Last fall, as the Occupy Central political protests began to snarl traffic in Hong Kong, some commentators began voicing the opinion that the unrest would only have one clear winner: Singapore.
For some firms, the choice is more opportunistic than strategic. Duane Morris’ chairman and CEO, John Soroko, says the firm opened its first Asia office in Singapore in 2007 mainly because it had the chance to recruit a group of partners there.
“We weren’t offered an option that included Hong Kong,” he says. “We never really did a spreadsheet that compared the pros and cons of the different markets.”
Though that initial group of partners mostly left the firm within a couple of years, the Philadelphia firm regrouped in Singapore by launching a joint venture with local firm Selvam in 2011. That venture has since become the driving force behind the firm’s further expansion in the region. In 2013, Duane Morris became the first U.S. firm to open an office in Myanmar.
Soroko says the firm wouldn’t rule out a Hong Kong opening, but notes that Duane Morris doesn’t traditionally handle the sorts of big capital markets deals that draw other firms to that city. “That hasn’t really been a focus for us,” he says.
Rana, who relocated to Asia from Goodwin Procter’s New York office, notes that personal preferences can also play a part in where firms go.
Hong Kong is generally regarded as the more lively and exciting city, while Singapore is cleaner, quieter and more family-friendly. Housing has historically been cheaper in Singapore, though prices have gone up significantly in recent years, and both cities rank among the world’s most expensive in terms of property. A major issue for expatriates with children is that securing places in international schools is generally much harder in Hong Kong.
That was an issue for Rana and his wife, who have two school-age children. But they ultimately decided they preferred Hong Kong.
“And we couldn’t be happier,” he says, “on either a personal or professional level.”
This article originally appeared in the March 2015 issue of the ABA Journal with this headline: “Best of the East: Hong Kong, Singapore vie for U.S. law firms’ offices.”
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