Employment firm creates HR consultancy, bolsters HK office

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Employment and immigration specialist Lewis Silkin’s employment partner and head of office in Hong Kong, Kathryn Weaver, says the global firm has big plans for expansion in the city.

Lewis Silkin’s Asia-Pacific Desk in the UK works with the regional office in Hong Kong to support clients based in the Asia-Pacific with their UK and European legal requirements, as well as supporting their legal needs in Asia.

“We’ve been here a while, but we were originally a registered foreign law firm and then in January this year we became a local Hong Kong law firm,” says Weaver.

“At the same time, we bolstered our resources by bringing in two very senior hires, Catherine Leung and Kenneth Leung, who are renowned in the market for their employment expertise and tax expertise, respectively.

“We’re now a five-person employment team, which is actually a pretty large team for Hong Kong. Our intention is now to grow steadily, bringing in one or two employment lawyers over the next period of time, say the next few months, and bringing it up to about 15 to 20 employment lawyers within the next few years.”

Weaver says the firm also intends to build out the IP side of the business, focusing on brand protection and a similar model to the firm’s UK office.

“Our UK operations are around 50% employment law and 50% IP commercial,” she says. “In terms of expanding out to the rest of Asia, we’d have no intention to do that currently, because we sit within a very good, very tight alliance with Ius Laboris.

“That alliance basically takes the best in breed of independent employment practices across the globe. And that means that we have arguably the best employment lawyers across the globe according to the directories, and they are very plugged in to employment law, they are very plugged into the court system, and they’re charging local rates, which is the key differential that we have from international law firms.”

Weaver says the firm has also developed a human resources (HR) consultancy called Worksphere, in addition to the traditional legal services that most law firms have in employment, immigration and reward areas.

“We decided to create this because clients repeatedly asked us for assistance with HR consultancy, for example they wanted maternity leave cover, or they wanted a HR consultant to come in and help with a compensation and benefits programme, or they wanted some training or an investigation,” she says.

“Under Worksphere, we do send in HR consultants or a HR director that you might need for a short period of time to cover maternity leave or to help you with a project.

“We would do that part of the business and we do investigations. So, if you want an expert to come in and assist you with an employment investigation, it could be a grievance, could be disciplinary, could be some kind of fact-finding investigation, then we can send somebody in to assist you with that.

“It may not be that you want a lawyer, and you might want a HR person to do that. We can offer you both, because we have both and we also help with training.

“But [also] for example diversity, sexual harassment, stress management and mental health, and that training can be delivered by lawyers and by HR people, separately or together. Then we also have global cultural fluency and that basically assists businesses understand how to navigate between different countries, how to work with different cultures.

“That helps us really enhance our offering here in the region. We think that gives us something over and above other law firms.”

Sexual harassment is a key topic that law firms and the wider business community are addressing following the #MeToo movement and other prompters in the past two or three years. Weaver says the issue took a while to hit Asia, compared to Europe and the US.

“There were far fewer stories around #MeToo here, and that was very significant [for example] in China – no chat around #MeToo for a very long time,” she says.

“And also, here in Hong Kong, very limited discussion around it. But that’s not to say it wasn’t happening. Sexual harassment is happening, it’s happening in every single sector, and in law firms too.

“I think law firms do have an important role to go in and investigate these issues, whether they’re doing so as a service to their clients or whether they’re doing so internally with their own acts and issues.

“And Lewis Silkin works with a lot of law firms… we act for about 40 law firms, and what we do is go and investigate issues, not always sexual harassment, various types of issues, but in recent years there has been quite a lot of need for us to investigate sexual harassment matters in law firms.”

She says the issue impacts all sectors, but law firms are expected to operate at a higher level, and so the headlines are larger when a law firm has been accused of sexual harassment within its ranks.

“And every company no matter who they are, law firms or otherwise, has to take these issues seriously,” she says. “Long gone are the days where you can sweep it under the carpet and say well this person’s a good earner they’ve been here for years, let’s just pretend it didn’t happen. That’s no longer really an option whether you’re in the UK, the US, or Asia.

“Companies are taking it very seriously, they are responding to it. If a person puts a grievance in around a sexual harassment matter, then the companies will look into it, investigate it, and take appropriate action. We’ve seen people leave in Asia across various sectors because of allegations to do with sexual harassment that have been found to have happened. And I think this will continue. I don’t think we’ll roll back to the dark days of sexual harassment being just a part of ordinary everyday life in the workplace.”

Weaver says with Asia’s disparate cultures, approaches to sexual harassment have also differed.

“I think Hong Kong is more aligned with the British system of law and so has been taking things very seriously and following the law and internal procedures in dealing with sexual harassment,” she says. Other countries are slightly behind.

“I mentioned China earlier and there’s been limited chat about sexual harassment issues, and investigating them. That’s not to say they’re not happening, they are happening. An interesting thing about China law is that if you are male, you don’t have a right to bring a claim for being sexually harassed. That’s not part of the law at the moment.

“And in places like Japan, it’s not talked about at all. Again, these things are happening but the culture very much there is to keep things quiet and to crack on and continue to work.

“Indonesia, again slightly behind possibly in dealing with sexual harassment issues with the same level of seriousness as other parts of the region. Anecdotally, from my colleagues there, I’ve been told that if a male tried to bring a sexual harassment claim then they wouldn’t have a chance in court. It’d be very difficult for them to progress that claim.

“So, I think Hong Kong was actually doing relatively well in dealing with this matter better than other places. And the region has a lot to do to improve the way it deals with sexual harassment.”