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The Singapore Law Gazette

32nd LAWASIA Conference: Harmonisation through Synergy

Stephanie de Souza was one of the recipients of the Law Society’s sponsorship for young lawyers to attend overseas conferences. As part of the sponsorship, the recipient must submit a paper on the conference that he or she attended.

Sitting in the massive ballroom at the JW Marriott Hotel, I could not help but feel overwhelmed at the situation. There I was, barely a few years into practice, surrounded by so many experienced professionals in the legal industry, the shiny badges hung around their necks revealing the varied jurisdictions from which they hailed. To calm my uneasiness, I kept my eyes on the tagline of the conference which had been displayed boldly on the banner onstage.

Opening Ceremony at the 32nd LAWASIA Conference Opening Ceremony of the 32nd LAWASIA Conference

“Harmonisation through Synergy”. It seemed like a phrase merely thrown together using the most popular catchwords of the time. Furthermore, seeing the word “harmonisation” in Hong Kong right now appeared at best an unintended taunt and at worst a cruel irony.

Indeed, as the conference forged ahead, it was almost impossible to ignore the fact that crowds of protestors would gather at short notice around the city to continue their cries and demands of a better future. The President of the Law Society of Hong Kong, Ms Melissa Pang, put it very succinctly – if the Hong Kong people had a defining ethology, it would be the rule of law. And putting politics aside, it was truly the case that both sides of the fence constantly demanded that the other remember that absolutely no one was above legal repercussion.

The then-President of LAWASIA, Mr Christopher Leong, reiterated the principle objective of LAWASIA – there must always be promotion of justice and the rule of law for all. And with that, it became clear to me that although it was rather incongruous to be discussing rules and structure at such a chaotic time in Hong Kong’s history, it made utmost sense that the direction of the conference would continuously bring us back to consider our fundamental rights and freedoms. Ultimately, what people wanted was security. In their countries, in their lives, and in their futures. What would always prevail would be the rule of law.

The beautiful Hong Kong Skyline The beautiful Hong Kong Skyline

Break-out Sessions

There were 22 break-out sessions in which the latest developments in specific areas of legal practice were discussed by distinguished panellists.

Leniency Applications and the Fight Against Cartels

The discussion on antitrust and competition law focused, quite interestingly, on leniency applications, the point of them, and how they might be enforced through multiple jurisdictions. Ms Vena Cheng, a Senior Consultant at Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld in Hong Kong, shrewdly pointed out a reason for the decline in leniency applications in various jurisdictions was likely due to the sharp discrepancies in the rules for obtaining information between jurisdictions. She highlighted the example of the People’s Republic of China having very strict laws on data exportation. Due to the fact that companies are required to submit all data export requests to the Chinese government before such data may be released to the requesting jurisdiction, these companies face the challenge of being forced to refuse to provide such information, which in turn would risk them not obtaining the full immunity otherwise promised through a successful leniency application.

Other panellists also highlighted the moral dilemmas of submitting such leniency applications and being known as a “snitch” in the community versus the ever-tightening sanctions, involving both monetary sanction and possible imprisonment for company officers, in many jurisdictions.

However, there remained a definite consensus that the fight against cartels, whether local, regional, or global, should remain competition law’s top priority. If cartels were allowed more reign, the dire consequence to consumers and society at large would be unquantifiable. There could only be effective enforcement of antitrust laws if there was good coordination between domestic jurisdictions.

The view of the HKCEC from the other side of the river The view of the HKCEC from the other side of the river

GDPR and How it Affects the Rest of Us

Another area of great interest was in data protection. This has been an area of law that required exponential leaps of regulations in just the last decade alone. Panellists discussed the effect of the recent GDPR that came into force in May 2018 and how it would apply to the vast majority of jurisdictions that were represented at the conference, being that these said jurisdictions were likely not part of the European Union (EU) or European Economic Area (EEA).

The GDPR is clearly one of the more recent pieces of legislation that has massive global repercussions. This is because, besides the countries in which it has direct application, any other party that provides good and/or services to anyone in the affected countries or collects data from anyone in the affected countries is required to abide by the GDPR as well. Panellists took turns discussing what companies and businesses ought to do to ensure that they did not accidentally or otherwise fall foul of the regulations. Niten Chauhan, Partner at JPC Law in London, in particular drew attention to the risks of non-compliance with the GDPR, including a fine of up to 20 million Euros, or four per cent of the undertaking’s total worldwide annual turnover, whichever was the higher.

A group of people holding wine glasses Mingling with delegates from China

Sexual Harassment and Discrimination in the Workplace

As the day progressed, the sessions I attended were less “commercial” in nature and grew more “human”. I sat in a discussion on employment law where the focus was on sexual harassment in the workplace and how companies and jurisdictions could create policies to better protect both genders at work.

As panellists discussed the emergence of the #MeToo movement propagated by the Harvey Weinstein scandal, it brought to my mind the incident our own legal industry faced not all that long ago where it was found that certain complaints of sexual harassment made by female practitioners were not taken as seriously by their respective firms as they ought to have been.

Kathryn Weaver, Head of Lewis Silkin’s Hong Kong SAR office then brought up a slide comparing discrimination laws across the Asia-Pacific. A quick glance at the slide showed very unfortunately that Singapore had one of the poorest protections against discrimination amongst our neighbours in Asia. While there were laws in place to protect discrimination against race, religion, and political belief, the same could not be said for gender, disability, age, and sexual orientation. Even countries with less developed economies than ours such as Vietnam and Thailand had a more comprehensive cover of laws against discrimination.

