Patrick Dransfield first came to Asia in 1986 where he lived in Beijing. He later went on to a career working in the business of law beginning in Hong Kong in 1996. Educated in Art History and East Asia Studies, Dransfield has worked in legal publishing and event production in Asia for most of his career, which also included stints directing the marketing efforts of Shearman & Sterling and White & Case in Hong Kong. He currently works as Co-Director of In-House Community, based in Hong Kong. In this interview with Asia Law Portal, Dransfield analyzes the Asian legal market and how it’s changed in the last 20 years and the new and emerging competitive climate for legal services in the region. He also details what the future holds for In-House Community and the in-house professionals they serve – as well as what’s next in his life’s work as a photographer.
You’ve spent more than two decades in Asia working in the business of law. Most recently as a legal publisher, writer and event organizer covering the business of law. What has changed, and what has stayed the same in those many years?
When I arrived in Asia for the second time in 1996, I was very green to the business of law. My first exposure to Asia was living with a Chinese family in Beijing in 1986 and this proved to be a formative experience for me. Arriving in Hong Kong in 1996, and coming from a provincial English background, I did not know the name of a single international law firm and my knowledge of commercial banking extended to the four high street banks in Runcorn. My mentors at Euromoney / Asia Law & Practice, the late Chris Brown and Dominic Carman, packed me off to New York where at their invitation I met up with prestigious law firms such as Sullivan & Cromwell, Wachtell Lipton and Simpson Thacher. I had to learn pretty quickly on my feet and used whatever small knowledge I did have to my advantage: “That’s a lovely Braque sketch you have there on the wall…. Now, about that Contract.”
The Asia legal market has changed in that for many international law firms at least, the early promise has gone. Almost all international law firms saw China as an ever-expanding piggy bank and in the early days of my legal publishing career a lot of French, German, Italian and Belgian law firms managed to make a living representing their own country clients as they expanded in China. Nowadays the China market is dominated by local Chinese law firms and even the Red Circle firms are feeling the pressure from the new players. The impact of the US / China Trade War means that the traditional flows of money and deals between China and the United States has all but dried out so a fundamental change of strategy must follow this profound change of the Zeitgeist.
I guess I did have one ear to the ground even back then and published the first guide to Chinese domestic law firms in 1997. To put that together in those pre-internet days I relied on one good friend, Michael Hickman, who was at that time at Cleary Gottlieb. He gave me a list of ten individuals I should go and visit in Beijing and Shanghai – I remember one of them being Jonathan Zhao of Fangda. No other ‘China Hand’ would share their local contacts with me as competent Chinese lawyers were a rare commodity in those days and a guarantee of the ex-pat lawyer’s continuing practice. Funny to think that just 20 years later and according to Xinhua, China now has over 300,000 lawyers!
You studied English, Art History and East Asia studies as an undergraduate and graduate student in England. All three disciplines appear woven into your work. Did you ever imaging it would lead to where it has? Why have you chosen this path? Or did it choose you?
I have always followed my curiosity and have a very low tolerance for jobs for jobs’ sake: I view my working life as something akin to extemporized jazz. Fortunately, I have a tolerant wife with her own much more successful career! The disciplines of History and Anthropology have certainly woven themselves into my approach to work on a daily basis, and I maintain my passion for artistic creation through the medium of photography. History provides a mental ability to shape research and argument into Beginning, Middle and Conclusion, as well as an ability to see patterns from the past shaping the present and future. Gillian Tett is an anthropologist that I admire who has used her discipline to illuminate the human tribal factors that shape corporate life in her columns in the Financial Times and I consider her a mentor in my attempts to do the same regarding the business of law. If there is one thing I have learned over the years is that ‘Everything is NOT Cleveland’ and that we make lazy assumptions about foreign cultures based on our own prejudices at our peril.
How would you characterize the unique nature of the business of law in general and in Asia in particular?
I believe it is important to break Asia down into its component parts. Drawing on the work of social anthropologist G. William Skinner regarding the macro-regions of China was important to me when advising various international lawyers regarding their business strategy there – China is as large as continental Europe and has traditionally been self-sustaining in its nine independent macro-economic units. The massive scale of the place, along with the office profit centre approach of many of the domestic Chinese law firms, helps explain why none of the Red Circle firms operate seamlessly across all of their offices, in my opinion. For Southeast Asia, I am beholden to the wise words of Chew Seng Kok of Zico Holdings: one should approach the majority of Southeast Asian companies as though they were family enterprises. I first visited Seoul during the Asian Financial Crisis and published the first legal investment guide to what was then very much ‘the hermit kingdom’. An appreciation of the character and determination of the South Korean people has from that time been front of mind and so to see the rise of world class companies such as Samsung and Hyundai Heavy Industries comes as little surprise – I am sure that next phase of innovation in South Korea will be equally impressive and compelling. This formidable sense of purpose is carried through to the local law firms in Seoul – as exemplified by the rise of Yulchon from one lawyer, Mr Chang Rok Woo, to over 300 today!
How has the business of law in Asia changed in the last decade? And how do you see it changing in the next decade?
Richard Susskind uses the phrase: “The Future is here: it is just not evenly distributed” and the same pressure points that are being felt in London are manifest in Asia, but in various ways in different places. Using a phrase from Knowledge Management jargon, ‘known unknowns’, the In-House teams know that they need to be more efficient and that there are legal innovation solutions out there for them, but many struggle to know which to apply to their specific needs. This is a lacuna that we at In-House Community continue to help close, including providing the first dedicated award for non-law firm legal providers in the form of the Visionary Client Service Awards.
