Face to Face with Allan Leung The Dispute Resolution Lawyer of the Year at the Macallan ALB Hong Kong Law Awards 2019

When Hong Kong litigation lawyer Allan Leung moved to Dentons this year and also received the Dispute Resolution Lawyer of the Year at the Macallan ALB Hong Kong Law Awards 2019, this triggered a flurry of headlines. While Leung typically avoids media attention, this month, he gave a rare interview to Hong Kong Lawyer, where he spoke about the challenges that have shaped his career, and why he felt it was the right time to make a move.

A self-made man from the get go, Leung’s upbringing was full of challenges. Talking from one of the pristine office rooms in Dentons Hong Kong, where the city’s picturesque skyline is visible through circular windows, Leung describes his early humble beginnings.

Leung, who came from a family of five, recalls his father working two jobs and a childhood spent in “a small one bedroom, one sitting room, property” in a public housing estate in North Point. “I used to sleep on a bed made of canvas. At night you would have to set it up, and in the morning, you would have to dismantle it and repeat the whole process every night. I did not have the chance to sleep on a bed until I was in the UK when I was 20 years old – that was the first time I slept on a mattress,” he tells Hong Kong Lawyer.

At school too Leung’s experience was tough. He refers to his education background as “embarrassing”, explaining that he dropped out of school after failing two out of seven subjects at the Hong Kong Certificate of Education Examination and “wasted a year doing some lousy commercial course. It was a kind of sanctuary for failures.” Part of this struggle was due to a general lack of direction, he explains, and of course, a touch of rebellion too.

Leung found himself drifting. His first job in 1976 was as a port worker in one of the container terminals in Kwai Chung, over the other side of the city, he says indicating with a finger. “My job was to actually go down to the bay where the containers were placed and note down the whereabouts of them. At that time there were no computers as such, so there was a huge blackboard where we marked down the locations of containers, so when the truck came in, they knew the location to pick them up from” he explains. “That was my first job, and I had to do three shifts, which was very tough. My lunch was mostly spent squatting on the floor.”

While he only “survived in that job for about three months”, Leung’s next position, as a lowly clerk for a major bank in the city which involved running errands, played an important role in setting him on his future path.

“When I finished my errands earlier than I needed to, I had two options, I could either go to a café and have a cup of tea or do something else. Somehow, I chose to go to court,” he says. “In the old days, the High Court was in the building where the Court of Final Appeal is now located. So, I went in, and watched the proceedings and I was fascinated by them.”

While this planted a seed of interest, another formative influence that sowed the pathway into law came in cinematic form: a film called Paper Chase. “I still recommend law students to watch it. It’s about Harvard Law School and students that form study groups to study law, and I was really, really impressed by what these guys did. Somehow, I wanted to be one of them,” Leung says.

But first, he had a serious hurdle to overcome: his grades. Leung started studying part-time at night school to redo his O-Levels “in the hope that I would one day be able to pursue this”.

As Leung’s results didn’t enable him to pursue his A-Levels in Hong Kong, going abroad was the next step. “I saved up some money through work, borrowed money from relatives, my father sponsored me a bit, I had enough to buy an air ticket, so I went to the UK to study my A-Levels,” he says.

GOING ABROAD

While it’s difficult to imagine the immensity of the pressure that Leung must have felt as he boarded a 12-hour flight to the UK, he was clearly at a crossroads. “It was a one-way ticket, no return, so I had to succeed,” he says.

“I went to Hastings first, to do my A-Levels, and of course, had to study very hard and fortunately, I got good enough grades to go to the University of Manchester to do my law degree,” he says.

Of course, it wasn’t easy. Leung describes his strict study routine as “seven-eleven; not the shop but the hours,” he says with a smile. “That was what I used to work, from 7 am to 11 pm, during holidays before exams. Everyday apart from tea breaks and the usual breaks.”

“Because law involves very intensive reading, as a non-native English speaker, it required more effort to read the law reports, the textbooks etc., to get the grades,” he notes. While it was hard “all along” and there were various setbacks to contend with, the knowledge that he only had a one-way ticket was always in the back of Leung’s mind.

But the work paid off, with Leung achieving good grades, and even receiving a prize in one subject. “I was fortunate to be able to graduate with a very good degree, which ultimately helped me get a good job with a major law firm,” he says self-effacingly.

After graduation, Leung stayed behind to do his training with a small firm in Manchester. “It was, a seven-partner firm. So, I did my training with them, qualified with them and practised with them for a few years.”

“During my time in Manchester the experience was first class. Because it was a high street law firm, we did everything. I had a very broad experience in law, acting in civil, criminal litigation. I did lots of interesting things, I applied for bail for someone charged with murder, defended alleged shoplifters and drink drivers. I did civil litigation, some commercial stuff. Also, while I was acting for some shareholders in a shareholder dispute, I received threats.”

