Many of Asia’s leading international firms have their top dealmakers also sit as regional heads or office managing partners. I can think of a few off the top of my head—Connie Heng at Clifford Chance, Constance Choy at Sidley Austin, Psyche Tai at Norton Rose Fulbright, Christopher Wong at Simpson Thacher & Bartlett, Teresa Ko at Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, Li He at Davis Polk & Wardwell and Kay Ian Ng at Sullivan & Cromwell—and the list goes on.
Without pointing my finger at any of the partners I’ve mentioned, it has in recent years become glaringly clear that top dealmakers don’t always make the best leaders.
Hear me out.
Leadership today is all-encompassing. Leaders must be good at selling their services to clients. They also have to be good at selling themselves to their fellow partners. They need to be charismatic and represent the firm as a whole.
But perhaps the biggest challenge that has emerged in recent years is the fact that leaders today are expected to be ultra-aware of and care about society’s ever-changing sensitivities. They need to make time for their people, they need to listen, take a stand and risk being publicly denounced for making the wrong decisions. They need to pay attention to the nuances and the details. They need to have foresight, be able to look ahead and yet not too far ahead, be a visionary and convince their following.
The lessons are written on the wall: the fallout of the Russian-Ukraine war, the challenge to Hong Kong’s democracy, how firms have committed (or not) to their people during the COVID-19 pandemic, and even how firms are contributing to climate change. These all now get microscopic attention not just from the media or from clients, but also from firm employees who judge every move.
A power shift is taking place and a couple things are clear: A hefty book of business is no longer the only thing that counts, and the leader who cracks the whip may very well find that people are no longer falling in line.
A few years ago, I worked in-house at a law firm, and the firm’s regional managing partner at that time was a formidable litigator. He was well-known and had a highly profitable practice. I once sat down with him for a one-on-one meeting—this was after months of trying to get a time in his diary—so when it happened, I relished the opportunity. His phone flashed multiple times during our conversation, which, if I may add, he wasn’t very vested in. I did peek once when his phone lit up and saw that he had 18,000 unread emails. I asked him about it, and he simply shrugged.
It’s a rather trivial matter in the grand scheme of things, I suppose. But years later when I caught up with him over casual drinks with a few other law firm folks, he had left his role and the firm altogether, and frankly, seemed much happier. I probed about his time as managing partner and he told me he never cared for the role. He was acutely aware, as well, that he wasn’t any good at it—motivating people, dealing with office politics, leading a big group of lawyers who all have their own agendas. The administrative responsibilities bored him, and he could never prioritize setting a strategy, let alone a vision, for the firm in Asia.
This is an old story. It’s really been happening forever—law firms making their rainmakers office leaders, hoping that an inflated title will help retain them so they don’t leave and take the rain with them. That’s a dangerous game to play. If a leader’s raison d’être is solely to bring in as much revenue as possible, that mantra will inevitably trickle through the rest of the practice. And that, in turn, impacts the culture and—I hate to use the term—the “DNA” of the firm.
I’ve seen so many managing partners spend months neck-deep in deal execution that they forsake other pertinent issues that have plagued their offices, be it a significant team defection, delays in hiring a lateral or simply signing off on a time-critical campaign that teams of people have invested tons of time and effort in.
It’s also never been a sure win. Plenty of managing partners move on to smaller practices where less of the limelight and pressure are on them. They are rid of administrative burdens and can work with like-minded dealmakers who focus on bringing clients through the door and seeing the client through their matters.
Shearman & Sterling’s former Singapore managing partner Daryl Chew recently left his role and professional home of 14 years to join a boutique arbitration practice—Three Crowns’ newly launched Singapore outfit. When I asked Chew if his move was partly driven by a desire to relinquish administrative and leadership responsibilities at the Am Law 100 firm, his answer was no. It was more a pull factor than a push factor, he said, adding that he believes in the rising demand for a niche arbitration service. Fair enough.
Hong Kong boutique firm M.B. Kemp, launched in 2020, is now managed by former Stephenson Harwood China chief Voon Keat Lai. Last year, I caught up with Lai, who explained that he had planned to retire after leaving Stephenson Harwood but the idea of starting a new venture with his ex-colleagues and having less red tape and more flexibility appealed to him. He, like Chew, saw a niche he could occupy.
Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison’s China practice managing partner Betty Yap also recently left her head role to return to Linklaters as a corporate partner and global co-head of the financial sponsor practice group. I didn’t get to speak to Yap so I can’t say if it was more a push or a pull factor for her.
Let’s be honest. You can’t keep everyone happy. But it’s an even harder balance to strike when you’re dealing with an elitist partnership, where your key resource and offering are your people.
Several partners once lamented to me that their regional managing partner had been incumbent in the role for many years and that it was time for the managing partner to step down. Only a new person in charge could lead them into a new era, they said. But when I asked who they had in mind as successor, none of them had answers and instead started disputing the merits of “flying someone in” for the role.
Another partner at an Anglo-Australian firm once asked me what I thought of the newly appointed managing partner. I told him I found the new leader to be conscientious, someone who seems to have great instincts and motivational skills, which explains a pretty strong following. He wasn’t happy with my response and retorted, “But he doesn’t even make money, all he does is play politics!”
No one is good at everything, but if lawyers today had to choose, wouldn’t they want someone who has integrity and empathy, is positive and has time to invest in listening to people and building a vision, someone who can motivate and influence with reason, someone who knows when and what to move and how to support his or her people?
As long as a leader understands the pains and risks of dealmaking, why does it matter that he or she doesn’t make it rain?