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Jerry Koh: We need to prepare our lawyers for the future

Allen & Gledhill’s joint managing partner on juggling fee-earning with management, the impact of technology on conventional markets, and the lessons learnt from the Covid-19 pandemic

How would you define the culture of Allen & Gledhill and how important is that culture to you? 

Allen & Gledhill (A&G) is one big close-knitted family and our people are the critical ingredient to the success of our firm. We are inclusive and as a family, unity is important. We take pride in our work and look out for one another. The relationships with our staff, partners and clients remain at the core of our business. With a full suite of legal practices across our presence in Southeast Asia – namely Singapore, Malaysia, Myanmar, and Indonesia, we are a dynamic collective and strive to be the legal centre of excellence to support our clients globally. 

In addition, the A&G culture also places a premium on integrity and honesty. Collectively, these values have formed our culture and sustained the success of the firm for the past 118 years and will continue to do so into the future. We have been very encouraged that A&G continues to maintain our pole position in Singapore with the highest number of Tier 1 practice rankings and lawyers listed as Leading Individuals in Singapore by The Legal 500. 

How is the role of managing partner shared between yourself and Lee Kim Shin? 

Kim Shin has been managing partner for the last eight years and brings a wealth of experience. Prior to being joint managing partner with him, I have been deputy managing partner for the past three years. Both of us have worked very closely together throughout all these years and he has exposed me to every part of the business. We consult each other frequently and manage the business together to deliver the best service to our clients. 

The journey so far has been exciting, busy, but fulfilling. Over the last few years, I have been actively involved in the core of the business with Kim Shin and managing the firm together. My focus has been the development of our regional strategy and business development efforts, as well as working closely with the various practice groups in the firm to drive performance. 

How much client-facing work do you still undertake and how do you juggle your leadership responsibilities with fee-earning? 

Client-facing work energises me! It is what keeps me on my toes. My main areas of practice are capital markets, M&A, and investment funds, and I head our firm’s REITs practice. In Singapore and the greater Asia region, REITs, M&A, and fund raising have been rife and that is what has kept my team and me very busy. I am still very much hands-on with transactions and I meet with clients as much as possible to discuss, propose solutions, and negotiate documents. 

I work together with my fellow partners and associates as a team and we play to our strengths. Where possible, I will delegate work to my lawyers and empower them to carry out various tasks but with close guidance and oversight from me. I hope to create an environment where our lawyers can step up, take on the challenge and take ownership of their work. I strongly believe that leadership includes enabling others to do more. 

What interesting trends have you noticed in the market of late? 

First, I see connectivity as a key trend that will feature prominently. Its importance has been demonstrated in the present Covid-19 pandemic where we can witness just how interconnected the world is and how that has exacerbated the spread of the virus. Ultimately, global coordination and scientific collaboration among countries are crucial for helping us defeat Covid-19, and I foresee this collaboration extends to areas of trade and business post-Covid-19, giving rise to greater opportunities for lawyers. 

Second, I see innovation and the use of technology impacting conventional capital markets and M&A in terms of creating greater efficiency and enhancing the delivery of results. 

Third, I see sustainability affecting how we conduct business going forward. Sustainable finance has increased by 46% in 2019, with green deals making up approximately $460bn in value. In the same year, the Monetary Authority of Singapore also announced a $2bn Green Investments Programme to support global green finance initiatives. Green bonds are just one example of sustainable investment products and I foresee there are more to come as businesses adjust their priorities and objectives to achieve sustainability and survivability for the long term. 

Since becoming managing partner, what (if anything) has surprised you most within Allen & Gledhill and/or externally in the wider legal market? 

At A&G, there are many overachievers and exceptional people across our departments and practice groups. These people often require a different level of care and handling and I also need to help them see the importance of working together in teams rather than individually. On the other end of the spectrum, there are also some that I need to inspire and motivate to help them realise their potential. These interactions have proven to be an enriching learning journey for myself. Ultimately, careful people development and job enrichment are vital to ensure that our lawyers are set up for success. 

What’s the main change you’ve directly been involved in that has or will benefit your clients and staff? 

I am glad that our regionalisation efforts which I have spearheaded are coming to fruition. Currently, we have a presence in Singapore, Malaysia, Myanmar, and Indonesia. Next, we are looking at potentially Vietnam and beyond. On the business development side of things, I am also reviewing our strategy by harnessing the expertise of our various practices to see how we can engage our clients deeper, while at the same time understand what improvements and measures can be implemented within our firm. 

A recent project I have initiated is the firm-wide ‘Innovation Challenge 2020’. Our staff are encouraged to adopt an innovative mindset to think about the change we want to see in the firm, be it internally or through our work with our clients. After all, it is usually in the most mundane of things which require practical solutions that sparks innovation. Take, for example, the innovation of instant noodles. The idea of flash drying noodles to give them a longer shelf life, came to Momofuku Ando, the founder of Nissin instant noodles, during a time of need with Japan suffering from a shortage of food in the post-war era. My goal is to engage all our staff, who are our key internal stakeholders, to have a sense of ownership with their contribution, through this challenge. We have received very positive responses. 

