Zi Li is the founding partner of Zi Li & Partners in 2022. Prior to founding the firm, he was the executive partner of ZICO Law Vietnam and partner of Zaid Ibrahim & Co, Malaysia. He was the youngest-made partner in the entire ZICO Law network at the age of 28. ZICO Law is a network of independent local law firms in 10 out of 10 ASEAN countries with more than 300 lawyers. Zi Li has a unique experience – having practising in Malaysia (common law jurisdiction) for over 10 years and in Vietnam (civil law jurisdiction) for over 5 years. Fluent in both written and spoken Mandarin, Zi Li works closely with Chinese clients in Malaysia and Vietnam.
You were previously executive partner of ZICO Law Vietnam and partner of Zaid Ibrahim & Co, Malaysia. Tell us about these experiences.
I joined Zaid Ibrahim & Co as a pupil in 2011 and was taken under the wings of my pupil master, Lilian Liew who is a market leader in the debt capital markets and Islamic finance space. We advised foreign and local sponsors, lenders, borrowers and issuers in banking transactions, project financing transactions and debt capital markets transaction (both conventional and Islamic). One of the key highlights included being part of the team that advised on the inaugural issuance of panda bonds by a local issuer, Malayan Banking Berhad in China in 2017, which also made a mark as the first-ever bonds that were traded through the Bond Connect platform. Leveraging on my experiences in working with Chinese counterparts, I built a team dedicated to serving our Chinese clients in Vietnam when I took up the role as the executive partner of ZICO Law Vietnam. My practice focus in Vietnam expanded to cover a wide range of cross-border corporate commercial, funding and M&A transactions. One of my core clients included Hongkong Land Ltd where I advised them on various investment projects in Vietnam. From 2018, I was part of the regional executive committee of the ZICO Law network where I was able to actively formulate, plan and be involved in the management of the law firm. It was truly an invaluable experience for me to learn from the leaders of the respective law firms within the ASEAN region.
You were the youngest-made partner in the entire ZICO Law network at the age of 28. What led to this unique professional accomplishment and what advice do you have for young lawyers?
I was focused on establishing strong foundations in my legal knowledge in the first few years of practice, and while doing so I immediately recognised the importance of cultivating meaningful relationships with the people I work with. I was extremely lucky to have had many good mentors and senior colleagues in my early days of practice who were very supportive and did not hold back from involving me in many complex, first-of-its-kind and award-winning transactions. Those opportunities naturally led to me building and maintaining strong relationships with clients, which immensely contributed to a good head start in my career.
What inspired you to establish your own law firm, Zi Li & Partners?
After dedicating the first decade of my practice to BigLaw and working exclusively with large MNCs and conglomerates, I hope to accord the expertise and quality of the legal services that one would receive from a BigLaw accessible to all clients across the board, in particular start-ups, scaleups and SMEs at a more affordable range. The past years have been tough for many smaller companies due to the global Covid-19 pandemic – and for this reason largely, I was motivated to start my own practice which aims to dedicate such level of services to my clients whilst continuing to support them in their growth as a business, in both good and bad times. I aspire for my clients to be able to enjoy strategic, commercial, values-driven legal advice from their legal partners with extensive exposure not just in Malaysia, but within the region.
What is your practice focus and what sets you apart from other law firms?
Zi Li & Partners is a boutique law firm specialising in corporate, and banking and finance practice with particular expertise in M&A and fund-raising. Each transaction will be led by a partner with actual working experience in executing complex transactions in Malaysia and Vietnam. Having worked with clients across different backgrounds and industries in both jurisdictions, we are able to leverage on our experience to provide a solution-based outcome driven by their commercial needs.
What should businesses be mindful of when conducting cross-border Vietnam-Malaysia business?
Businesses should first understand the legal landscape of Vietnam and Malaysia. Despite being in the same region, Vietnam and Malaysia are distinct in their political, legal and taxation systems, language, currency and culture. Both countries are at a different stage of development in terms of their legal framework and adopt different legal systems (common law in Malaysia and civil law in Vietnam). As such, it is pertinent to understand the relevant jurisdictions’ laws and regulations before undertaking any cross-border transactions. One of the key considerations which businesses should be cognizant of for any foreign investment is the rules on repatriation of profits applicable to the country in which they are investing in. It is important to advise our clients from the onset of a potential cross-border transaction on the mechanism in which payments and fund flows are legally permitted to ensure that they can manage their businesses accordingly and remain compliant with the applicable laws and regulations at all times.
What do you anticipate will be the new challenges of running your own law firm?
The MNCs, banks and large conglomerates are usually more inclined to engage medium- to large-sized law firms with long-standing presence. In Malaysia, banks would typically appoint law firms which are their panel law firms and it has been proven to be challenging for newly-established law firms to be brought on board as a bank’s panel law firm, given the competitiveness in the legal services market. We have been lucky thus far to be able to be engaged by public listed companies, Series B start-ups and VCs with more than US$500million assets-under-management companies and SMEs as our clients – and we hope to continue to expand our clients’ reach as we grow our firm. The other challenge would be to attract young graduates and associates to join a smaller-scale law firm and retain the right talents to help grow the firm. In this aspect, we are proactively implementing strategic collaborations with firms within the region to expand our reach, and we believe that this is something unique that we are able to offer our lawyers as we equip them with hands-on experience in cross-border transactions in a tight-knit setting with direct guidance from the partners.
How can clients and referral sources reach you?