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Hong Kong firm Oldham, Li & Nie (OLN) celebrates its 30th anniversary this month. John Kang talks to founding partner Gordon Oldham about his firm’s biggest growth, achievements and challenges in the past three decades.
ALB: What have been some of the most significant achievements for Oldham, Li & Nie?
Oldham: From my point of view, our most important achievement is reaching the point where we are now able to attract high calibre partners and associates to help grow the firm and widen our business base. The light bulb moment came when we realised that to grow, we had to upgrade the skills of our people. They say A-Grade people hire up, B-Grade people hire C-Grade people and C-Grade people don’t hire at all! We put this into practice and have attracted local and international talent who felt being a small cog in a big wheel, undertaking the 16-hour days, at large law firms wasn’t for them. Creating opportunities and an environment for capable people who want to shine in their own right has been very important to our business strategy.
ALB: In which practice areas are you seeing the biggest growth, and what has been driving it?
Oldham: We are mostly a business-centric firm and, of course, the key to such is a deep knowledge of accounting and finance. Being Hong Kong based, a lot of our work involves overseas and cross-border business transactions. Because of this, we created a tax department where our partners and associates are dual-qualified in both law and accounting. Indeed, tax and business advisory as well as our digital business group are driven by our focus on business related matters. Although, curiously enough we are also seeing continued growth in our matrimonial department given the financial implications of divorcing!
Needless to say, the untiring ability of tax authorities around the world to make tax more and more complicated has increased the need for familiarity with international tax regimes. Furthermore, the increase in business transactions undertaken digitally has dictated that we seize opportunities ahead of the curve. The advent of Bitcoin, ICOs and other digital exotica means we have to be in a constant learning mode and anticipate what is coming next.
ALB: What were some of the biggest challenges for OLN?
Oldham: The biggest challenge for most businesses is the transition from an entrepreneur-led enterprise to a fully-fledged business. OLN has brought in human resources managers who introduce skill sets – people managing – that lawyers aren’t necessarily always gifted with! In addition, having someone acting as the CEO, dedicated to the development of the firm as a business, has been hugely significant for us. It is surprising the number of firms that believe they can grow without the specific skill sets that one finds in a business development manager, human resources manager and CEO.
ALB: How has the Hong Kong legal market evolved in the past three decades, and how did OLN adapt?
Oldham: In common with business in general, the internet has democratized the Hong Kong legal market and taken away a lot of the issues that was previously associated with it.
We adopted a long time ago, not necessarily refined but certainly applicable mantra “Practical Legal Solutions - On Time - No Excuses”. The emphasis has always been on providing practical solutions that understand and address the clients’ needs. This practical approach arose from actually listening and adapting to our clients’ requirements!
ALB: What’s next for OLN? What are you most optimistic and not optimistic about?
Oldham: What I am optimistic and excited about is our ability to thrive and grow. We will continue to pursue the OLN business strategy of establishing business groups that cater for companies involved in both local and international business and providing these clients with tailored, practical and above all results oriented business solutions.
What I’m not optimistic about is that dispute resolution in Hong Kong seems to be getting slower and slower. Our Judiciary are amongst the finest in the world yet the support that they seem to be getting from the underlying government authorities seems to be sadly lacking. One of Hong Kong’s greatest claims is its adherence to the rule of law and the way that justice is dispensed within a timely and relevant manner. However it’s now embarrassing to say to a client that notwithstanding the fact that they have all of the merits of the case, it may be two or three years before it comes to a trial. It’s not just a question of increasing the number of judges, it’s giving judges more administrative support. Justice delayed is justice denied.
It was all smiles on Saturday at the annual Action Asia Kayak 'n' Run event with many children from Hong Chi Winifred Mary Cheung Morninghope School being excited to be taken out on a kayak course with experienced instructors for short little races around Deep Water Bay. They all thoroughly enjoyed the outdoor experience and the rare taste of nature, before enjoying lunch at a nearby restaurant. OLN has supported Action Asia for many years and thank you to those that volunteered on the day.
You might not have paid recent attention to the privacy rules in Hong Kong. That is unless of course you have been served with an enforcement notice by the Hong Kong Privacy Commissioner for Personal Data (the “Commissioner”), or you have failed to comply with such an enforcement notice. Section 50B of the Personal Data (Privacy) Ordinance (“PDPO”) came into force on 1 October 2012, but it seems that the Hong Kong Police and Courts have only recently started to take this section seriously.
The PDPO came into force in 1996, but it was only in 2014, the first individual received a jail sentence for breach of section 50B(1)(c)(i) of PDPO. That was as a result of making a false statement to the Commissioner.
30th June 2017, was the first time that a company director was convicted his offence being the failure to comply with a lawful requirement of the Commissioner in breaching section 50B(1)(b) of PDPO.
In that case, a complaint was lodged with the Commissioner’s office against an employment agency in which had allegedly transferred personal data to a third party, without consent, while the employment agency was assisting the complainant in recruiting a foreign domestic helper.
Despite repeated written and telephone requests for the information needed to enable there to a proper investigation of the complaint, the employment agency failed to respond.
The sole director of the employment agency even ignored a Summons issued by the Commissioner under section 44 of PDPO requiring him to attend at a specified date and time for examination. The case was then referred by the Commissioner’s office to the Hong Kong Police, which then led to the prosecution.
Both those decisions show that the Commissioner is recommending more cases for prosecution.
Indeed, the Commissioner has recently stated ‘The conviction serves as a strong deterrent to remind all organisations and individuals to abide by the law and treat personal data privacy seriously.’
Apart from noting the importance of compliance with lawful requirement of the Commissioner, one should also be reminded that full co-operation is crucial, as any obstruction, hinderance or resistance, without lawful excuse, to the Commissioner or a prescribed officer in performing their functions may also result in a conviction, and in imprisonment (section 50B(1)(a) of PDPO).
OLN’s Digital Business Group regularly advises clients on the impact of data privacy legislation in Hong Kong.