Vicki Liu, the managing partner of Allen & Overy’s (A&O) Hong Kong office, is the firm’s first Asia-based partner to be appointed as co-head of its global banking practice. Liu was born and raised in Australia, where she completed her law degree and training. It was during the latter period that the first-generation Chinese-Australian aspired to practise law. “I was able to put into practice the legal principles that I learned to support a successful matter completion, and working alongside other partners, that I realised I enjoyed the practice of law in a business context” says Liu.
For various reasons, including Hong Kong’s reputation as an international financial centre and her own close connections with both Hong Kong and Mainland China, Liu moved to Hong Kong in 1994 and joined Allen & Overy in 1995. “As a person who enjoys connecting with different cultures and travelling, I was drawn to the many opportunities a qualification in law can provide and was particularly drawn to the cross-border nature of banking and finance in a large commercial law firm. As a junior lawyer who was interested in banking, Hong Kong was the right place to be in the early-mid 1990s given its status as a leading financial centre, its booming economy and a number of international law firms being in expansion mode” says Liu.
Making Strides Under Her Leadership
Under Liu’s leadership, the Hong Kong office of A&O has notched up a number of achievements, including but not limited to a flexible working environment, gender equality, and diversity. For one, she oversaw the launch and growth in Asia of Peerpoint, a flexible resourcing platform where the firm assigns consultant lawyers from its panel to its clients to meet their interim needs.
Then, she was involved in championing equal treatment under the law for same-sex partnerships in Hong Kong. As a member of the A&O Pro Bono Committee, Liu played a key role in the 2019 launch of an unprecedented piece of research carried out in conjunction with the Hong Kong Equal Opportunities Commission into the widespread differential treatment of same-sex relationships, cohabitation and civil partnerships under Hong Kong law. “Over 44 lawyers and 2,900 pro bono hours were involved in completing the research and analysis. This was the largest pro bono project the Hong Kong office has undertaken and was one of the largest globally” says Liu.
She has broadly been a champion of diversity, building on A&O’s focus on D&I over the past 25 years. “Today we have an extremely diverse team from different backgrounds who complement and collaborate with one another to support our clients in the most effective manner. I have always encouraged a culture that embraces an entrepreneurial spirit, so a major highlight is seeing how effectively we work together as an office to accomplish great things, not only for our clients but also for our employees and our community” says Liu.
“A difference can be made by taking (the right) action,” she adds. “A&O has done just that by implementing diversity and inclusion committees in Hong Kong to focus on and support four areas, which our employees have raised as priority areas. These are (i) Gender, (ii) Family (parental coaching, to ease the transition back to work for a number of mothers (and fathers) at A&O and identify ways to encourage a family-friendly culture at A&O), (iii) LGBTQ+, and (iv) Flexible Working. Race and Ethnicity is an area we explore at a global level and is very much part of our local D&I discussions at the moment. . These committee meetings we believe will ultimately create the right shift towards a truly diverse and inclusive workplace. It has also been critical in achieving our aim of engaging a wide cross-section of the office so that a diverse set of views are represented.” Additionally, suggestion boxes are placed on each floor of the Hong Kong office to enable anonymous feedback; the suggestions are discussed at the various committee meetings.
Lessons Learnt from COVID-19
All types of businesses are, in some way or another, grappling with the impact of COVID-19. That said, many opportunities lie ahead for them. “Law firms will need to be agile and ingenious in helping their clients adapt to a much-changed world” suggests Liu. She sees three significant lessons that firms can take away from it. First, they need to understand how regulations will impact their clients’ businesses. “The business world is placing a heightened importance on the role that lawyers can fulfil,” notes Liu. “Very rarely do clients just want their lawyers to draw up documents; they want their lawyers’ views on the likelihood of things happening, their experience of other deals in many jurisdictions, and which way regulators will lean, for example. Generally, clients have seen an uptick in regulatory requirements from different governments and this will continue to have an impact for businesses in the region. That means lawyers have to have an excellent understanding of clients’ businesses and also good relationships with the authorities in every jurisdiction where decisions are being made, for example on anti-trust or regulatory approvals.”
Then, law firms need to have a diverse and well-rounded practice. “Firms need to have a well-diversified business in terms of geographic coverage and practice areas to be able to respond to the different client needs and priorities in these dynamic times,” she adds.
Finally, law firms must embrace technology and new ways of working, as remote working due to COVID-19 isn’t straightforward. For example, while A&O has had a long-standing iFlex policy which encourages employees to work remotely and also flexibly on an ad hoc basis, it was soon realised that people’s home environments were not always technically conducive to home working. “We worked fast to remedy this by purchasing the required IT equipment for our team. We anticipate our team will regularly work flexibly going forward, based on their enthusiastic feedback about the technology and our flexible policies,” says Liu.
Additionally, Liu imparts two important pieces of advice. The first is to take care of team members. “Helping our team members to manage anxiety in relation to their health, economic uncertainty and family is a challenge we identified across all the markets early on. Also, finding ways to ensure that employees feel connected to their teams as the lockdown kept them isolated from one another, and how to help our teams face those real anxieties whilst delivering for our clients. This is a leadership lesson we are probably all still learning. I worked to paint an honest picture of what we were facing, sending out regular, sometimes daily communications and we worked as a team to support one another. We encouraged partners and senior management to keep in close contact with their teams via phone and video calls and we identified informal virtual ways to celebrate milestones, enjoy a happy shared experience and stay connected. I was also mindful that everyone’s circumstances at home were different and made sure that support was available if employees needed it” she says.
