Roy Ang is Head of Marketing and Business Development (Asia Pacific) at Withers. In this interview with Asia Law Portal, he explains the unique opportunities and challenges of the role, the differences between legal marketing in the private and public sectors, how he helped quadruple the media mention of Withers and its partners in Singapore within 4 years, the importance of publishing for legal business development and marketing professionals, what inspired him to pursue a career in legal business development and marketing, the key challenges and opportunities for law firms in the Asia-Pacific region from 2020 onwards, and his advice for anyone aspiring to a career in legal marketing and business development in the Asia-Pacific region.
You’re currently the Head of Marketing and Business Development (Asia Pacific) at Withers. Your geographic remit includes Singapore (and Southeast Asia), Hong Kong, Australia and Japan. What are the unique opportunities and challenges this role presents?
The role of law firm marketing and business development is quickly evolving in Asia Pacific, just as client expectations (i.e. faster, cheaper, better), disruptive innovations (e.g. legaltech) and the role of legal professionals are fast changing. This inevitably increases the demands on professionals like us to provide sustained and increasing value to the firm. Conversely, this fast-evolving environment provides us with exciting opportunities to be entrepreneurial, innovative and to try things differently.
Another well-recognised requirement of an Asia Pacific role is the need to balance between local and regional needs as well as the expectations of our headquarters. This is especially critical in law firms with a global partnership model where views of different parties can carry similar weight and consensus is critical to implementation success. This provides a unique and wonderful opportunity to broaden one’s view within a flexible and culturally diverse environment, and hone one’s ability to listen and understand the views and ideas of various stakeholders across our regional and international offices.
You’ve worked in legal roles in both the private and public sector. What roles have you held and what are the key differences you have experienced between the two?
Prior to joining Withers, I was the Deputy Head of Marketing and Business Development with the Singapore International Arbitration Centre (SIAC) and was also one of the pioneer members of the Legal & IP Programme Office (now expanded to be the Professional Services Programme Office) – an interagency programme office between the Ministry of Law and the Economic Development Board (EDB).
During my time in the public sector, I was very fortunate to be involved in the development of Singapore’s 5-year legal industry strategy for our legal and intellectual property sectors. I participated in (albeit as a junior public officer) the drafting of Singapore’s IP Hub Master Plan, Singapore’s Legal Sector Playbook and the 2nd round Qualifying Foreign Law Practice (QFLP) selection framework. It required a broad understanding of the international and regional legal market through interviews and roundtables with lawyers, general counsel, academia and other stakeholders, to formulate public policies that enhance the industry and remain relevant to the industry over the long term. The formulation process required extensive stakeholder consultation and very careful coordination as the policies have a wide and lasting impact on the local legal practice for years and even decades and affect not just stakeholders but Singapore’s economy as a whole. Consequently, the strategies, policies and public initiatives have a much longer gestation period.
In the private sector, you are expected to develop and execute strategies a lot quicker to meet the changing needs of the client and market. Hence, you are able to create new and exciting client engagement programmes more frequently, to be ahead of the competition.
Both experiences are equally valuable and have shaped how I think, plan and execute marketing and client engagement campaigns.
You’ve more than quadrupled the media mention of Withers and its partners in Singapore within 4 years. How did you do that?
The short answer is a combination of careful planning and luck.
Just over four years ago, we worked closely with an independent communications consultancy to review our firm’s brand recognition and media profile in the market. Based on inputs from external experts, internal stakeholders and our observations, we identified the gaps in our communication strategy.
We realised we had not actively and consistently communicated our firm’s growth story and differentiation as the law firm for private capital; in essence, we expanded rapidly in Asia where private wealth was the fastest growing. Once the media had a better understanding of our corporate narrative and differentiation, it was a lot easier to be featured by the media. There are few international law firms that have such a strong focus on private capital and hence, our communication efforts gave the Withers KhattarWong brand a higher profile and more traction with the media. We became more easily recognised and remembered.
This is further enhanced by the collective strength of our firm’s partners, who are actively engaged with us and sharing their unique and insightful perspectives on hot topics. This ability to provide more than one point of view on important subjects made it easier to follow the headlines and place their views for media stories.
Finally, we made huge strides in our digital marketing strategy and campaigns and engaged more online-focused media platforms, which helped us expand far beyond our existing traditional media channels.
You’re a regular writer about the business of law subject and have been recognized for it by Singapore Business Review. How important is publishing for legal business development and marketing professionals?
As law firm marketing professionals, we are focused on identifying suitable publication channels and deploying thought leadership. We often preach the value of publishing as an important opportunity to share professional opinions on hot topics and to build a market profile as part of the firm’s broader content marketing strategy. However, we typically do not publish as much ourselves. I think this is a missed opportunity. We all have knowledge, experience and a point of view, so why not share them? As marketing professionals, we can be more convincing when explaining the benefits of publishing when we practise what we preach.
That said, I recognise that it can be daunting to have one’s opinions in the public domain as there is a risk of receiving criticisms and disagreements. However, these are great opportunities to learn from others who disagree with you.
What inspired you to pursue a career in legal business development and marketing?
I’d be lying if I said that legal business development and marketing was a childhood career aspiration. Law firm marketing in Asia is a niche and relatively new profession. In the past, office managers, partners and secretaries played various ad-hoc marketing roles prior to what we see as law firm marketers today.
My journey to this role was unintended. In the EDB, my portfolio consisted of marketing Singapore as a regional hub for legal and intellectual property services. This led to my role in SIAC, focusing on marketing Singapore as a hub for international arbitration and alternative dispute resolution. The rest, as we say, is history.
What do you see as the key challenges and opportunities for law firms in the Asia-Pacific region from 2020 onwards?
Legal practice in the region will change in the next few years, as natural language processing, machine learning tools and flexible lawyering alternative legal service providers (ALSPs) eliminate certain forms of legal work. This presents both challenges and opportunities for law firms operating in Asia-Pacific.
The commoditisation of legal services in the region, especially in business hubs like Singapore, Hong Kong, Australia and Japan will push ahead. Less complex work such as due diligence, document review, discovery and generating “standard” contracts or letters may be increasingly undertaken by non-lawyers or machines. Not all clients want this, but even those who procure such services from law firms or lawyers would expect to pay less.
I think these developments can present new opportunities for law firms. Whilst law firms are pressured to operate on a leaner basis, it provides opportunities to consider reviewing billing and fee earning resourcing structures, developing new service offerings, develop more effective client engagement strategies through technology and enhance client communication on the firm’s differentiated services.
What advice do you have for anyone aspiring to a career in legal marketing and business development in the Asia-Pacific region?
As a start, I would share with the aspiring professional that legal marketing and business development is a fascinating but niche career, so consider carefully before taking the leap. If you are still in school, consider an internship or working on a fixed-term assignment with a law firm to see if this is an employer and career of choice.
Once that decision is made, I think that opportunities in legal marketing and business development in Asia Pacific will be very exciting as law firms and lawyers operate in an increasingly competitive legal market. Differentiation in service offering and delivery, quality client engagement and embracing technological disruptions will be key to law firms’ profitability and survival. Marketing is critically involved in every aspect. So, one can expect that legal marketing and business development will be even more important moving forward.
Finally, be entrepreneurial and willing to try new things. In service delivery, it means growing into a confident business partner to lawyers and aligning their success with yours. In personal development, it means taking a proactive approach in charting your career path and taking on interesting projects as they arise.