As managing partner at King & Wood Mallesons Dubai, his clients include sovereign states, corporations and financial institutions. He is also the founder of International Lawyers for Africa, a charitable organisation that aims to strengthen the rule of law in Africa
King & Wood Mallesons is known for its innovation and bringing a different perspective to commercial thinking. Where do you see your business going in the next few years?
The coming decade will bring unique challenges for all businesses operating internationally. We’re currently standing at the crossroads of the key global business and geopolitical development of our generation, namely the relationship between China and the rest of the world. Being a part of KWM, the only truly Sino-Western law firm on the planet, I have the privilege of being at the centre of the most important encounter of two different political and values systems of our time.
Where do great ideas come from in your organisation?
By achieving a clear consensus on what the greatest challenges we face are and then engaging everyone in finding answers and listening to them. If we don’t listen carefully, it’s easy to miss ideas coming from the most unlikely places. As lawyers, we’re faced with complex, layered challenges, and resolving them creatively involves casting your net across the whole team, from senior partners right through to trainees, who often come up with the most innovative and out-of-the-box-thinking. I’m lucky enough to work with a dynamic, entrepreneurial team and together we’re able to challenge the market and be bold in our execution of great ideas.
What is the most important in your company – its mission, values or vision?
The key is to have all three in the right order. First, you must have a vision. Then you must achieve a common understanding of your mission, or business narrative. Finally, you collectively rely on your core values to achieve your mission and realise your vision. However, whether you succeed depends on the team you build to uphold and project your core values, both internally among peers and externally with clients. Our mantra is the ‘power of together’ as a unifying theme for an international team, where we’re all navigating different jurisdictions, different cultures and harnessing different working styles.
Who has had an impact on you as a leader?
My entire career’s been a worldwide adventure, a bit like a very long James Bond film, and I’ve had the privilege of working with prominent leaders, from business moguls to heads of state. However, these three people have been directly instrumental throughout my career:
First, Stanley Berwin, who hired me from Herbert Smith & Co in 1987, having started SJ Berwin & Co five years earlier with the ambition (recorded in our Partnership Deed) to be not the biggest but the best law firm in London.
Secondly, my friend and former senior partner David Harrel, with whom I spent 20 years (after Stanley’s death in 1988) building up his vision from London and across Europe, until I came to set up in Dubai in 2009, where the transition to a global firm was realised by becoming part of KWM.
Thirdly, Wang Junfeng, our global chairman. When I was a young partner in the 1980s, Junfeng was a civil servant in China earning $10 per month. The cultural revolution ended in 1978 and there had been no law graduates in China since the 1950s. It wasn’t until 1982 that legal reforms began; universities started reopening and new ones were established. When private practice was first introduced to China, Junfeng seized the opportunity and was among the first to launch one. His achievement is monumental; in only 25 years, he’s built a world-class team, recognised as China’s top law firm.
What are three characteristics that you believe every leader should possess?
1. Not expecting a colleague to do anything you wouldn’t be prepared to do yourself
2. The ability to listen with empathy
3. Fearless realism, while remembering to be what Abraham Lincoln called “a dealer in hope”
What’s the best way to prepare for uncertainty?
Uncertainty is a given and certainty is an illusion. It’s the fear of uncertainty that’s relevant to markets. In the words of Franklin D Roosevelt, we have nothing to fear but fear itself.
Some people are more frightened of uncertainty than others. In my profession, when deals go down, disputes go up, and as long as you are well placed to serve that cycle, uncertainty is just part of our stock in trade – in fact, it’s what the law tries to tame.
What does a typical day look like?
As a lawyer, I’m permanently on call, and I try to avoid having typical days. It’s always a highlight to be on my feet in court, or in an arbitration practising my craft as an advocate – actually you’re supposed to sit in arbitrations, but I have a terrible habit of wanting to pace like a caged animal when arguing a case.
I could be anywhere in the world or on a plane in between, but, typically creative problem solving or creative trouble-making to the same end.
A new oligarch client was recently referred to me, saying he’d been told if he had a problem that neither he nor his lawyers could solve, he should come to me – now that’s what I call high praise. To ensure I’m always prepared for any eventuality, I’ve surrounded myself with a brilliant team, who someone once said would run through walls for me – although I don’t plan to put that to the test.
How do you relax and switch off from the office?
I grew up in a British farming family where there was no artificial division between work and the rest of our lives. That habit has stuck – I work at home and I’m at home at work.
What do you work on in your free time?
Currently, trying to help resolve an armed conflict. I am also working on a six-pack (which is currently in the fridge). In addition, having started the charity International Lawyers for Africa 12 years ago, of which I’m immensely proud, I’m now hoping to launch a project called “Bar Miles” in London, where for every £1 law firms spend with barristers chambers, they get 5p credit to their “Bar Miles” account with the chambers to spend on pro-bono briefs for good causes of their choice.