Senior HR Manager;A&O: 1994-2007;
APAC RegionalGeneral Counsel, Citi;
Markets are evolving fast and probably no more so than in Asia. Law firms are having to adjust accordingly, attracted by the greater opportunities but at the same time needing to structure their operations in line with the risks and potential rewards that follow. Allen & Overy’s Hong Kong and Tokyo offices both marked their 30th anniversary in 2018. While the offices enjoy the benefits of a long presence in each city, the key to success has been their ability to adapt to market drivers.
Servicing the China market
China’s inexorable rise and the transformation of its economy is the principal development that has shaped the Hong Kong practice over the last ten years. The massive Belt and Road Initiative, estimated to involve around USD1 trillion of Chinese investments and loans in major infrastructure projects around the globe, is evidence of China’s growing economic influence. This is leading to multiple areas of work for A&O including general financing, project financing and M&A.
A&O has taken full advantage of the opportunity for legal services in China and in China-related work. The Hong Kong office, together with Beijing and Shanghai, make up the firm’s integrated Greater China practice. Most of the lawyers working in the Greater China practice are trilingual, working in Mandarin and Cantonese as well as English.
“It is absolutely essential that we have multilingual and culturally-attuned lawyers to be able to serve the China market, and we do,” says Vicki Liu, who heads the firm’s Hong Kong office.
Although A&O set up its Hong Kong office later than some of its main competitors, the firm has nevertheless established a leading reputation in the firm’s main practice areas – Banking, Corporate, ICM and Litigation. The office has also evolved and adapted to the needs of the market to a greater extent than its competitors. “The only thing that hasn’t changed in 30 years is the A&O office location,” Vicki notes.
Driving that change has been the firm’s need to reposition itself as markets developed. This has meant expanding its range of clients. “We continue to act for what you might call our traditional clients, such as the global banks and debt providers,” says Vicki. “To those we have added Chinese banks, which are financing infrastructure projects and outbound Chinese investments, and Chinese private equity funds and alternative credit providers. Finally, we are acting for more and more privately owned Chinese companies.”
This places a premium not just on the firm’s lawyers being multilingual but also on having a deep understanding of the Chinese legal, regulatory and commercial environment.
Doing business in China remains challenging for many, which is where that local knowledge is invaluable. Equally, knowing how international business works is of great assistance to those Chinese businesses lending, operating or investing in other jurisdictions.
Vicki recognises it is hard for external law firms to match the in-house person’s depth of understanding of the business, but says A&O can bring a wider perspective of the market and the advanced knowledge of transactions.
“Reflecting the changing world of business, in which businesses have to manage a growing assortment of political, economic, social, environmental and regulatory risks, the best lawyers offer a global perspective which clients will not have,” she says. “Our capability to manage the most complex, cross-border transactions involving multiple jurisdictions is where we add real value.”
These skills are likely to become even more important. Vicki anticipates an ever-growing engagement with Chinese enterprises and building further capability to serve Chinese outbound investments.
Success with Peerpoint
The office has prioritised shaping the resourcing model to meet this client need while harnessing the local market for talent. Hong Kong was the firm’s second office to introduce Peerpoint as an option for clients, and it has been a great success. “Other firms have similar schemes, but we believe we make better use of our consultants who are more suited to clients’ requirements,” says Vicki.
“It’s proving very popular in the market, too: we are establishing a very powerful network of consultants.”
The business world is also placing “a heightened importance” on the role that lawyers can fulfil. “Very rarely do clients just want us to draw up documents; they want our views on the likelihood of things happening, our experience of other deals in many jurisdictions, which way regulators will jump,” she adds.
“That means we have to have an excellent understanding of clients’ businesses and also good relationships with the authorities in every jurisdiction where decisions are being made, for example on anti-trust or regulatory approvals.
“We are commercial advisers. I prefer the term ‘true’ adviser to ‘trusted’ adviser, myself.”
It’s a view shared by A&O alumna-turned-client Kate Fewings, now APAC Regional General Counsel for Citi based in Hong Kong. Kate joined A&O’s Singapore office in 1996, learning the complexities of capital markets under the tutelage of Andrew Harrow. She also worked in the London, Tokyo and Hong Kong offices before joining Citi in 2004.
Kate believes lawyers require a broad range of skills, whether they work in-house or in private practice. “We cannot just focus on the law,” she says. “Our advice needs always to be set in the wider commercial context, which means absorbing a whole host of other considerations.
“Take the growing power of artificial intelligence (AI), when I started out in law, there was no such thing. Now, with growing use of AI, clients may not be prepared to pay for things that can easily and effectively be automated, and law firms are investing in technology to deliver these legal services.
“Working directly for the different businesses within Citi provides a constant stream of interesting challenges. The more you get to know the businesses, the more interesting the work becomes.”
The right people for the job
The changing legal environment underlines the need to find people with the right skills through ‘smart’ recruitment, and using A&O’s international network to give them opportunities to develop.
Yvonne Lau, who started as a PA for the Hong Kong managing partner and has had time working with Baker McKenzie, is now Senior HR Manager in Hong Kong. She says one of the key considerations when recruiting is to involve the lawyers in the different practice areas in the process “which helps to ensure a greater propensity of the right candidates and better integration”.
In Japan where our clients are essentially interested in the firepower of the global network, A&O’s Tokyo office has a regular rota of visitors and exchanges from across the network. This has recently included lawyers from Johannesburg and Amsterdam as well as a Business Support manager from London.
Diversity and a global face
A further point of differentiation is the focus on diversity where the Hong Kong and Tokyo offices are clearly committed to creating an inclusive culture.
The Hong Kong office has been proactive in its support of female lawyers and involved in various initiatives to support LGBT+ inclusion – 32% of partners in Hong Kong are female, which helps provide some great role models for our junior people.
The talent pipeline in Tokyo is following the same trend, and A&O’s office there may well be our most international, with 17 nationalities accounted for, combining skills and talent from all continents.
And it’s not just their own diversity. The Hong Kong office played a major role in supporting a legal challenge to the immigration rules in Hong Kong relating to the issuance of dependent visas to same-sex spouses. This resulted in a landmark ruling by the Court of Final Appeal that upheld the right of all people in Hong Kong, regardless of sexual orientation, to obtain dependent visas for their spouses to live and work in Hong Kong.
“Our people are encouraged to think of themselves as working not in one particular office but across the region.”