Global first

Global first

First Asian chair of the international law firm Baker McKenzie is testament to the firm's long-held belief in diversity.

Baker McKenzie's Milton Cheng
Baker McKenzie's Milton Cheng

In 1990, King's College law student Milton Cheng joined Baker McKenzie in London, believing that the international law firm was the only one in those days that had a clear plan to invest in Asian talent.

"The plan was for me to train in London. Then go back to Singapore to help them grow the business there," the Singaporean, now 54, recalls in a conversation with Asia Focus. "Since the beginning, I wanted to go back to Asia. My parents were in Asia so I have to look after them."

With a clear mission in mind, he made inquiries among all the big names in the UK business world and found out that Baker & McKenzie, as the US-headquartered firm was known then, was the only one that could fulfill his desire.

"There were a lot of offices of English firms. I told all of them that I'm Singaporean and I wanted to go back and work in Singapore. 'Will you open an office in Singapore?' I asked them, and all of them said they had no such plan. Only one firm, Baker McKenzie, said we are looking for people like you. We train you and we send you back to help us grow. So I joined them."

He first joined Baker on a summer internship programme and worked in London for few months. Then the opportunity came up in Hong Kong where the firm was starting to attract a lot of new business, thanks to the increase of foreign direct investment to China. He was given the opportunity to go to China for a two-year attachment, after which the plan was to go back to Singapore.

"Our Hong Kong office, which is very strong, just did the first IPO (initial public offering) for Tsingtao Brewery," he recalls. "That was a big IPO for a state-owned company. We worked on that when the capital market was about to boom.

"At that time, the Hong Kong office was bigger and more developed but I've never made it back (to Singapore). So I'm now in the 27th year of my two-year attachment."

Nearly three decades after the young Singaporean joined, Baker's strategy of developing Asian talent has culminated in his appointment as its first Asian global chair, and the first Asian to head any international law firm globally. His appointment came after the death in April of Paul Rawlinson, who was the first Briton to lead Baker. A Colombian executive served briefly as interim CEO before Mr Cheng's four-year term began in October.

"One of course, I'm very proud," Mr Cheng says of the achievement that has led him to the pinnacle of one of the world's Big Four law firms.

"I'm very honoured and proud to be the first Asian chair," he says, followed with a pause. "I'm proud for myself, proud to be from the region," he adds, before turning quiet as he reflects on the significance.

"It takes such a special firm with our type of philosophy to give the kind of opportunity that I've been given. I honestly cannot think of any other firm in the law or professional services area that gives such opportunities.


"The second thing I would like to say is I'm not a fluke," he continues. "I may be the first Asian global chair but I'm just the latest in a very strong tradition.

"I'm a Singaporean and a Hong Konger who took over (the position) from a guy from Colombia who took over the first chair from Britain, who took over the first chair from Brazil, who took over from a chair from America, who took over from the first chair from France, who was also at that time the first woman [to chair] any international law firm, Christine Lagarde."

Now the president of the European Central Bank (ECB) and the only woman to become finance minister of a G8 economy, Ms Lagarde led Baker from October 1999 until 2004.

"If you look at this, there is no firm that has this kind if track record. French woman, American man, first Briton, first Colombian, now first Singaporean/Hong Konger. Could you tell me which firm has that? That's why I say I'm not a fluke and that there will be more like me," he says.

Coming from a modest family background, Mr Cheng feels privileged that he and his two sisters were sent to study abroad. And even though he came from a STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) background, he chose to study law in London to prepare himself for the future.

"My father always wanted to give us the opportunity to study and he gave me the opportunity to study overseas and choose what I want to do," he says. "I like to chat a lot. I used to do debating when I was younger. So I thought law would be an interesting starting point for a career even if I go on to do other things. You have a good foundation to think analytically, communicate clearly and try to find solutions for problems."

Altogether, he lived in London for seven years and learned about global multinational culture. "That was the time I was a boy becoming a man. That was an interesting time also that Margaret Thatcher became the (first female) prime minister (of the UK). That was in the mid-1980s. It was time of change in Britain so I was excited to there. She was also the first woman to be Conservative Party leader.


At Baker McKenzie, with operates 77 offices in 46 countries, local talents are trained in offices where there is more experience to help them understand the global mindset in order to serve clients better, says Mr Cheng.

"We bring a global mindset to our strategy and we have been doing that since the '40s and '50s," he points out. "Even though you have expats initially, the local offices are run by people on the ground. The head of our Singapore office is Singaporean. Thailand's head is a Thai, Malaysia's head is a Malaysian, and Indonesia's head is an Indonesian. It's all because that is our culture.

"To me, that makes us a truly global law firm. It's because our leadership, our senior partners are from all over the world. Our leadership -- our equity partners, our management, boards and all that are from all over the world."

Other firms, he says, normally have key people in one office and most of the decisions are made by the global headquarters.

"The diversity is a real big strength for us because everywhere you go, your perspective is different.

Building on the work of his predecessors, Mr Cheng says Baker's purpose is to help clients mitigate the impacts of a world that has become increasingly complex.

"Our firm's vision -- as a global law firm -- is to help our clients, help simplify a complex world them and help them clients navigate that world, and also to work with our clients to serve our global community better," he says.

"That's our purpose. To get there, we have make sure that we develop client programmes in the way that is best for our clients so they can get the best out of Baker McKenzie. What that means is that making sure that our clients' relationship partner is trained to help them with their issues when they grow, to quarterback. We make sure our partners in the investment destination understand how the Chinese, Americans, British, Germans, or French think. So we work as one team globally."

