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Staying the Course Through
with Milton Cheng, Global Chair, Baker McKenzie

Featured Articles - Issue 9

Staying the Course Through Uncharted Territory

An Interview with Milton Cheng, Global Chair, Baker McKenzie

Milton Half_Logo HK B2021Milton Cheng joined Baker McKenzie in 1990 and knew he found a firm that would embrace him and offer him a lifetime of opportunities. In October 2019, Milton Cheng began his four-year term as global chair for the firm—never expecting what his first year in the role had in store.


How has your experience as the managing partner for Hong Kong and chief executive shaped your approach to serving as global chair for Baker McKenzie?


Being a law firm leader in Asia over the past decade has provided a front-row seat to a period of transformational change and advancement on a vast scale from a business, legal and technological perspective. To grow our business in the context of the rise of Mainland Chinese tech hubs—such as Shenzhen, the rapid development of Vietnam and the increasing global importance of financial centers such as Singapore—has been an incredible training ground for my current role. Being able to balance the needs of fast growth markets with leading money centers while bringing together incredibly diverse teams under a common vision and purpose definitely allowed me to hit the ground running when I was elected global chair. I don’t think anything could have fully prepared me for the year that followed, however.


What other experiences in your career have prepared you for this role?


After graduating from Kings College in London, I received job offers from several Magic Circle firms but decided to join Baker McKenzie in 1990 in large part because it was the only firm at that time that expressed a commitment to growing and deepening its presence in Asia, including in my home country of Singapore. I also felt it had a positive, welcoming culture. After 30+ years with the firm, I still believe both hold true.


I worked with Baker in London for a little over two years, and after I qualified as a solicitor, the opportunity arose for a two-year secondment in our Hong Kong office, in part because the firm needed more Mandarin speakers for our work taking Chinese companies public. The plan was to go back to Singapore after two years, but that two-year attachment is now in its 29th year.


In addition to my various leadership roles, what has also prepared me for my current position has been the constant need to adapt and change based on client need, market demand and evolving trends. I was not particularly focused on the real estate sector as a young lawyer, but as REITs were emerging in Hong Kong and Asia as a major investment vehicle in the mid-2000s. I saw the opportunity, and with the strong support of our office leadership, I pivoted my practice to support the launch of the first REITs in Hong Kong, which had a major impact on my career. It’s the sort of adaptability that we very actively encourage in our young lawyers and is in keeping with the entrepreneurial spirit that is such an important driver of Baker McKenzie.


Collaboration across practices, geographies and cultures is also key. When we work together, we win. Much of our recent growth and success has been due to the ongoing integration of systems, teams and technology where possible, across Asia and globally, providing a consistent and seamless client experience across the full range of transactional, advisory and disputes work.


How did your upbringing influence for your career path?


I grew up in Singapore as it was striving to establish itself as a modern, independent nation, in a family of three children with parents who came from modest beginnings. After high school and military service, my parents gave me the opportunity to study overseas in England to read law at King’s College London. It was a fun time to be a student in London, but I also worked hard and did well there, graduating at the top of my class. Coming from a modest family background, my siblings and I felt privileged to have been given the opportunity by our parents to study abroad. I used to debate when I was younger, so I thought law would be an interesting starting point for a career even if I went on to do other things, as you have a good foundation to think analytically, communicate clearly and try to find solutions for problems. Of course, I never left law.


Did you have mentors during your career or people you respected and learned from?


One of the main reasons I have stayed with Baker McKenzie for these many years is the mentoring I have received from so many talented leaders, lawyers and colleagues. From supervising partners with incredible technical expertise to insights into how better to see the big picture and strategize over the long term, I have learned different aspects of what it means to be a lawyer, client relationship partner and leader from many who have gone before me. Over time, I have realized that this was not unique to my team or office but rather a fundamental part of our culture around the world, and I have tried to find time for the next generation of talented lawyers and future leaders, as time was always found for me.


I am grateful to my mentors for the trust they placed in me, supporting and encouraging me as I grew my practice or expanded into whole new areas for the firm and continuing with that support and encouragement in more recent years as I took on leadership and management roles. It is very important to me that we continue to empower those with the drive, ambition and talent to take our firm to new heights.


How has the COVID-19 pandemic impacted your first year in this new role?


