Jessada Sawatdipong, joint managing partner of Thailand’s Chandler MHM, specialises in banking and finance – mainly project finance including cross-border energy and natural resources, infrastructure and real estate projects. Together with his fellow joint managing partner Chisako Takaya, Jessada leads a team of more than 90 lawyers who specialise in different practices including banking and project financing, corporate and M&A, energy and natural resources and government contracts..
Established as Chandler and Thong-ek Law Offices in 1974, the Thai firm integrated its practice with Japanese Big Four law firm Mori Hamada & Matsumoto to create Chandler MHM in January 2017. Jessada has been with the firm since 1988.
ALB: How would you describe your strategy for the firm?
Jessada: A key part of our strategy has been to grow our regional and international network to develop our cross-border offering. By integrating our practice with Mori Hamada & Matsumoto and developing strong relationships with other firms across Asia and internationally, we have been able to achieve this. Over the past three years, our strategy has also been to broaden existing practice areas and develop new areas to become a top tier full-service firm. We now have over 90 lawyers across a broad range of practice areas. Through selective lateral hires and internal promotions, we have also ensured that our offering is of a consistently high quality. We are also investing in training and internal systems to develop the way in which we operate as a legal service provider. We operate in a competitive fast-changing environment, therefore being responsive to changes in the market has to be part of our strategy. Our aim is to be a leading legal service provider in Thailand and an employer of choice.
ALB: What are some of the big challenges the firm has been facing in the past few months, and how are you looking to tackle them?
Jessada: The recent COVID-19 pandemic has clearly presented our clients and our firm with a number of significant challenges. We formed cross-office focus groups to address different issues. One group monitored regulatory changes, not only to ensure that we were up to date with the rapidly changing situation, but also so that we could update and advise our clients. When our clients face challenges, these are challenges for us too, as we need to advise our clients on how to address these. One notable example is the forthcoming rehabilitation of Thai Airways, in respect to which we act for a number of creditors. Most if not all clients will have been impacted in one way or another by the COVID-19 situation, in particular from the measures taken to prevent the spread of the virus, such as the closure of borders and the economic fallout. It has been important for us to listen and adapt to provide the support our clients need.
To ensure that there was no disruption to the support we provide for our clients, and to ensure the wellbeing of our employees we had to quickly change our working practices. This included ensuring that our lawyers and staff could work remotely and safely in the office.
ALB: How do you feel the pandemic will reshape not just the way your firm operates, but also the legal services industry in your jurisdiction?
Jessada: One notable change has been the greater use of technology with the holding of virtual meetings via Zoom being a well-known example. We can expect that there will be a greater use of remote working and virtual meeting technology. This presents challenges, as we need to ensure that these systems are secure and confidentiality is maintained. Larger firms such as ours are probably in a stronger position to respond to crisis such as COVID-19, as we are able to invest in the technology infrastructure. These types of situations also result in quite a significant change in the support required by clients. To respond to the needs of clients requires having significant capability across different practice areas. For example the economic fallout from the COVID-19 situation means unfortunately that there is more demand for advice on insolvency and dispute resolution. Clients themselves are seeking to adapt, for example, greater use of technology or diversification of risk. Solutions usually require a cross practice approach which larger firms are best place to offer.
ALB: How important is law firm culture, according to you? What kind of internal culture are you looking to foster?
Jessada: The culture of the firm is what distinguishes us from other firms. It is important that there is a shared understanding of our values within the firm. Many of our lawyers are from other international firms, so they bring with them both unique experience and different cultural understandings. We aim to have an environment which enables lawyers and staff from diverse backgrounds and cultures to work well with each other and support and learn from each other. Internally, it is important that employees respect each other and work well together to the best of their ability. Our aim is not just to provide a good working environment for our employees that enables them to thrive, but also one which best enables us to serve our clients.
Our clients also have unique backgrounds and experiences and are from different cultures. They would naturally expect that we understand them, their businesses and challenges, and work together internally as a team to the best of our ability to support them.
ALB: How would you describe your approach to technology? How has the use of tech at your firm evolved since you started at the helm, and what is your blueprint for the next year or two?
Jessada: Traditionally law firms would not have seen investment in technology as being critical to their business, however, this is rapidly changing. There are now many legal tools on the market, including those that use artificial intelligence. We have to be selective in our investment to ensure that the technology genuinely enables us to work more efficiently and deliver an improved service to clients. We have recently invested in developing our remote-working capability and technology that supports our back office. There is increasing expectations that law firms use new technology for communications although we have to be sure that these are secure. We also take a cautious approach with using social media as confidentiality is a key concern. Over the next year or two we will see continued investment in technology as part of the firms strategy to develop its internal processes to ultimately improve its service delivery to clients.
ALB: What are the keys to succeeding in this market for a firm or your size and focus? What are you currently doing well, and what are potential areas of improvement for you?
Jessada: We are a full-service firm with over 90 lawyers. Traditionally we have been known for banking and finance and energy and infrastructure, and that remains an important focus for us. However, over the past three years we have significantly increased the capacity of our other practice areas (including M&A, regulatory and dispute resolution) and added new practice areas (including capital markets, REITS, real estate and TMT) to ensure that we can genuinely provide a high quality full service offering to clients. The support required by clients is often cross practice so having the right level of capability across a number of practice areas is important. Making the right lateral hires and internal promotions, in addition to our integration of practice with Mori Hamada & Matsumoto have been the key factors for our successful growth over the past three years. We compete with other full service firms in the market which combine depth of local expertise with having an international network. There are only a few firms in the market such as ours which can handle the most complex domestic and cross-border deals. As with any service business ultimately our success does depend on listening to and understanding the needs of our clients. There will always be areas to improve, therefore investing in people and having a culture of continuous improvement is important.
ALB: How have clients’ requirements evolved in recent times (either generally or as a result of the pandemic), and how are you as a firm meeting them?
Jessada: It is to be expected that the requirements of clients change over time. Some recent trends in the Thai market include increasing outbound investment into Southeast Asia and internationally. Inbound investment remains strong. Traditionally Japan has been the top investor into Thailand and will remain so for some time. We are also seeing more investment from other countries, in particular China. Increasing cross-border deals means that we have had to develop our regional network in particular. As Thailand’s economy has matured the sophistication of deals has increased and new areas of work have emerged, for example in the capital markets and technology sectors. There is increasing need for regulatory and compliance advice for example anti-trust and data protection. We have specialist lawyers advising on these areas. As our clients develop and improve their products and services, they naturally expect us to do the same as a service provider. In addition to investing in developing the capability of our firm we are investing in training and new technology to improve the quality of our service overall. This includes looking at how we organise ourselves to deliver legal services to ensure we are competitive with both legal and non-legal service providers.
ALB: Where would you like to see the firm five years from now?
Jessada: Overall in five years’ time I would expect Chandler MHM to be recognized as one of the top tier law firms in the Thai market in terms of the quality of our full-service offering and a leading firm within Southeast Asia. I expect the firm to continue to grow and develop our capability over the next five years. In particular, we have a number of counsels and junior partners, our new generation, who I anticipate will become more senior members of the firm over the next five years. It is important that the next generation become the leaders of the firm in the future. My goal is for Chandler MHM to be not only the “go to” choice for clients but also as an employer as well.
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