The world, he says, has changed significantly in the past three years with many things evolving. "The world context, particularly geopolitics, is completely different today. What does it mean for us? Because of our fantastic spread, geography and practice, we have both challenges and opportunities when trade flows change."

"There's a familiar Chinese saying that the water always finds a way to flow to the sea. So just because the US and China have tension and maybe trade will be done differently or less than before, [it] doesn't mean that trade will stop. What it means that the flow goes to somewhere else, maybe US-Southeast Asia or US-Latin America.

"And our firm, if we get organised properly, will be able to serve our clients, work with them properly. We will be fantastically positioned to help even when the trade war changes things. Focus only on one country, or one market, the opportunity is lessened."

Mr Cheng's comments on trade reflect the fact that Baker McKenzie always takes a long-term view of everything.

"In my past 27 years in Asia, we have seen the Asian financial crisis, Sars, bird flu, and before that the problem at Tiananmen and all that. Baker always has a long-term view and every time there was a problem, we came out stronger. Every time we take a long-term view of investment, we don't mind being down a little bit. We write it off and we always come back stronger."

In addition to diversity of headcount, the firm's global board also comprises various nationalities, he explains.

"Our global board right now consists of eight of us. I'm from Singapore and Hong Kong. From Europe, we have a German lady, a gentleman from Spain. From Asia we have a lady from Singapore who is our chair. We have a gentleman from Taiwan. And we have two gentlemen from America.

"There are very few global firms with a global board as diverse as that. That's different. It's the mix of Asians that we have," says Mr Cheng. "We support all type of diversity: gender, vicinity, sexual preferences or social mobility."

The overriding philosophy is that everybody can succeed at Baker McKenzie. "The simple philosophy that I have and we have as a firm, is that everybody has a place. Everybody has a voice. I have one testament to that for my own journey, but I look around at my friends in Asia, Latin America and Eastern Europe -- there are many testaments at Baker McKenzie from people like me.

"The fact is that at Baker McKenzie, we never have a one size fits all. That's a merit. That's why I say everybody can succeed no matter where you are from if you have the ability and determination. It doesn't matter where you are from … Singapore, Hong Kong, Chicago, Bogota. From anywhere you can succeed."


To be a successful lawyer and leader, Mr Cheng says one needs to be good at speaking and persuading people. IT starts with being a good listener.

"If you get a good lawyer, you can rely on him or her and trust them," he says. "For us, being a lawyer is not just about telling people what to do but about understanding the client, being honest with ourselves so we can give the right counsel, not only advice, but legal counsel.

"Yes I like to speak and I can speak quite well. But also I like to listen. I spend the time, whether in China, Thailand or elsewhere because we are such a strong team. They are very strong in their own right. I spend a lot of time listening. I think listening is a very important skill for a law firm leader. Being humble and respectful are also very important."

Having a continuing learning mindset is also important, he says. "I have had incredible teachers and mentors along the way. I'm still learning as I go, even now with my present role, I'm both teaching and also leaning.

"Now I learn from other business leaders that I interact with, everybody I meet with from different companies, different industries. So you have to have listening skills and respect."

A law firm based on partnership, he says, is different from other corporate entities where the CEO makes a decision and others follow. "For us, it's a partnership. So the best way to get the best out of my partners is to have honest conversations with them and act with integrity.

"Integrity is meaning what you say and saying what you mean. Those are the principles I work with, the principles that I have taught and have been taught by my mentors over the years."

Mr Cheng's two teenaged children are now studying in the United States while his Singaporean wife, a former lawyer, stays with him in Hong Kong. "I travel quite a bit but my base is still Asia, in Hong Kong. Most people in Baker McKenzie are used to doing Skype, emails or conference calls because we are truly global," he says.

"You can work anywhere but also you have to be disciplined to keep your down time," he continues. "You need hobbies and your own interests. Being connected to the cloud with colleagues, if you have discipline, it can be very helpful. But if it consumes you, you could be burned out.

"So one of the pieces of advice we give to our partners is that you need to have balance in your lifestyle as well because it is important for the firm and for me that I sustain my energy for my whole tenure and my leadership. Working very hard in one year and then burning out, that doesn't help the company and doesn't help me either."

His balanced life means he has enough quality time with the family. "I try to make sure that even though I will be busy in the next four years, I will make sure that I spend enough time with my children before they grow up. And they are growing very fast," he says with a laugh.

Hiking, playing golf or just relaxing with family and friends are all part of having balance in life. And that is something he wants to show to his colleagues too.

"I have always thought this is very important, even before I became the chair, when I was looking after a lot of business in Asia," he says. "I'm a role model. If I can show with my own lifestyle that you need to have balance in your life in order to have a long-term plan, my team and colleagues, who sometimes are too stressed, they will know that it's okay to have a balance too. Then we support them to work more flexibly because we care and we are friends with each other.

"We want to do this for the long term. So If I do this myself, I show them hopefully as a role model that you too can succeed if you have balance in your life."

At the same time, of course, Mr Cheng wants to show his colleagues and others in this complex world that Baker, under his leadership, can continue its prosperity, especially in Asia.

"Of course, I feel responsibility and pressure but I also feel privileged because this is the opportunity," he says. "I need to do well so everyone can see Baker can succeed under their Asian chair."

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