Laying down the law is a fine art

Updated: 2016-02-22 08:11

By Sophie He(HK Edition)

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Simmons & Simmons' Asia head says dedication to his craft and a have-a-go attitude have helped him build an exemplary legal career. Sophie He reports.

Simmons & Simmons plans to continue to expand its business related to the financial services and asset management industry in Hong Kong and on the Chinese mainland.

Disclosing this goal, Paul Li, partner and head of Asia at Simmons & Simmons, stressed to China Daily that Hong Kong and the Chinese mainland are very important to the London-based international law firm.

Simmons & Simmons has been in Asia since 1979, and currently has regional offices in Hong Kong, Shanghai, Beijing, Tokyo and Singapore, with the bulk of its business in North Asia, he noted.

"Our focus in Hong Kong and the Chinese mainland is financial institutions and asset management companies," Li said.

What is significant about asset management companies and financial institutions is that they work in a highly regulated industry, so governments wish to control what they are allowed to do and how they are going to do it, as they want to protect the investing public, Li explained.

"A significant proportion of what Simmons & Simmons does in terms of advising asset managers and financial institutions, is compliance with regulation."

In Asia ex-Japan, Hong Kong and Singapore are the most important asset management hubs, so this is a natural place for Simmons & Simmons to be, Li pointed out.

He said that since international asset management companies are coming to Hong Kong to either sell their funds, or to run their portfolio and invest in Asian companies, there is naturally a great deal of interest in investing in Chinese companies, and they choose for all sorts of reasons to base their businesses in the SAR.

Meanwhile, many mainland asset management companies are also setting up in Hong Kong as the first step in internationalizing their business, so Simmons & Simmons helps them with the process.

"For financial institutions, you can imagine all the global banks are interested in helping people invest in China, which is also a key part of what we do."

Li said that law firms typically plan on a three- to five-year cycle, and Simmons & Simmons is trying to be responsive to clients.

"We try to only do what we are really good at, that is, financial and asset management, which is also the area that we think really presents opportunities for growth. That is also where we are investing, which means we are hiring new lawyers to grow that business."

He stressed that the firm wants to be concentrated in major hubs, and that would imply Hong Kong and Beijing.

Born and raised in Hong Kong, Li went to school in England and then to London University.

"I didn't study law, I studied history of art," he revealed.

He studied art out of personal interest, but when he graduated from university he thought he was never going to be a brilliant art historian and would never be able to make a decent living in this field. That is why he had to look at other things, and decided to do an internship at Simmons & Simmons.

"It was completely by chance. I applied for summer internship in 1987, thinking that I would try to see if law could be a career. And it turned out I liked it very much, and I also liked the people I worked with."

So Li applied for the two-year training contract after the summer and he got that, then Simmons & Simmons employed him and he worked in London until the end of 1998.

"I came back to Hong Kong because my parents are here. By the time I came back I'd lived in the UK for 20 years. I also liked the challenge of working in a new business environment."

He feels Hong Kong is very different from London in many respects, especially for financial institutions and asset management lawyers.

He said London law firms would like to say that the British capital is the most happening financial center. It is extremely important and a great deal of innovation takes place, so there is a lot of cutting-edge advice to be given, whereas in Hong Kong the market is less about new products than working with banks and asset managers who are very entrepreneurial and looking for new ideas and new ways of making money.

Fact of the matter

Li emphasized that the UK educational system is particularly suited to lawyers, because being a lawyer is not necessarily all about knowing more things but looking at a particular body of facts and being able to analyze those facts. "So studying the history of art, I thought although it is completely different from law, the skills that it teaches you - to analyze, make arguments, present your case - are highly relevant."

Li recalled that he was told many years later of how Simmons & Simmons was thinking about not taking him on at all, because he was one of the first lawyers they took on who had not studied law at university.

"I was very fortunate to sit with this lawyer and when I was a summer intern we got along very well. She told me years later, shortly after I became a partner, that after the internship they were thinking about not taking me on, simply because it was not the usual career path, and she managed to talk them into taking me. She said I was very hard working, and I had good analytical skills, and I was personable, which is an important quality."

Li said he believes what really impressed the firm probably was that he was willing to do anything.

Sometimes interns, whether now or back then, would think: "I am a law student, I've already achieved a lot. I don't want to do photocopying, or be taking this envelope to somewhere else because it is urgent." The best junior lawyers that we come across take the view that there is no task that is too menial, Li noted.

"You have to be open-minded, you need to roll up your sleeves and do whatever comes your way and you have to have a positive attitude."

Li said anyone who applies for a job with Simmons & Simmons and is granted an interview must remember that the firm needs to be fairly certain that they are very intelligent and academically sound.

"The qualities that we are looking for beyond that are a willingness to be adaptable, as it is a people business. You need to be reasonably personable, but a positive attitude really makes a huge difference. As I look back to when I was training, you look at your peer group, the ones that always progress, they are the ones who basically see nothing as trouble, as there is a lot of hard work involved and it is really important to stay positive."

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(HK Edition 02/22/2016 page8)