One of the least innovative places for private practice law firms is Hong Kong: the court system here is weighed down by paper and, unlike London and Australia, non-lawyer investment in law firms is prohibited. As a result, I see little indigenous innovation among the private sector in my home town. That is not true among certain In-House Legal teams, especially in insurance, finance and infrastructure. This is especially true in China and among the Insurance sector. Taikang Insurance Group won the Technology Team of the Year in the 2019 In-House Team Awards through the development of over 400 patents in a single year, for example. In-House lawyers are by no means the poor cousins of partners these days and law firms are in severe danger of becoming irrelevant. In Singapore, the Government has taken an active part in promoting legal innovation, although it proves difficult to discriminate between the noise and the output at times. Similarly in Malaysia, where the Malaysian bar is becoming more open to solutions that assist lawyers in delivering their counsel more efficiently. Seventy percent of legal work is now undertaken in-house among Singapore In-House teams, according to In-House Community research, so even the behemoths such as Allen & Gledhill have to constantly reassess what are the indispensable services they can provide that in-house teams are unable to do themselves. The adoption of legal tech is spotty but there is a definite change in the way that senior general counsel are approaching the project management of legal services. There appears to be a real appetite regarding personal transformation and change management among the in-house community: less so among the private practice community, which is generally surprised by how the world looks now. There IS genuine legal innovation happening in Asia – witness the work of Carl Im at Yulchon and Robert Lewis at docQbot – both of whom I have interviewed (links below).
Where is all this going? I think Carl Im has it in a nutshell when he states that technological solutions will come from the client and technology side – not from the legal teams or private practice lawyers. On the one hand, the new generation of lawyers are best advised to be first and foremost competent and knowledgeable about the Law – that has not changed. But there will be products available to financial traders and C-Suite members alike that guide legal drafting to the needs of the corporate without the need for the amount of lawyers’ time as of old. This future is already with us – it is up to clients to demand it.
One innovation that is very much of the present and illustrates true collaboration between in-house teams and the private practice lawyers that support them is the Mindful Business Charter. This is becoming adopted by many major teams in London and we encourage its adoption in Asia (and America) – the Charter takes as its basic premise that we can all make each other’s lives that much better with a mind of compassion and agreed business etiquette to that end.
How has your background in legal business development and marketing informed your view of the legal services sector as a writer?
I am attracted to writers and artists who in their various ways aim for the stars and attempt to express the ineffable in the human condition. Richard Brautigan expressed the ideal vision of a tech-enhanced world back in the 1960s with his poem ‘All watched over by machines of loving grace”: how far we seem away from that imagined Eden now! The Taiwanese artist Li Chen encapsulated the present ideological and cultural battle between the East and the West over five years ago with his installation of the Empire State Building and the pagoda.
If I have anything to add to the legal business sector, it is to bring imagination and lateral thinking of other disciplines to the business of law. Even in the business advisory space, there is much to learn from Peter Drucker, Daniel Kahneman and Christopher Argyris that would help lawyers to become more adept at business practice.
What’s your average day like at The In-House Community?
With over seventeen annual In-House Congress events to curate from Tokyo to London and Asian-mena Counsel magazine to publish, there is no average day for the In-House Community team.
What’s unique about covering the general counsel’s office versus private practitioners?
I am greatly encouraged by the advances of the general counsel in Asia and the Middle East and I have come to the conclusion that this is due to a difference of mindset to their private practice colleagues forged by the blunting day to day grind of working among colleagues who don’t consider the legal department as the font of all knowledge and the lawyer to be ipso facto the cleverest person in the room. Indeed, it is beginning to dawn on the legal community as a whole that there may be a certain amount of hubris in the demarcation of working communities as being made up of ‘lawyers’ and ‘non-lawyers’. That said, I have been incredibly lucky to be exposed to and become friendly with some of the greatest legal minds of our generation and chief among them as a profound thinker about the Law and society is Philip Wood: quoting from ‘The Fall of the Priests and the Rise of the Lawyers’: “We have law in order to survive. We have a duty to survive (as a people) in order to discover if there is ultimate meaning, to answer the questions, to ensure our permanent survival if we can….We have this duty because we are a miracle.”
Living in Hong Kong right now, one can see how the miracle of the rule of law provides an essential safety net to all that we hold dear in this fallen world – and how without it there is only barbary.
What should those from outside Asia know about the legal services sector in Asia, its past, present and future?
As previously discussed, all is NOT Cleveland. Also, the hubris of ‘build it and they will come’, which has been the default of many international law firms when it comes to their strategy of international expansion, has cost the profession dear. The data is available about the size, preferences and potential of the commercial legal market in most major jurisdictions and it behoves the management of legal enterprises to avail themselves of it. The law firms that don’t count client service as one of their most essential deliverables are not going to survive in the longer term. The lessons learned for international law firms in Asia are ‘be nimble’ and ‘be local’. In the future, it would be great to see the Legal Media more generally encourage true innovation in the wider legal industry: I am sorry but the AmLaw 100 is an outdated measure of law firm quality and I would be truly glad to see it go.
To any law student out there aspiring to be a legal journalist – what advice do you have?
Stick to the Law!
What’s next in store for you?
Geographical reach has been kind to the In-House Community as we are now positioned with smaller communities from London to Tokyo, and inclusive of parts of Africa and the Middle East. On a professional level I intend to continue working with our team to deepen those ties and to be an agent for our mission, which is to empower in-house counsel for the benefit of all. On a personal level, I hope to host an exhibition of my Beijing photographs taken during 1986 in Beijing: I have a complex relationship with this city but the people there have given me much pleasure and shaped the projectory of my life in significant ways.
Feature Photo of Patrick Dransfield by Wendy Chan, 2019