Being here in Hong Kong did provide a distinct advantage, as we had the difficult experience of SARS and realized the seriousness of the situation from very early on in the pandemic. This allowed our firm leadership team to put in place a strategy not just for Hong Kong or Asia, but one that was also versatile enough to deal with challenges as well as capture opportunities around the world, despite not being able to meet in person.


Early on, we created five COVID-19 response teams covering business, clients, people, operations and finance. Each team comprised partners and business professionals from across the world, allowing the firm flexibility to adapt to a wide variance of local conditions and for the firm to emerge quickly from the crisis globally.


We created what we called our 3R framework—Resilience, Recovery and Renewal—to address the evolving legal and business needs of our clients as they journeyed through this pandemic and managed its consequences from crisis to rebuild and beyond.


But the longer-term strategic needs of the firm also needed to be addressed, and in the midst of the pandemic, we have also refreshed our firm strategy, with greater precision on the strategic choices we need to make, and a new clients and markets strategy framework to unlock our potential. We welcomed new members to our senior leadership team, including appointing a chief sustainability officer and chief inclusion and diversity officer for the first time, as well as a new COO. We are also delighted to welcome three more women to our global leadership team.


Doing all of this during a pandemic required each and every one of us to adopt a growth mindset. Our people were juggling multiple demands and, in many cases, working harder. Leaders universally had a focus on their teams’ well-being. This is not unique to Baker McKenzie. All of us have had to face this change.


Like many organizations, we have adapted, and we are resilient. We have found our feet again. And like many law firms, we have had a better year than we had initially feared.


Has the pandemic changed your vision for the future of the firm?


With our platform being as broad as it is, and so much of our idea generation coming up from markets and teams around the world, we are trying to build a culture of ideas percolating to the top so that they can be quickly leveraged and spread to other parts of the organization.


Often, I reflect on how reluctance to change can hold major law firms back. The pandemic has forced us to make changes and to rethink our ways of working. We have seen that change is not just possible; it is necessary and continuous. Capturing that attitude and leveraging it for wider transformational efforts will be vital going forward. This pandemic has challenged all of us to think more ambitiously about the change that is possible.


This all feeds into having that growth mindset and together challenging ourselves and our teams to embrace change and have the confidence and determination to continuously innovate, adapt and reinvent ourselves to meet our clients needs and respond to the changing market.


How has the firm adjusted to a remote working environment? What do you think was most affected by remote work? How will you rectify this?


Pre-COVID-19, many law firms would not have dreamed of allowing associates to work entirely remotely or relied so heavily on technology-based tools for their practices.


But now, we have seen that productivity can remain high while our teams work from home. The focus on the use of technology over the past 12 months has forced our team to have conversations about flexibility and technology, allowing us to move the ball forward. Even as the pandemic recedes, many more meetings and client events will be held virtually than before.


There needs to be a balance, however. Training and development of legal advisory expertise are based on learning and sharing between practitioners, building deep client relationships and modelling client care behaviors, and spending time together reviewing work and ensuring the highest of standards. Much of this will still benefit from time spent together in the office, which has always been an important part of Baker McKenzie’s culture.


The blurred line between home and work has also been difficult for some lawyers and business professionals to manage, and we continue to challenge ourselves on how to embed resilience and support mental health as we work through the pandemic in a more physically separated world.


How have you maintained the firm’s culture over the past year?


With nearly 13,000 people across the globe, we recognize our impact as a global business in our own right. The pandemic has caused us to reassess how best to effectively manage our responsibilities toward our people, our communities and our planet. An example of this is our commitment to cut our carbon emissions by 92% by 2030.


Another key part of this is how you work with clients and help them become more sustainable in a fast-changing world. We serve as advisors to some of the biggest companies in every industry and market around the world. We recognize that as both an opportunity and a responsibility.


To approach these issues more effectively, we recently appointed the firm’s first global chief sustainability officer, Alyssa Auberger. Alyssa is responsible for leading the firms global sustainability strategy, which is an important component of the firms overall priorities for the next decade.


Having an inclusive and diverse team is also crucial. We are not neutral” is how we describe our approach to all aspects of inclusion and diversity (I&D). Our approach is global and inclusive. In 2019, we enacted global targets of 40% women, 40% men and 20% flexible (women, men or nonbinary persons) by July 2025. The targets apply to partners, senior business professionals, committee leadership and candidate pools for recruitment. We also appointed our first chief inclusion and diversity officer, Anna Brown, to help us work towards realizing these ambitions.