Separately, in dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic, together with my team of business leaders, a task force was promptly set up to tackle with the crisis and we had to draw up a business continuity plan. Besides looking into the work from home arrangement for our staff, we have also assembled a separate cross-disciplinary Covid-19 Resource Centre and Legal Task Force to provide legal assistance for our clients. Our firm was one of the first organisations to have started implementing our business continuity plan, even before the World Health Organisation declared Covid-19 as a pandemic. Initially, some thought we might have been overly cautious and kiasu (a Singaporean colloquial term for ‘scared to lose’)! Our efforts were not for nought. Recently, our firm was recognised by one of Singapore’s Ministers in Parliament and we were applauded for our foresight and crisis readiness. 

I really hope that this relationship of collaborative work and communication amongst our staff and our clients continues and allows for a culture of openness that fosters deeper relationships. 

How has the recent outbreak of coronavirus affected the firm and its clients? 

The Covid-19 pandemic has definitely affected the way we work and interact within A&G and with our clients. Calls, tele, and video conferencing have become essential in our work, and enables our business to function. However, herein lies the opportunity to showcase our creativity and innovation in the legal profession. 

We have started weekly teleconferencing check-ins across different departments and practice groups to ensure the wellbeing of our staff. With our clients, we have also separately reached out to them through webinars, emails, calls, WhatsApp, and Zoom. Deliberate efforts are made to ensure constant communication with our staff and clients. During crises, leadership needs to step up and over-communicate to ensure the message reaches everyone and no one is left behind. 

What have you learnt from this crisis, both professionally and personally? 

I have learnt that communication, resilience, and innovation go a long way in dealing with a crisis. Innovation at its core is to find the most effective ways to solve problems. The Covid-19 crisis has shown me these attributes. We were one of the first organisations in Singapore to implement our business continuity plan and at the time, there were not many guidelines or procedures to follow. Managing a large firm is not easy and this requires understanding of the different needs of the departments, practice groups, and staff. We had to create and implement a business continuity plan from scratch and set the plan in motion, in the quickest time possible. The safety and wellbeing of our staff is paramount and we had to communicate effectively and act swiftly. 

For our clients, the establishment of our Covid-19 Resource Centre online and a cross-disciplinary Legal Task Force to address their concerns pertaining to the legal impact of Covid-19 on their businesses was a great help to them. It was heartening to receive the positive feedback from our clients. 

Aside from the pandemic, what do you believe are the biggest challenges facing firms across Asia Pacific? 

The biggest challenge for firms across Asia Pacific is to stay relevant to our clients, understand their needs and help them achieve their long-term business goals and aspirations. Further, not only do we have to help our clients build stronger businesses, these businesses have to be sustainable. As we move towards a digital economy, I believe there would be greater challenges and threats around cybersecurity and digital infrastructure that legal firms and our clients will need to address together. 

What are your predictions for the Singapore legal market over the next 12 months? 

Overall, I think Singapore will bounce back strongly and be even more relevant to the global economy, especially given that we have been praised on the international stage as an exemplary role model in handling the crisis. The Singapore legal market will also recover in tandem as they have been proactive in responding to the Covid-19 situation. What is encouraging is that many lawyers are now more adaptable to a work from home arrangement and more agile in how they respond to problems. Moreover, having a proactive and responsive government that Singapore is known for, will also help in the recovery of the Singapore legal market. 

What have you found is the best way to recruit and retain talent – both at partner and associate levels? 

Personally, the best way to retain talent is to make our people feel valued and to present and excite them with interesting challenges, personal growth, and a life-long learning experience. I also believe it is important to create a conducive work environment by providing our lawyers with open communication channels, mentorship, and training opportunities to develop as professionals. 

What advice would you give to the next generation of partners and law firm leaders? 

‘Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.’ For A&G, this means preparing all of our lawyers for the future with the right skills, mindset, and experiences. Listen to your clients and keep a close watch on what is affecting them and what matters to them most. The Covid-19 pandemic has also shown that we need to always be ready for a black swan event. 

Finally, we need to be thankful to the people who have supported us and helped us get to where we are, and express our appreciation to them. As partners and law firm leaders, gratitude, kindness, and appreciation should be our guiding principles. 

What do you think lawyers, generally, need to be better at? 

Technology has now come to the forefront of global business operations. Bloomberg’s annual Innovation Index 2020 has rated Singapore as the third most innovative country and as a lawyer who is managing a top regional firm which work closely with global clients, I feel that there is much that we can improve on in this front. 

Personally, as lawyers, we need to ready ourselves to take on the emerging digital economy by adjusting our mindset and get up to speed with technology and innovation. As a start, we could work on defining the problem that we face in our daily work, review the current processes and then find the ‘best fit’ technology to be applied to solve the problem. By adopting this thought process, I believe both technology and innovation can be embraced further across all aspects of the legal profession. We need to be technology-first in our business, much like in our personal lives. Asia has one of the highest mobile penetration rates in the world and we also do have a population which high in technological literacy. As business leaders and lawyers, we definitely can be more technology-minded. 

Finally, what’s been your greatest achievement to date? 

Achievements have a very different meaning to different people and to me, it is less about individual accomplishments but rather, on doing intrinsic good by making a positive impact and difference to the lives of the people around me. My priorities in life are my faith which gives me strength and guidance, my family, whose love and support that I cherish and my work that I enjoy immensely.

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