Skadden loses top lawyer to ByteDance amid China IPO chill

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US law firm Skadden Arps has lost its top Asia capital markets lawyer as the flow of Chinese companies selling shares in New York and Hong Kong dwindles.

Julie Gao is to move to Chinese tech giant ByteDance, the owner of TikTok, where she will take over as chief financial officer. The Beijing-based company has seen its own hopes for a near-term public offering dashed amid the country’s tech crackdown.

Gao has for years been a top dealmaker at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, shepherding through the public listings of dozens of Chinese companies in New York and Hong Kong.

But with the pipeline of Chinese companies hoping to sell shares in the US dwindling, the Californian-licensed lawyer appears to be betting on a brighter future with China’s top social media company, which continues to grow on the back of short video app TikTok’s global success.

Her move to ByteDance comes at a difficult time for the company domestically. Chinese officials have introduced a flurry of regulations reining in the company’s business.

Beijing’s new regulations have targeted everything from online education, which had been a growth market for the company, to how short video apps such as those on TikTok sister app Douyin push personalised content to users.

The tortuous business environment led ByteDance founder Zhang Yiming to step down as chief executive and chair of the company last year.

His replacement Liang Rubo said Gao would work from ByteDance’s Hong Kong and Singapore offices and help the team “strive toward our mission to inspire creativity and enrich life”, according to an internal memo seen by the Financial Times.

Gao is a senior partner at Skadden and a member of the law firm’s policy committee, its governing body. Her ability to corner the market for public and private market financings has for long made peers in Hong Kong envious.

“One time I asked a client why they always use her,” recounted one lawyer in the city at a rival firm. “They said because she’s always looking after us — that she responds to their emails at 2 in the morning.”

Another top IPO lawyer in the city called her a “star in capital markets”. She has worked on successful share sales such as those of Chinese ecommerce group JD.com, phonemaker Xiaomi and food delivery giant Meituan, but also some that have become problematic such as ride hailer Didi.

Liang said Gao had worked with ByteDance since 2016, helping with several of its acquisitions and financings. “She is familiar with our mission, culture, teams and business,” he wrote.

Globally, ByteDance faces several challenges, including in the US, where a national security body is probing TikTok’s operations and US government agencies are investigating the short video app over its handling of child sexual abuse material.

Geopolitical calculations even led ByteDance to make TikTok inaccessible in Gao’s home of Hong Kong in 2020.

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