Former Freshfields Beijing head to quit Davis Polk in Hong Kong amid further lawyer exits

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Antony Dapiran, the former managing partner of Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer’s Beijing office, is to leave Davis Polk & Wardwell in Hong Kong.

His exit comes as around a dozen Hong Kong-based corporate lawyers are also set to leave Davis Polk, with multiple sources stating they had been “given the hint to leave”.

These lawyers have been given six months to look for another job, the sources said.

Capital markets partner Dapiran is well known in Hong Kong and joined Davis Polk in 2010 to launch its Hong Kong law practice, with his hire part of a spate of high profile departures from magic circle firms as US firms started to practise Hong Kong law for the first time.

He will leave the New York firm in June and his next move is unknown at this point.

His exit comes at a time when many Hong Kong capital markets legal practices appear to be struggling because of less work in that field.

A fluent Mandarin speaker, Dapiran is known for representing Chinese companies, especially state-owned enterprises. In late 2015, he represented People’s Insurance Company of China, or PICC, on a $4bn acquisition of shares in Shanghai-listed Hua Xia Bank held by Deutsche Bank. He was regarded as a rising star in China-related work when he joined Davis Polk, started his career at Freshfields in 1999 and was made partner in 2008.

Commenting on the exits, Davis Polk Asia head William Barron said the firm does not discuss the circumstances relating to particular lawyers but added: “Whether a lawyer is encouraged to leave within a given timeframe depends on the circumstances, as I am sure is true at any firm.”

Barron said that Davis Polk is “not laying off lawyers” and he described the departures as a normal part of law firms’ business operations. “Every year a large number of lawyers leave Davis Polk, or any other large firm, for a variety of reasons,” he said.

Barron said the firm reviews lawyer performance rigorously every year. Only a small portion of lawyers are promoted to partner or counsel at Davis Polk, and in Hong Kong the firm hasn’t promoted anyone to partner since 2011, when it promoted M&A partner Miranda So.

“The fact is only a very small percentage of lawyers who start at Davis Polk…end up staying,” Barron said.

According to data compiled by RivalEdge, nine non-partner lawyers left Davis Polk’s Hong Kong office in 2016; eight of these were corporate lawyers.

Barron said departures this year are not expected to reduce headcount in Hong Kong. “Partner and associate headcount is likely to be higher by year-end, as we grow to enhance and capitalise on our leading practice,” he said.

Davis Polk is one of the largest US firms in Hong Kong. The New York-based firm reported 86 lawyers in Hong Kong last year. The firm has significantly expanded in Hong Kong, more than tripling its headcount since 2009, when it reported only 27 lawyers.

The rapid expansion was largely driven by Hong Kong Stock Exchange listing-related work. That practice was launched in 2010 with the hiring of two partners. One of them was Dapiran. The other was Bonnie Chan, then head of IPOs at the Hong Kong Stock Exchange.

The duo, alongside the firm’s US-qualified Beijing partner He Li, advised on several big-ticket Hong Kong IPOs by Chinese companies. In 2012, they advised insurer PICC on a $3.1bn Hong Kong IPO; the following year, they acted for state-owned China Cinda Asset Management on a $2.5bn debut in Hong Kong; in 2015, they represented Lenovo Group’s parent Legend Holdings on a $2bn Hong Kong listing.

In 2013, as the Hong Kong IPO market started to slow down, Davis Polk launched a Hong Kong litigation practice, hiring then-Clifford Chance Asia disputes head Martin Rogers and fellow litigation partner James Wadham. The group now consists of 20 full-time litigators, including six counsel. Barron said a large local litigation practice is one key factor that sets Davis Polk apart from its peer US firms in Hong Kong. It is an important reason why Davis Polk believes it is worth maintaining a large office in the city, he said.

The Davis Polk departures come at a time of upheaval in capital market legal practices in Hong Kong. Last month, Hong Kong partner Dominic Tsun resigned from Kirkland & Ellis; earlier this year, the entire capital markets team at Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe left to join Morgan, Lewis & Bockius. In an interview last month, Orrick chairman Mitchell Zuklie said his firm had decided to de-emphasise Hong Kong capital markets practice for its low profitability.

Barron agreed that the IPO market in Hong Kong is challenging, but said it is nonetheless a vital part of the firm’s practice.

“So much of what we do here – litigation and M&A – revolves around the Hong Kong Stock Exchange; it’s the straw that stirs the drink here,” he said.