Q: Could you tell us a bit about your background and career milestones and how you ended up practicing in Hong Kong?
A: So, after I graduated from Penn I spent a year as a federal law clerk for a trial court judge and that was a tremendous learning experience for me. Working with a judge, seeing how things happen behind the curtain, it was terrific training, terrific exposure for preparing for a career in litigation. But even for those who aren’t interested in litigation I would really encourage them to think about that kind of service if it’s available and one of my partners who is a PE M&A partner here was a federal clerk and she draws on that experience all the time. So, when I started my career, I went to the Cravath firm in New York City. New York City is an amazing place to be as a young lawyer, and Cravath was an amazing firm to be at. It was like drinking from a fire hose from day one. It was baptism by fire. I worked very, very, very hard but I felt myself growing every day. I knew every day when I left the office (or every night rather) that I was a stronger, more knowledgeable lawyer every single day. Knowing that in the midst of it is hard to appreciate sometimes but it’s what I signed up for, it’s what I wanted, and I really enjoyed it and it really felt like I was growing. I spent those early years doing Enron related litigation when that was the scandal of the day. And as it turns out that was a perfect mix of work for my career because it involved very high stakes civil litigation in courts all across the United States—Federal court, State court, class actions. But it also involved dealing with regulatory and law enforcement authorities in the United States as they were investigating potential criminal aspects arising out of the Enron scandal. And so every day I was in the midst of doing massive amounts of work but had the gratification that it was meaningful in some way, it was contemporary, and it was playing out on the front pages of newspapers around the world as I was working on it. After my wife and I had our third child, she wanted to leave New York so we ended up moving to San Francisco where her family is from and that meant I had to move firms. And moving firms is something that a lot of people on this call will do at some point in time. Cravath did not have an office in San Francisco so at that point I joined the law firm Morrison Foerster which was the largest law firm in San Francisco at the time. My work continued to be in that high stakes, contentious regulatory investigation and trial space. Over time my work just evolved to touch China more and more. I had a very significant trial in Los Angeles that involved a failed US-listed company that had fraud issues in its supply chain in China. And in 2008 the FCPA became more and more of a prominent issue for western companies on the heels of Siemens’ massive settlement with the government where it had to pay an $800 million fine. So, I started doing China-related work while I was in San Francisco and the firm eventually decided that it made sense to have somebody with my skillset actually on the ground here in Hong Kong so I moved to Hong Kong in 2011 and I’ve never looked back.
Q: What career opportunities are available for US qualified lawyers in Hong Kong?
A: I’m happy to speak about that a little bit as a US lawyer who landed in HK really with the idea of doing international work. The fact of the matter is a lot of the work, depending on your practice area, that you do that crosses borders is not stuck in one jurisdiction. And for me, that usually plays out in the context of regulatory investigations and for me the most active regulators and the ones who drive a lot of that work happen to sit in the United States.
The United States has very aggressive laws that very often have extraterritorial impact and the US (and I think this is where it differs from a lot of other jurisdictions) actually invests a lot in enforcement resources. So if we look at the FCPA (Foreign Corrupt Practices Act), this is a US law that prohibits paying bribes to foreign government officials. So by its very nature this law is meant to capture conduct that takes place all over the world. It has been enforced aggressively across borders and China’s been the hottest jurisdiction where conduct has been policed under this law. As I sit here in Hong Kong and I’m looking to staff my matters and looking at available resources, having somebody who has a US law degree is extremely helpful to me, because I know that at the end of the day, the legal issues that are going to play out from the factual investigations that my team are doing are going to be governed by US law. And it’s not just a matter of understanding the FCPA, it’s a matter of understanding how US law on legal privilege works, on work-product related issues, on dealing with international clients who often expect things to transpire in the way that a US legal framework would play out. I do have solicitors on my team here in Hong Kong but for those who have a US law degree or US qualified, it gives them a leg up in helping me help our clients navigate those waters.
Q: As you know, the coronavirus is spreading globally and attacking the health, financial welfare, social order and political stability of nations across the globe. From your perspective as seasoned global lawyers, how do you think that COVID-19 may affect the legal industry and what are some ways that law students and lawyers can prepare for any upcoming challenges?
A: So the first answer is I started a long time ago trying to predict anything about COVID-19 and how it will manifest itself, how long it will last, what is the durational impacts of it will be. We’ve seen in the legal industry that it has already had dramatic impacts on certain types of law firms. A lot of law firms that tend to rely on financing for the first half of the year have cut salaries for the workers. They have taken steps to secure their bottom lines. Other firms haven’t had to take those steps yet, but if this thing continued for a long time, they may get there. One thing that I think has been very underscored though, that I think will change the dynamics of law firms’ work going forwards, whenever this thing ends, is that the fact that people have been working while not having a law office to be in, I think it will be a paradigm that will changes dynamic going forwards.
I think that it will have two major impacts: one fiscal and one skill-based. This fiscal one is, I think the importance of a law office is going to be decreased. I think that the square footage that law firms devoted to sexy spaces in big commercial buildings in financial centres around the world will become decreased. There will be less pressure to have giant offices and corner offices being the hallmark of success, I think that that will evolve. The other is skill-based and that is you need to be very flexible with technology. It is more important than ever before. Because you are not going to be in an office, you will need to be very strong with using technology in order to plug in and serve clients’ needs. I think that the legal institutions are going to have to catch up with the rest of the world in that respect. For example, Hong Kong courts (and you know I am admitted in HK as well) don’t even do e-filing yet. And so I think that this pandemic is going to create some very strong urges for technological advancements in the Court and other legal institutions. And so for laws students now to acquire the technological skills that they can carry with them will have a lot of value for their careers going forwards.
Q: what are some basic steps students should take if they want to work as an international lawyer? Should students take the US Bar right after they graduate?
A: I think Dom’s career is instructive in this case as he took the New York bar after becoming a partner for ten years. So I think that there isn’t necessarily a firm answer to that question. I think that opportunities to move to different jurisdictions come up in a lot of different ways. Obviously, if you want to do it early in the career, I can tell that it is easier to study for the bar coming out of school than it is to go back after practicing for a long time and then study for a bar, as a matter of logistics. But you know it is really being ready to take advantage of the opportunities when those opportunities arise.
Q: How important is it to be admitted in US and UK in addition to the bar of your primary jurisdiction as an international lawyer?
A: I touched on that a little bit earlier. I think that it depends a little bit on what your practice area is. I mean if your practice is really limited to HK, you don’t need a US law qualification for that. It may be a demerit to try to do that type of work. If you are doing cross-border work though, whether it is in M&A or financing spaces that involve New York laws or UK laws governed documents, having that international qualification is what you want to do.
2020 Legal Career Conference Q&A session – Transcribe by Victor Chin Wen Teh and Tung Anh Nguyen