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Bumpy start to 2018 for Norton Rose Fulbright as Japan corporate head departs and two offices close

While 2017 saw Norton Rose Fulbright (NRF) further expand its global footprint through two mergers in the US and Australia, the new year has begun with the firm losing out internationally with Paul Hastings recruiting its Japan head of corporate and NRF closing its Abu Dhabi and Kazakhstan offices.

Paul Hastings confirmed Eiji Kobayashi has joined its Tokyo office today (12 January), with his four-person team, including two associates, expected to join him in the coming weeks.

Kobayashi joined NRF at the beginning of 2015 from Japan’s largest firm, 500-lawyer Nishimura & Asahi, where he co-lead the cross-border transactions group. He went on to head up NRF’s corporate, M&A and securities operations in the country. A US-qualified lawyer, he previously worked in the Houston and Tokyo offices of Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom. He typically advises Japanese corporates on outbound investment and M&A deals.

He said Paul Hastings’ ‘strong cross-border track record and local expertise in Asia’ attracted him to the firm: ‘I am keen to help the firm’s clients effectively navigate compliance and investigations challenges and to seize opportunities from cross-border mergers and acquisitions.’

Including the new hires, Paul Hastings will have 13 lawyers including four partners in the Japanese capital, all in corporate save for one partner and one associate in litigation.

NRF also closed its Kazakshtan base at the beginning of the year after Almaty-based partner Yerzhan Kumarov established a domestic shop, KM & Partners.

‘We mutually agreed that a full-service offering was no longer required by Norton Rose Fulbright in Kazakhstan,’ said Martin Scott, managing partner of Europe, Middle East and Asia. A spokesperson for the firm added the firm will maintain an unspecified ‘working relationship’ with Kumarov.

NRF also announced this week that it had shut its Abu Dhabi office in December last year, moving partner Paul Mansouri and the other two lawyers based there to Dubai. One of the business services staff was also moved to Dubai, while two other support staff were made redundant.

‘In the past few years, the majority of our activity has increasingly regionalised,’ according to head of Middle East Deirdre Walker. ‘As a result it makes better business sense to consolidate our resources in Dubai. Our clients want simplified access to our firm across the Middle East. This development addresses their needs allowing us to support them with their opportunities across the region.’

NRF’s move to pare back its Middle East operations has been a relatively common trend among global law firms that have grown like weeds internationally, creating a barrage of offices that very often do not live up to their initial promise. Major law firms have reacted to losses in the Middle East after overinvesting during the oil boom in the 2000s, with Abu Dhabi in particular a primary target. In 2015 and 2016, Simmons & Simmons, Latham & Watkins, Vinson & Elkins and Herbert Smith Freehills closed their doors to focus on Dubai, just 100km away.

These developments follow an expansive year for NRF, in which completed two mergers – with Manhattan-headquartered Chadbourne & Parke  and Australia’s Henry Davis York . These were not without fallout though, with four infrastructure and energy partners leaving in the summer to establish Pinsent Masons’ Perth office .