It was during this time that his life did indeed take on a cinematic quality, “like a John Grisham film”, with Leung even receiving more serious threats. “I advised a lady on how to apply for legal aid if she wanted to apply for a divorce, and somehow her husband found out about this, and called me and threatened to kill me,” he recalls with a bemused smile.

RETURNING TO HONG KONG

But it was ambition, rather than threats that eventually brought Leung back to Hong Kong in 1989. When he accepted a role at an international firm with a strong litigation reputation, the timing worked out in Leung’s favour, as big-ticket litigation suddenly appeared on his plate.

While Leung may have regretted ‘wasting time’ during his early years, during his legal career he swiftly made up for this – after just four years, he was promoted to partner. “Once you become a partner, the whole world changes because you have a lot more responsibility, in terms of managing the team and bringing in business,” he says, noting the change was challenging, but exciting.

While his reputation continued to swell, after 29 years with Hogan Lovells, Leung felt ready for a change. “In Ecclesiastes 3:1, is the verse ‘there’s a time for everything’. I thought after 29 years with my old firm, the time was right and ripe for a change to slow down from the fast lane and to smell the roses,” he says, noting that he decided to retire and spend some time reflecting on what was next.

With no clear next step in mind, Leung decided to take some well earnt downtime. “I took three and a half months off, spent some quality time with my two sons and grandchildren in England; and with my younger son on safari in Kenya,” he says, noting the experience was one he won’t forget.

But Leung didn’t have much time before an opportunity arose. Keith Brandt, a former colleague “and a very good friend of 30 years”, who is Managing Partner of Dentons told Leung retiring at then 60 “was absurd”.

While Leung was determined not to go back to fulltime private practice, he negotiated a role that would offer greater flexibility and mulled over the decision in Kenya, before deciding to give it a try.

“I could still keep my hands dirty as it were, keep my brain functioning and be able to work on an arrangement that really suits my needs. So, I decided to join Dentons in May,” he says.

But during this period, Leung also sat as a Deputy High Court Judge during April and May for about seven weeks “which is something I wouldn’t have been able to do if I had remained in private practice”, he adds. “I was privileged to have had the opportunity to do that. I was humbled by the experience, which was very fulfilling,” he adds.

MAKING AN IMPACT

While Leung has conquered Hong Kong’s litigation world, he still looks back on his time spent in Manchester fondly. “I met many good people there,” he says. “People are very friendly, generally and in the firm … My then boss is still a friend after 35 years and my former secretary who is now in her 80s, we’re still in touch,” he says, noting that he recently caught up with them when he was in Manchester. “My secretary has never forgotten any of my or my two sons’ birthdays in the last 30 years. Every year we get cards and gifts from her. Those five years were really memorable,” he says.

While having clients as good friends, is something Leung values strongly, his legal work also has a physical legacy that he is proud of. “I’ve been involved in so many cases, high profile cases etc., and the most memorable one I think, is litigation involving the Long Valley, which is a wetland in the New Territories and a habitat for over 200 species of birds.”

The Kowloon Canton Railway Corporation proposed to build a viaduct across the valley. Leung and his team acted for the Environmental Protection Department that had refused to grant a licence to the KCRC on the basis that they failed to pass the environmental impact assessment required, he explains. While the KCRC appealed the decision, they subsequently lost.

“So now, instead of on a viaduct, you take the train from Sheung Shui to Lok Ma Chau through a tunnel … as you come out of the station, you can see Long Valley through the patio windows. We preserved the wetland, and now people can also
see it.”

“I had been there before the hearing, it’s a beautiful piece of land. Very tranquil, very quiet. You can hear the birds chirping away,” Leung says. “That was one of the highlights, and a small contribution to environmental protection in Hong Kong.”

Of course, Leung has also played an important role in shaping Hong Kong’s Civil Justice Reform (CJR) as well. “I think two impacts are Sanctioned Offer and Sanctioned Payment into court, and mediation because they do help facilitate settlements, and therefore I believe there are more settlements than before the CJR was introduced,” he says.

“I had the privilege of chairing the Law Society’s working party on CJR, and that was most enjoyable, because the working party comprises some of the most prominent litigators in Hong Kong and we worked very hard, and were very passionate. We worked even during weekends in the summer to make sure we would complete the report on time.”

It’s this type of dedication that has served Leung well throughout his career. When asked to weigh in on Hong Kong’s current legal landscape, Leung concedes that competition is very fierce, both pricewise and in terms of the number of competitors. While for all law firms, standing out is the key, he isn’t anxious about such developments.

“I always believe a legal service is a personal service. Therefore, you have to be responsive and proactive when acting for clients, have empathy for and treat their case as if it was yours” he says, noting that service is key to standing out, even more so than price.

Leung said he took to heart what the late Jeremy Hutchison QC said “our work means dealing with every sort of people. It is our privilege to enter into their lives for a short period – perhaps the most important part of their whole life”.

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North Asia Journalist, Thomson Reuters