Against the backdrop of protests in the U.S., we also recommitted ourselves to calling out racism and working to end it. We will confront racial discrimination, injustice and stereotyping anywhere it exists around the world. In this way, we can truly bring our culture of friendship to life at a time when it is most needed.


Underpinning all of this, we also recently launched the Baker McKenzie “People Deal,” which articulates who we are and what it means to succeed at Baker McKenzie—that we are client-centric, we are one high-performing team and we are global citizens. The People Deal was built from what we already are and what we do when we are at our best, but it heightens the focus and adds new and important emphasis to aspects of our culture, performance and approach, which are necessary if we are to successfully compete for and retain talent now and in future.


What role do you see technology playing in legal operations as we move forward?


We see digital transformation accelerating for almost all our clients across all industries. Law firms must be part of this change or they will be left behind. Innovation has always been an integral part of Baker McKenzie’s DNA. As client demands for developing innovative solutions increase, we must continue to look for ways to stay ahead of the curve.


In this spirit, we have recently launched our Reinvent unit, bringing together our diverse innovation initiatives worldwide under a single arm in support of better client outcomes. It connects our service design, alternative legal services and legal project management team; our Global e-Discovery and Data Advisory teams; Reinvent Fellows; LegalTech Startup program; and others.


But it is more than the sum of these parts. Reinvent responds to the industry need to apply innovative solutions to meet client challenges and support our own strategic goals—developing the people, processes and technology that can accelerate change and deliver speed, accuracy, flexibility and efficiency gains. Some of these initiatives include:

  • Our partnership with AI firm SparkBeyond, a market-first collaboration to apply SparkBeyond’s technology to reimagine what legal services will look like for clients in the future.
  • Our Transaction Innovation Group, which focuses on change in our transactional practices.
  • Our LegalTech Startup program, which currently includes, among others, Avoka, Litigate, Imagine Dragons and StructureFlow.
  • Our Reinvent Fellows program that is currently running seven projects across five practices.

Like most of our clients, the pandemic has also accelerated our own digital transformation, encouraging far greater use of technology that facilitates virtual communication and remote client service. In addition to our innovation efforts, we have made significant investments in our tech infrastructure in recent years through a series of automation and digitization projects.


What does the road forward look like for Baker McKenzie?


The way legal services are delivered will be more segmented. Firms will need to much more actively define and pursue their USP, i.e., where the value they can bring clearly intersects with the value desired by their clients. The market is also rewarding firms that have been disciplined in their cost management and focused on clients in high-growth industries such as tech and healthcare. Baker McKenzies strengths include our healthcare and life sciences and technology industry teams, which we will continue to build out through lateral hires and homegrown talent as well as continuing to focus on the most complex and significant cross-border transactions and matters for the world’s leading multinationals.


In a more fragmented, volatile world, law firms will also need to remain agile, understanding and adaptive to fast-moving trends. This may be in business or technology, in the political and regulatory sphere, or in terms of how societies are evolving. These changes will increasingly be hyper-local, meaning those that work in the global, cross-border business arena will not be able to rely on a one-size-fits-all-approach anymore. On-the-ground experience, cultural understanding and connections will be more important than ever.


And as business and law become inexorably more values driven, it is crucial for law firms to listen to their people and their clients and define and align their business to the values that are important to their colleagues, clients and communities. The role of lawyers going forward is not just as an advisor—we must also be an integral part of the global community, and those who succeed must also be willing to lead.


What have been your personal keys for success?


I return again to the concept of a growth mindset, which for me means you don’t stop looking for opportunities to learn, including and especially in times of stress and/or major change.


Hand in hand with this is cultural curiosity and openness. This isn’t just about culture based on where people are from and/or located; there are different cultures that develop amongst advisory compared with transactional lawyers, across various functions within business professional teams, or amongst clients from different industries. Being open and interested in how people operate and do business always creates a measure of goodwill and a chance to create a more productive dialogue.


And finally, for me it is important to be your authentic self as much as possible. This could be through returning to core values when making tough decisions, ensuring I communicate honestly and regularly with different teams, or simply carving out my own time to rest and reflect. If you lose sight of what drives you and why you are doing it in the first place, it is much harder to be an effective leader.


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