Tom has spent much of his career with the firm in Asia, moving from Hong Kong to Singapore in 2019, where he was promoted to partner. Tom works on Asia-related disputes particularly for private capital, energy and tech/telco clients. From Singapore, his work regularly involves clients or counterparties in the People's Republic of China, India or the Philippines. Tom is an English barrister and Hong Kong solicitor.
You started your career at the English Bar before joining Herbert Smith Freehills as an associate. How has your background as a barrister influenced you in arbitration?
Starting at the Bar set me down a path to international arbitration. I wanted to keep doing advocacy, see the world and build a team and business. I feel I get the best of both worlds. The Bar was great training. Members of chambers were generous with their time and I saw that judges require clear thought and drafting. This was a great preview of what arbitrators expect. It helps me focus on whether a point is worth making and how to make it most effectively.
I always wanted to live overseas and travel for work. That led me to move across to law firm life. I joined Herbert Smith Freehills' Hong Kong arbitration team in 2014 and moved to the Singapore office almost five years later. The most interesting parts of the job are our team and clients. That all takes on a different gloss working with clients and colleagues, or in front of arbitrators, from across the world. It takes a lot of different skills to win an arbitration in Asia, and I only have some of them, so it's a pleasure to see our colleagues in action and learn from them.
You are known as an innovator and a supporter of technology to improve legal services and reduce costs. How has tech changed the client experience? What developments are on the horizon?
We're on the cusp of radical changes to the legal market. Technology has disrupted our key clients and we're next. We have priceless data that we're just starting to exploit. We know our clients expect us to find better ways to meet their needs while earning a fair return for the value we add. We're doing well on the basics, which shouldn't be taken for granted. We have better technology for everything from virtual meetings to sharing documents and collaborating. We’re automating processes and looking at using AI to improve them. In the arbitration practice, we regularly conduct virtual hearings with ease. But we have only scratched the surface – we will look back and be shocked the old ways persisted for so long.
There is an old saying that before Henry Ford, too many people had been trying to build a faster horse. That difficulty in rethinking the problem really affects law firms but we're taking bold steps in investing and approaching innovation differently and we're aware it's something we haven't been good at historically. And harnessing our data is crucial. As a world-class disputes practice, the potential of our data is market-leading. Historically, lawyers have relied on educated guesses about issues for which there is an answer with the right data. Our educated guesses are at the top of the market but data-driven answers are even better. We have recently developed a database known as Genesis that harnesses the data from thousands of our arbitrations across our global network. We can use that to inform our clients' approaches to their disputes. We're also getting much better at visualising our data and analysis to deliver actionable insights, for example, using our Decision Analysis tool and our CFO dashboards.
The future is bright. We have an opportunity to ask how we can really meet our clients' needs, as opposed to just continuing what law firms have historically done.
Hong Kong and Singapore have recently opened their markets to new ways of financing arbitrations, including third-party funding, conditional fees, and (in Hong Kong) damages-based agreements. What do you make of these changes?
These are exciting and we had new fee arrangements ready to sign the day the law changed. We're all aware why clients don't like a pure hourly-rates model. Conditional fee arrangements, where part of the payment is conditional on the outcome of the dispute, allow us a blank canvas to design new fee structures that more closely reflect the value we add and our effort. We can offer clients more clarity about cost in exchange for a conditional fee that reflects the risk that our effort will exceed the cost. This is fair for both lawyer and client. It aligns with client expectations that fee agreements should be predictable and reflect the value added. At root, alternative fee arrangements offer the certainty that law firms have historically found it difficult to provide, particularly for disputes work. There is a learning curve for the legal profession in Asia Pacific now that these funding arrangements are available. Pricing the risk (ie, the effort involved in winning a complex dispute, and the likelihood of a successful outcome) is complex. We're lucky to be able to draw on an expert pricing team that has worked on similar arrangements in other jurisdictions, including the UK, for many years. It's another great puzzle to be working on and another chance to innovate to meet client need.
What advice would you give young lawyers hoping to have a career in international arbitration?
Go for it! This can be a fascinating and varied career. First, internships and medium-term positions with law firms, arbitral institutions and even the UN or the international criminal tribunals can help graduates gain experience of arbitration, international law, and of navigating different cultures. They can be a great experience that demonstrates your commitment to pursuing a career in arbitration. Second, get qualified as a lawyer as early as possible. Our trainees and junior lawyers learn a huge amount in their first few years. You will always benefit from time in a good law firm.
Third, take a risk on where you live and work. We see people move all over the region, enhancing their experience along the way. The beauty of this job is there are lots of different variations on what it can look like. Personally, I didn't want to spend my whole career in London. In Asia, Hong Kong and Singapore are the leading arbitration hubs, and there are firms in mainland China, Seoul, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur and other big cities in Asia that do great work and provide excellent training. Be willing to travel, explore and seize opportunities.
Your wife is also a lawyer with a successful career and you have two young children – finding time for family must be a challenge. How can law firms and other employers support working parents?
There are many ways employers can make their people feel supported when they have kids. Obviously, it's important to have strong policies in place, so people are treated consistently across an organisation. Employers need to support their people to find the arrangements and balance between home and office that works for the individual. Different people have different priorities, whether it's taking kids to school, being home for bath time or working a condensed week. It is important to create an environment where people feel confident in expressing those preferences and trying to make them work. When my children were born, I benefitted from the firm's policy of shared parental leave for male and female staff. I was the first male partner in Asia to take this leave, twice in my first three years of partnership. I timed my leave so I could be home when my wife was returning to work. I think that was helpful for her and allowed me time to learn from my own mistakes, get to know our children and form my own views about how to care for them. It also helped us set up our new normal of being working parents and relying on lots of help to care for our children. It was a memorable time that I was lucky to have.
Where is your happy place?
On the snow!