.’ Cort, for example, says he spends about 90 days of the year travelling – or two days a week on average.

Tough demands

Clients can also be demanding. ‘Asians work very hard and clients here are focused,’ says White. ‘They know what they want and have high expectations of how it should be done and when the work will be delivered. You can be called at any time of the day and weekend. It is also a given in most Asian countries that you will provide a certain amount of free advice in the run-up to any contract being signed.’ Hopkinson agrees: ‘Clients demand quick service and they want regular updates – if a client here sends an email or makes a call, they expect a reply within 24 hours. That can become quite exacting if you are on the move. They are also very strong on deadlines. As a result there is more client-relationship-handling here than in London.’

UK expat lawyers agree that establishing good personal relationships with clients is the key to doing business in Asia, but that they can take time – years in some cases – and be exhausting, as many meetings will take place outside work hours. ‘Dinners are very important here and they can take up quite a few nights per month. You just have to get used to it,’ says Beckett. ‘Life in Asia is relationship-driven,’ adds Bratby. ‘It can be a slow process and it can take a lot of time, so you need to sign on for at least four to five years to achieve anything. You are not likely to achieve much if you are just here for a year or two.’

The eight-hour time difference between the UK and the region can be another source of difficulty, and can impact on personal time for those lawyers who relocate with their families. White says: ‘As soon as I finish my work here I have to be prepared for work and for calls from the UK, where the day is just starting. That extends to the weekend. On Friday evening I have to be ready to take calls from the UK, and on Sunday I can get calls or have to pick up or send emails to the office in Dubai. My work doesn’t finish at 6pm on a Friday night here unfortunately. Working days can therefore be very long.’

Bratby agrees that the time difference can be testing: ‘While you may have done your eight hours in the office, London just starts to get to work, so if you have a video-conference with the London office or a UK client you are effectively working after hours. The 13-hour time difference with the US east coast can also be a problem if you need to speak to someone.’ Another key issue people need to be aware of is that while the quality of life and type of accommodation may be better than in London (in Singapore, for example, many apartments have communal gyms and swimming pools), the cost of living may not be so different.

Smith praises the quality of life Singapore has to offer, but he warns that it comes at a high price: ‘It is expensive to live here. Rent is not cheap and cars are prohibitively expensive. However, this is perhaps offset by a low tax rate, so it might just work in your favour, but don’t expect Asia to be a cheap option.’ Revell also warns that the cost of living is at least similar – or even higher – than living in London. ‘People expect the cost of living to be cheap in Asia, but it isn’t. Accommodation in Hong Kong can be horrendously expensive, and forget about trying to run a car in Singapore – it can cost you about three times more than it would in the UK to buy and tax even a small car. Food in Singapore is also not cheap; as everything is imported, the prices are hardly competitive.’

Upsides and downsides

But there may be an upside for canny lawyers. ‘My salary here in Singapore is broadly in line with what it was in the UK,’ says Cort, ‘but it goes further as income tax is much lower. I save around 12-15% on my salary. And as there is no capital gains tax, you can amass some significant savings on investments, which helps if I need to relocate back to the UK or another country’. Also – as for any move – there is always something people have to leave behind, which can be the dealbreaker in terms of whether to go or not. Bratby and his wife faced the difficult decision of having to leave their elderly Labrador behind. ‘That was actually the hardest thing about the move, especially for my wife, but also for me. We miss him very much and at the moment he is being looked after by a friend of ours who is house-sitting for us while we’re away. It’s just too hot out here for him.’

Marriages can also become long-distance, however happy couples are. As Revell’s daughter is studying for A-levels, his wife is staying behind in the UK until she goes to university. ‘My wife comes out once a month to visit me here and she’ll move out permanently once the last of the children have gone. I do miss them but work keeps me occupied,’ he says. DLA Piper’s Walsh agrees that there are potential downsides. ‘Travelling partners or spouses need to be seriously handled or the experience can fail, and the cultural shock should not be underestimated even if English is the prevailing language,’ she says. ‘Go with an open mind and a sense of curiosity. Look for mentors and do your due diligence beforehand.’

Yet overall, lawyers are effusive about the career development opportunities available for those lawyers who want to take advantage of them. ‘The experience of working in Asia is well regarded,’ says Revell. ‘And as the office teams are usually smaller than in London, you get to be involved in different aspects of the work, so you take on more responsibility quickly. It’s a great opportunity.’

Beckett strongly recommends other lawyers take the opportunity to work in Asia. ‘Be bold and challenge yourself – you only live once,’ he says. ‘If you push hard enough, these opportunities will come to you. Think about the skills you have and the work you’d like to do – there may be even better chances to put them to good use and to develop your career in Asia. The opportunity really is worth considering.’

Neil Hodge is a freelance journalist