Secondly, vital information must be shared immediately. “We’ve learned that real-time information sharing is key in times of uncertainty. Given that our offices in Hong Kong, Beijing and Shanghai were dealing with COVID-19 since January, the guidance and protocols which we established very early on with our local crisis teams quickly became a roadmap for other offices across the global network. I picked up the phone to managing partners in other A&O offices as they were beginning to deal with lockdown to help them through the challenges they were facing, which were sometimes very similar to what we had faced. Leadership should not happen in isolation – we are all in this together – so not only was I having regular internal calls with key stakeholders, I was also having weekly calls with managing partners at other international law firms in Hong Kong” says Liu.
Women and the Legal Profession
Given the stellar career that Liu has had, one might think that the legal sector provided a level playing field for women, but Liu says that a lot more work remains to be done. “Challenges remain with respect to having an equal playing field, equal opportunities and equal pay for women across all sectors. We are proud to say that 35 percent of the partners in our Hong Kong office are female,” she notes. “Gender diversity is a strategic core priority for the firm and we are working hard to improve the gender balance through all that we do – our training, recruitment, promotion and how we work day-to-day” says Liu.
According to Liu, the regional and global initiatives run by A&O that cover gender equality include:
- In 2019 A&O launched its reverse mentoring programme in Asia Pacific, this involved the less experienced person taking the position of mentor and helps the more experienced person gain a better understanding on the mentor’s perspective on the business, the industry and their own career aspirations. Mentors and mentees were matched by HR to ensure that each match had elements of diversity (generational, gender, ethnicity, background etc). “The success of the Asia Pacific reverse mentoring programme is all about changing perceptions. Similarly, a partner in Hong Kong had his view changed from thinking that all young lawyers should focus on the path to becoming a partner, to understanding that the younger generation of lawyers saw their career in a varied or uneven, albeit still successful, career path” says Liu.
- Training and development. A&O has a global “Training and Development Roadmap” for all its associates, which is complemented by a suite of programmes that identify and support high potential women at various stages in their careers. As an overview, its female specific training is as follows:
- Women Making Their Mark – this programme is for A&O’s most junior qualified female lawyers and is intended to build on commercial and strategic awareness, increased self-awareness, effective communication, resilience and efficient time management, as well as how to develop a career as a female lawyer. It also features a panel discussion featuring successful female lawyers from within the relevant region who talk about their own career and how they have overcome any challenges to achieve great heights.
- Stepping Forward – this is A&O’s newest training programme, which ran for the first time in Asia Pacific in July and August 2019. This two-day course for mid-level lawyers specifically asks the female associate to take ownership of their career and consider what they need to succeed at the firm, and how they could overcome barriers in their career. It involves the associate and their key partner completing a questionnaire prior to the workshop to set the groundwork for understanding the career they would like, the challenges and the steps they need to take. The workshop is followed by a series of monthly virtual coaching sessions over the following six months.
- Emerging Female Leaders’ Workshop – this is aimed at senior associates and counsel. It is a preparation programme for them before they enter our partnership selection process. The programme is sponsored by Wim Dejonghe (Senior Partner at A&O) with the key of forming a global cohort of high potential women equipped with the tools, resources and support to address the gender-specific challenges of taking a leadership role in the firm so that the playing field is level.
For those women aspiring to leadership roles at global law firms, Liu has a number of pieces of advice. “Be prepared for an interesting ride – it’s never a linear road,” she says. “Building a sense of resilience is key and it’s important to understand your drivers and why you are aspiring to be a leader. In low times, remembering your purpose and aspirations as a leader will keep you motivated.”
She adds: “Identify and seek out a sponsor/s in your organisation – someone you identify as a role model but who will also look out for you, identifying the right opportunities to help you progress. Invest time in this relationship.”
“Take control of your career and don’t be complacent. Be proactive and put yourself forward for leadership opportunities. Also, articulate how you want to shape your career,” Liu further says. “Find leadership opportunities within your organisation – particularly non-legal areas that matter to you. At A&O, there are numerous opportunities to step-up beyond your legal practice, such as in areas of pro bono, D&I, mental health, etc. If you want to be a leader you should focus on more than being a lawyer.”
Lastly, Liu suggests that regardless of gender, junior lawyers in private practices can reap benefits by taking up secondment opportunities with their clients, but they should seek opportunities for placement in a business team as opposed to the legal function. “During my time as an associate at A&O I was seconded to Societe Generale in their project finance team, which enabled me to understand the commercial drivers for deals, the dynamics between the business team and legal advisers, how deals are made and closed and where lawyers can add value” Liu recalls. “Be open to these opportunities and make the most of them. To be a successful lawyer you need to be able to consider the client’s perspective and the various challenges they deal with.”
The Importance of Pro Bono
Liu feels that pro bono work is very important to the development of lawyers, particularly junior lawyers. “Pro bono work helps broaden and develop the technical legal and non-technical skill set of our lawyers. In our experience, it is junior lawyers who benefit most from the unique opportunity which pro bono work provides to develop their organisational, communication, and management skills, skills that benefit all of our clients” suggests Liu who herself was involved in pro bono work as a law student and trainee in Australia.
Additionally, Liu suggests that firms also have a responsibility to support the communities in which they operate which can be done in a variety of ways. They can advise charitable organisations, non-governmental organisations, or individuals in need. They can also support individuals into education or employment, opportunities that can have a substantial impact on the lives of the recipients of that support. “The broad range of pro bono and community investment initiatives that A&O supports are centred around these pillars, namely access to justice and access to education and employment, along with a particular focus on helping displaced persons. Through collaborations with our clients, alumni, peers, and other organisations, we believe we have the potential to have real social impact throughout the Asia Pacific region” says Liu.