Andrew Powner, who is the managing partner of Hong Kong’s Haldanes, has been with the firm since 1993. He specialises in criminal defence, including financial crime, for corporations and individuals in Hong Kong and abroad, securities (SFC/SEHK/HKMA) and regulatory work, judicial review, mutual legal assistance, and letters of request.
Powner has defended clients in numerous white-collar commercial crime cases and has also assisted in the prosecution and detection of crime, and advised companies on possible criminal conduct by directors or employees. He is a member of the International Bar Association commercial crime group as well as a speaker at IBA and other conferences on white-collar crime.
ALB: Tell us about your legal career so far, and what led you to taking up this role.
Powner: After qualifying at Lovells and previously working for two years as a paralegal in London and Hong Kong, I moved to Haldanes because I loved Hong Kong and really wanted to stay here and build my career in a firm with such an excellent reputation. Besides, the Haldanes football team had just beaten Lovells in the Legal League Cup Final!
When I later became a partner in 1997, I took on the role as managing partner on the same day, guided by the senior partners. No doubt the skills learnt from organising both football teams have helped me a great deal.
ALB: What have been some of your highlights from your time in charge? And what are some leadership lessons you have learnt?
Powner: At Haldanes we share the management responsibilities and each equity partner has a separate role. Our partnership has always allowed a great deal of responsibility and decision-making to be taken by the junior partners and departmental heads, and so there is no one person “in charge.” We make decisions together at regular partners’ meetings. A management consultant once described my style as an MP as being more like the United Nations. Whenever possible, we would try to reach unanimous decisions on the best way forward for the firm, which admittedly is easier to achieve in a firm with around 10 equity partners. The discussions with each partner would hopefully reach a consensus.
One of the lessons I have learned, and on the rare occasions when it used to happen, was to try to ensure that people do not argue by email (or these days by WhatsApp), as it is always better to meet face-to-face when there is a disagreement – preferably over a coffee. These are business decisions and people are always entitled to have different views as to the best way forward for the firm. On a personal level, and having almost missed my daughter’s first birthday party many years ago because of an urgent matter, there is a fine balance to be found between work and family life. As lawyers, we so often have to work late as well as at weekends, and so now (atoning for my past) I encourage our associates to work hard during the day but to try to leave the office at a reasonable hour unless they are exceptionally busy because there are going to be plenty of late nights (and weekends before trial) when they simply will not be able to do so.
ALB: How would you describe your strategy for the firm?
Powner: Steady growth as a well-established medium size law firm, building closely-knit legal teams, and concentrating on the areas in which we excel. Under the current partnership, Haldanes has grown from around 25 personnel in the early 1990s to over 100 in 2020.
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?
Powner: Like most firms, we quickly learned to adapt to the challenges brought on by the temporary closure of the courts, remote working arrangements, and meeting the needs of clients in times of a pandemic. Some of us had a similar experience during SARS. Where possible, the financial impact of the pandemic has been met by the partners rather than by our staff. We shall be keeping a close eye on the bottom line in the year ahead, in the hope that there will be a slow recovery in 2021.
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?
Powner: It is now accepted that remote court hearings and video-conferencing facilities for client meetings are here to stay, and no doubt further legislative amendments will follow to allow for this to happen. With the relative success of WFH arrangements, like many law firms this may prompt a rethink on the amount of office space that is required in the future.
ALB: How important is law firm culture, according to you? What kind of internal culture are you looking to foster?
Powner: We have a tremendous team spirit which the Haldanes partners have always encouraged. Our solicitors are always willing to help each other and this is particularly important in the criminal litigation department where I work, as very often we have police visits late at night and search warrants early in the morning. We also share our legal know-how, often online and at short notice.
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?
Powner: Haldanes has excellent IT personnel, in-house and remote servers, backed up by other service providers and cybersecurity experts. Like most firms, this has developed steadily over the years and has now moved to VPN remote access for solicitors. There are so many IT improvements over the years, particularly with internet research platforms, electronic timekeeping, more sophisticated copiers and scanners linked to the accounting and email systems, and more efficient access to the firm’s accounts records. As regards the next year or two, hopefully there will be more electronic filing allowed by the courts. I remember saying to my grandma about how much she had seen technology change since she was born in the early 1900s, and her reply was "that’s nothing compared to what you will see in your lifetime.”
ALB Conversations is a weekly series of in-depth Q&As with leaders of law firms and in-house legal departments across Asia. If you are a managing partner or general counsel based in the region who is interested in being a part of this series, please send an email to email@example.com.