It would probably take an entirely new article to highlight the discrepancy between Singapore’s fast-advancing economy and their civil and social right movement that is still far lagging. Yet, I remained hopeful that international legal conferences like these, with the sharing of ideas across the globe, will spark further debates on our local social rights at least among members of our bar and our judiciary who attend.

Restructuring Involving Entities with Multi-National Presence

The insolvency panel was particularly riveting as the panel included not one but three honoured judges. I was both pleased and excited to see our very own Justice Vinodh Coomaraswamy who had graciously taken time to fly to Hong Kong to give us his take on the latest changes in Singapore’s insolvency legislation. I also had the honour of having a short chat with him after the session.

A group of people sitting in front of a screen

Discussion on Cross-Border Insolvency

Tim D Castle, panel moderator and well-respected barrister in Australia, posited a case study of a company with international footprints and questioned his fellow panellists on the law of restructuring in their own respective jurisdictions. As the speakers came from Singapore, Hong Kong, and Australia (all three having common law systems and had evolved their laws from the United Kingdom), it was quite an insight to note both the similarities and differences in dealing with an insolvent company in these countries. For example, HK’s version of a scheme of arrangement with creditors was non-statutory, as opposed to Singapore’s scheme of arrangement which is provided and regulated through the Companies Act (and soon, the Insolvency, Restructuring, and Dissolution Act). As another note of interest, Australia’s system of administration did not give an automatic stay against any appointment of receivers by creditors who refuse to take part in the administration.

Young Lawyers and Their Role in the Legal Fraternity

As a member of the Young Lawyers’ Committee in both our Law Society and LAWASIA, I had great intrigue in this part of the conference and took the opportunity to speak to many peers sharing five years or less of work experience. It was an eye-opener exchanging stories of being junior lawyers in jurisdictions across the globe.

A group of people standing in front of a crowd posing for the camera

Members of the LAWASIA Young Lawyers Committee

It was a known fact that technology and artificial intelligence (AI) had advanced leaps and bounds in the last few years. It is further known that many occupations that used to have a stable position in this world have now been rendered obsolete. These two factors coupled together sensibly mean that law firms have a mammoth task of making technology their friend, and not their foe. However, during the talk on young lawyers, panellists agreed that many law firms were still slow to adapt to using legal technology to enhance business practices. Discussions were had on how young lawyers could be the driving force in the implementation of new technologies in law firms.

Lawyers from South Korea, Malaysia, and Hong Kong discussed the ways law firms in their respective countries approached legal technology and its varied uses. The panellists also noted the different ways lawyers who were part of the Millennial and Gen Z generations practised as compared to their peers in Gen X. Associate Lee Soonsung from Yoon LLC in South Korea highlighted how AI was slowly making a lot of traditional legal grunt work such as research, filing, and cataloguing documents obsolete. This phenomenon saw a shift in the typical duties of a young associate and their contributions to the firm in ways that were unheard of just a few decades ago. For example, some young associates now have the responsibility of managing data and research collected from varied sources and to package them in a readable and digestible manner, whether it be for their partner, or for the client.

I shared with some junior associates I met from Japan and South Korea the current position in Singapore regarding legal technology and how our Law Society had numerous initiatives encouraging local law firms to increase their adoption of AI and technology to help them streamline areas of practice. However, I also noted my own experiences of hesitation and push back involving the introduction of technology where the feedback given was that “things are fine the way they are”.

One thing was certain – technology will continue to move on, with or without us. Millennials and Gen Z lawyers, having likely been around AI during their formative years, will be crucial in helping to bring their firms up to speed in how to increase productivity and shift firm focuses with legal tech. Those that refuse to change their mindsets might want to take heed of the cautionary tales of beepers and video stores.

A Life-changing Experience

As clichéd as it is, attending the LAWASIA conference exceeded all expectations of the experience I thought I would get. Being a junior associate in a local law firm made me used to the concept of a legal hierarchy and the clear distinctions between how junior associates and senior partners were expected to be treated. At the conference, although titles and job roles were thrown about over dinners and random conversations at tea-break, everyone was a peer and a friend, and frank questions about politics, legal systems, and work experiences could be discussed openly with little barriers in place.

I started this article describing my first impressions of being in such an intimidating environment. By the end of the third day, it was difficult to walk into the conference hall without exchanging pleasantries with at least one newly made friend.

A group of people sitting in front of a crowd

Inspirational Women in Law practising in Hong Kong, Sri Lanka, and the United States

Even with the Hong Kong protests and growing unrest around us, the kind hospitality we got from the local people and the networks and laughs forged over copious drinks and delicious food would be unforgettable for a long time.

I am genuinely grateful for the Law Society for sending me to Hong Kong as part of their sponsorship of young lawyers to overseas conferences. Attending this at such a pivotal part of my own career truly opened my eyes to how vast, yet close-knit, the global legal fraternity was. I encourage all young lawyers (actually, all lawyers) to search for opportunities to step out of their comfort zones and see how else their own legal careers may grow and develop.

Member, Young Lawyers Committee
Recipient of YLC Sponsorship Scheme