Q&A with Dominic Tsun – The Journey of a Former Partner at Linklaters LLP, Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP and Kirkland & Ellis LLP
Q: Can the speakers introduce themselves briefly and how they ended up working in Hong Kong?
A: First of all, nice meeting all of you, thank you for taking time to join this program. Just to give a little bit of background, I was born and raised in Hong Kong. When I was a teenager my parents and I moved to Toronto, so I finished high school in Toronto, I did undergrad and law school in Toronto, and then after that I did what was called articles which would be training in other jurisdictions with a leading firm in Canada called Stikeman Elliot. I finished that and became a corporate associate in Toronto and Stikeman had a fairly active Canadian law practice out of their Hong Kong office when I first became an associate so an opportunity came up where I was supposed to spend 3 weeks just to man the shop for everybody because people wanted to take holidays during the summer and then 3 weeks turned into 3 years. I actually spent 3 years in Hong Kong with Stikeman Elliot as a Canadian lawyer in the late 80’s. Then they said “in order to advance your career you gotta come home” and I didn’t want to go back to Toronto so I actually re-articled with the same firm in another province and I ended up being a senior associate in Vancouver in the early 90’s. This is still with Stikeman Elliot so my career is much more checkered—I’d go back and forth both in terms of jurisdiction then I get bumped from being an associate to being an articled student back to being an associate and then an opportunity came up to come back to Hong Kong again and I decided this time that perhaps I wanted to have a slightly different type of exposure and very fortunately, I walked into Clifford Chance the week that they lost someone at my level of seniority to an investment bank. And so they basically say you seem to have some credible legal skills with a leading firm in Canada you tell us that “your Chinese is really good, you can speak both Cantonese and mandarin to the same standard as your English, ok you’re on”! I did that for about 3 years and the last of those 3 years I was doing exclusively a $3 billion takeover with Linklaters on the other side and I guess I ended up being the deal toy so to speak and I joined Linklaters at the end of that transaction. That was shortly before the handover in 1997 and very fortunately in 1998 they actually made me a full equity partner, less than 12 months after I joined them. I continued to do that with Linklaters out of Hong Kong for about another 7 or 8 years but during that time I also spent a huge amount of time in Beijing, a little bit in Shanghai, a bit in Shenzhen—altogether I probably went to Beijing 200 times during those years. In 2005 another opportunity came up and I was one of the partners who helped Skadden Arps start their Hong Kong law practice so myself and another partner, we headed the team and we eventually got to the point where we were co-heads of the corporate group in Asia ex Japan; and at the time that included Australia because they had an office in Sydney. It is a very challenging, rewarding working environment, worked with some of the most talented people in the world. Another opportunity came up and I became a partner at Kirkland and Ellis as they wanted to build a Hong Kong law practice. We built a team for Kirkland and did that for another 6 years. So for about 20 years I was a partner at Linklaters and then Skadden and then Kirkland, and I got to a point In time where I said ok, I’ve been practicing law for over 30 years, I wan do a little different. So, I started putting my time and energy into lifeXwork (pronounced life cross work). I always found the term work-life balance a little bit interesting because work should be part of life and I’m not sure how you balance one thing that is a subset of another. Over the years I have worked with hundreds, if not thousands, of very talented people but many of them actually don’t put their time and energy into their work in the most rewarding way. A lot of the time they feel miserable because they think I’m putting in a huge amount of time, making a lot of sacrifices but I’m not getting what I want out of it both in terms of recognition financial reward or the understanding of family or whatever is important to them. So what I’m trying to help people to do is with the same amount of work and effort you actually get more out of your job, hopefully you will enjoy your job more. When you get to my age you don’t say to yourself I’ve been on a legal treadmill for 30 years, I ran a lot, I sweated a lot, I’m really fit for work but I haven’t really gone anywhere. So, what I try to help people to do is look at your job in a slightly different perspective. Get more out of it but at the same time hopefully you have to put in a little less time and energy and that’ll give you the chance to actually do some of the other things you might want to do in life. Maybe I will leave you with two very happy thoughts. By my own confession, I was the world’s worst junior associate. And secondly, I never really was in a position to plan for my career. Things just kinda happened, doors shut in my face when I didn’t expect it to, but doors opened when I didn’t expect it to. So the two happy thoughts I’d like to leave with you guys is don’t overthink it, it will work out if you’re interested in doing this.
Q: Asia Bar Review have helped many lawyers in gaining their US and UK legal qualifications. So for students or lawyers particularly interested in getting qualified in the USA, could you run through some of the requirements and the general process for becoming a qualified lawyer in New York?
