Against all odds, law firms across the Asia Pacific experienced, as a group, significant growth in 2021, especially in China. According to the 2022 Asia 50, our ranking of the largest Asia-Pacific-based law firms by head count, the number of lawyers working at the 50 largest firms in the region totaled 90,808—up 9% from the 83,347 lawyers employed in the region the previous year, which itself represented fairly steady growth year-on-year.
Chinese firms dominated the Asia 50, taking 28 spots and accounting for more than 80% of the total number of lawyers employed by the 50 largest law firms in Asia-Pacific.
This occurred despite the many challenges the Chinese market faced in 2021—obstacles that came in the form of the strained relationship with the U.S., the obstinate pursuit of its zero-COVID strategy, and its implementation of a new data privacy law that almost completely dampened the U.S. listing interest for Chinese companies.
Yingke reported 25% growth of more than 2,600 lawyers for a total of 13,299 in 2021, overtaking Dentons as the largest firm in the world. Dentons, a global verein, added 727 lawyers in 2021 and for the year counted 12,064 lawyers globally. Most of the firm’s lawyers are based in China.
Jingsh Law Firm, China’s third-largest law firm, also continued to expand in 2021 and now has more than 5,187 lawyers, an increase of about 11%.
Chengdu-headquartered Tahota Law Firm added 800 new lawyers, up 46%, and now sits in the eighth spot on the Asia 50. Beijing-based DeHeng Law Offices broke the 4,000-lawyer mark in 2021, having hired more than 320 lawyers.
Head count at Beijing’s Grandall Law Firm, which took the fourth spot on the Asia 50, swelled by a massive 1,700 new lawyer hires in 2021. Notably, the firm’s gross revenue also jumped by $186 million to approximately $732 million, according to the Global 200, which ranks law firms worldwide by global revenue.
While the Chinese market has confronted a myriad of challenges in the past year, the numbers tell a different story. They point to the government’s successful efforts to pivot its focus to domestic and regional markets.
The country’s law firms took heed.
The pursuit of size and coverage, at least regionally, has become a strategic priority for many Chinese firms. All of Yingke’s 16,698 lawyers are in China, and the same goes for Jingsh. Nearly 7,500 of Dentons’ lawyers are in the country.
Even the elite Chinese firms showed notable growth. To be sure, it is modest compared with expansive rival firms such as Yingke, Jingsh, DeHeng, AllBright, Grandall and DeHeng. But China’s elite practices—JunHe, Fangda Partners and Zhong Lun Law Firm—also expanded in 2021—by 30, 88 and 143 lawyers, respectively.
Australia’s Measured Growth
While Chinese firms showed tremendous expansion, their Australian counterparts were more measured in size and growth. The Australian firms—Ashurst, Minter Ellison, HWL Ebsworth Lawyers, Allens, Clayton Utz and Corrs Chambers Westgarth—employed a combined 6,362 lawyers, ranging in rank, respectively, from 16th to 38th. Ashurst, at 1,642 lawyers, has the most lawyers of firms based in the region, but given its strong U.K. ties, also has fewer lawyers in the region (at 821) than Minters and HWL, which follow it on the Asia 50 charts. HWL and Corrs hired the most lawyers over the course of 2021, bringing on 75 and 71, respectively.
HWL, despite experiencing fallout after it decided to cancel its planned initial public offering, also added 30 equity partners in 2021, and reported a steep revenue increase of more than $52 million.
In fact, according to Law.com International’s latest Global 200 ranking, all the Australian firms increased their gross revenue in 2021. Notably, Corrs’ gross revenue grew to $340 million from $265 million, marking a 28% jump. The firm employs about 640 lawyers, bringing its revenue per lawyer to approximately $531,000.
Indian Firms Ride M&A Wave
For 70 years, India’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) averaged 5.8%, but in the second quarter of 2021 it reached an all-time high of 20%. According to a White & Case report, the country’s dealmaking activity reached a total of 598 deals valued at $112.8 billion in 2021, the highest annual volume and value on record.
Correspondingly, the four Indian firms that had the largest head count in Asia all grew substantially. Khaitan & Co took the top spot by head count compared with the other three, with 970 lawyers, ranking it 26th on the Asia 50. It also hired the most lawyers in 2021 of any of the Indian firms, having added 254 more practitioners.
Shardul Amarchand Mangaldas & Co added 138 news lawyers, taking the 32nd spot in the overall Asia 50 ranking. Cyril Amarchand Mangaldas (ranked 29th), which closed two of its smallest Indian offices and launched its first international office—in Singapore—added 97 lawyers overall.
Kim & Chang Still Leads South Korea
South Korean Big Six firm Kim & Chang, which for a long time has been the Korean market’s most dominant legal practice, took the 22nd spot in the Asia 50 rankings. By the end of 2021, it had 1,120 lawyers, a modest 10-lawyer increase from a year earlier. Kim & Chang, one of the highest-grossing Asian law firms on the Global 200 chart, reported more than $973 million in gross revenue in 2021, making its RPL (approximately $868,000) the highest of its ranked Asia-Pacific counterparts. Notably, the firm only has four offices outside of its Seoul headquarters. The other three offices are also in Asia.
Only two other South Korean firms—Bae Kim & Lee and Lee & Ko—made the cut for the Global 200, having grossed approximately $337 million and $330 million, respectively. In terms of head count though, Big Six firms Shin & Kim and Yulchon joined the larger-grossing firms on the Asia 50, with 517 and 538 lawyers, respectively. Both experienced double-digit head count growth in 2021. Lee & Ko dropped a few spots down to 41st place on the Asia 50, however, having employed four fewer lawyers than it did in 2020.
Singapore firm Allen & Gledhill (ranked 46th) also contracted, dropping its head count from 553 lawyers in 2020 to 435 in 2021. However, the firm’s local rival, Rajah & Tann, increased its head count by 55 lawyers over the previous year. That brought the total number of lawyers at the firm to 761, ranking it 34th in the Asia 50.
Japan’s so-called Big Four firms—Nishimura & Asahi, Mori Hamada & Matsumoto, Anderson Mori & Tomotsune and Nagashima Ohno & Tsunematsu—are among the Asia-Pacific’s largest. Combined, they employed 2,535 lawyers in 2021. But only the first three made the Asia 50. The Big Four’s up-and-coming competitor, TMI Associates, also made the cut, taking the cutoff 50th spot with 535 lawyers, which was actually three lawyers more than Big Four firm Nagashima Ohno.