Australia was, of course, once part of the British Empire, whose economic and legal legacy is clearly visible in the distribution of lawyers across Asia. Along with Australia, former colony Singapore is exceptionally well represented in our survey, with almost as many large firms as Japan, despite a much smaller population. Though it has few large domestic firms now, Hong Kong is perhaps the region's most well-lawyered market thanks to its role as the most common base for international firms in Asia.
And British firms account for many of the largest of the international firms operating in Asia. Like Norton Rose, Allen & Overy, Clifford Chance, and Linklaters each reported more than 300 lawyers in their Asia-Pacific offices; only Baker & McKenzie and DLA Piper reached that level among American firms. By and large, the British firms have been in the market for somewhat longer than their U.S. counterparts. Moreover, the British have been far more active than the Americans on the merger front so farwhich is likely to ensure that they will dominate in head count for years to come. Norton Rose owes most of its 790 lawyers in the region to its acquisition of Deacons Australia in 2010. As noted earlier, Herbert Smith's merger with Freehills and Ashurst's combination with Blake Dawson will also give those firms a much bigger footprint in the region.
It's a familiar pattern: In Asia, as in many European markets, the largest British firms field substantial teams, while the Americans tend to have smaller offices focused on fewer practice areas. The discrepancy reflects the resolutely international strategy adopted two decades ago by U.K. firms aiming to grow beyond the bounds of their domestic market. Still, many U.S. firms have expanded enormously in the Asia-Pacific region in recent years. Wall Street firms such as Shearman & Sterling, Simpson Thacher & Bartlett, Sullivan & Cromwell, and Davis Polk & Wardwell have all made big investments in Hong Kong law practices. Others have grown by merger: Mayer Brown combined with Hong Kong's biggest firm, Johnson Stokes & Master, in 2007. Twelve U.S. firms report 100 or more lawyers in their Asia-Pacific offices, compared with just eight U.K. firms.
Further down the list of American firms, though, the size of their Asia-Pacific cohorts drops off drastically. The Asian growth story is quite an uneven one. Baker & McKenzie may have over 1,000 lawyers in Asia, but more than half of the U.S. firms we surveyed have fewer than 40 lawyers in the region. Almost a third have fewer than 20.
That so many large firms still have such a modest presence in Asia suggests that the market is still widely viewed with caution. A relative handful have decided to expand aggressively, but many more international firms are so far still on the fence. With giants now looming into view, it's probably not a comfortable place to be sitting.