A: Again, I think I’m going to echo what Tim said—a little bit of background, by the time I took the Barbri and eventually took the NY bar, I had actually been a Linklaters partner for several years. So, I think I was a mid-level partner at the time. There was no pressure on me to take the test, in fact it was something I wanted to do. The reason why I wanted to do it was I was always a firm believer that if you put in a little bit of effort you get something to show for it for the rest of the life, it’s on your CV, it’s an experience you live through, that’s a tremendous advantage already. The other thing was in the practice area that I was in (capital markets in HK), the trend at the time, and it continues to be, was to integrate the requirements in HK with the securities law requirements of the US that apply to a transaction that originated in here or mainland China or anywhere. As Tim has said, US law and US requirements have tremendous reach. And also, people can go to a US court to sue you for various things that you certainly want to avoid. So I found that it was actually helpful to have that background. I qualified in NY in 2003. People used to say “you’re a first year associate right?” and then 10 years later all of a sudden they’re saying “oh you’ve been a qualified US lawyer for 10 years” so I used to joke with my US securities law partner that I got to the point where I was a competent senior US securities law associate with partnership prospects. But that’s all I needed because I had my other skills to rely on, I had my other qualifications, but on many days, it was helpful to kinda have that qualification that you can put on your card or your CV when you build your pitch.
Q: Would it be better to working while preparing for the exam or can you be a student and prepare the US Bar exam right out of school?
A: : I think for taking the test, as Tim said, if you are fresh out of school, taking the test should be fairly easy. Being a lawyer for a little while, you tend to overthink a little bit. But the only thing you need to do is pass. No one will ever look at your grades so you just need to pass, that’s all you need to do. If you are working, you need to work according to your schedule, but again still doable. What you should do is to make sure that you spend some time to focus on the study. Ironically, when you become a partner, mid or senior level partner, it is more difficult to block out that time because it is harder to replace your input in some situations. So I found that you know, I had a conference call that went on for 18 hours before I got on a plane to get myself ready to take the test. And the requirement of the client was that soon as I landed, as soon as I was in the car, I had to continue that conversation. And my son, he actually got Kawasaki disease the month that I was supposed take the exam so he ended up in hospital for a week and that was something I wouldn’t have counted on. So I think the point is if you can organize yourself a little better, at the end that will be better for taking the test but even if you’re stressed a little bit there are ways to get around it; all you have to do is pass, it’s not the most difficult thing in the world.
Q: How important it is to pass the US bar is you are looking for an international legal career?
A: I think the other thing is in jurisdictions like HK, the law society has requirements that number of Hong Kong qualified solicitors you put on your book must be more than non-HK solicitors so people will need to balance it a little bit. Particularly, for smaller non-HK law firms, they need to make sure that they don’t get end up in a situation in which they have too many US lawyers and not enough HK lawyers. There are pressures sometimes to convince people to take the HK test to make sure that the number will work out because once you are a HK lawyer you are no longer counted as an US lawyer for that purpose.
The pay package, again not because you are qualified as an US lawyer you will definitely get an US package. But if you can get an US package, it is a very attractive one. So that is something that you should take into account. But that is also something that is firm-specific and jurisdiction-specific as well.
Q: Where do you see the legal professions in the next five to ten years? How do you see the profession changing during this time?
A: I think we lived through all the twenty years of the average managing law firm both in term of headcounts as well as of footprints. My suspicion is that it will slow down a little bit when people kind of do a retake and figure out where they are rest. I think efficiency will be the future. Technology is going to change some of that. There are a lot of things we do as capital market lawyers for years are not the most intelligent ways. We kind of see the same source of clients in term of international banks, we see the other law firms, we know them all. Every time we saw each other, we were like we never met each other before – that makes absolutely no sense. We should know how each other works. For ten conversations, we should be able to narrow down to three to four after years of working together. But just because we are lawyers, we like the traditional thing of doing things, we don’t like to rock the boat and challenge the regulators so we just keep doing the same thing over and over again. I think it may be an opportunity for people to sort of say: let’s really give the clients what they are looking for – if we only need to spend 5 mins on it, let’s not spend 10 mins on it. I think that will work out for everybody’s gains because moving away from the hourly rate model is a scary thing, but as an individual, it is actually the very good thing because it actually lights us up with the normal world, which is that you get rewarded for your efficiency. I think that the traditional problem with the law firms is if you need to bill a certain hour, for example 2000 hours, but if I am really efficient, I only need 1000 hours. So hopefully that pressure will turn into better choice on behalf of the firm that they can actually base their lives on efficiency, better skills, better working plan.
2020 Legal Career Conference Q&A session – Transcribe by Victor Chin Wen Teh and Tung Anh Nguyen