Asian-mena Counsel’s Patrick Dransfield talked to and photographed Michael Hickman in his beloved Shanghai and put to him a series of questions on behalf of the In-House Community.
ASIAN-MENA COUNSEL: Michael, we have known each other for 20 years. Your career has taken you from legal practices of international law firms to Control Risks, by way of Chinese law firm Haiwen — could you share with us the strategic decisions shaping each major change in your career?
Michael Hickman: Two decades already? Actually, I have been in this market for over three decades now, and as the needs of business change, I’ve tried to keep up as best I can. Legal practice in this region started with risk assessment — back in the day when we only had a few laws and regulations that applied to foreign business in China, the advice was all about how to anticipate and mitigate risk. I’ve had the opportunity to ride along as the legal market grew, after landing here directly from Wall Street, taking a tour with Fleet Street and landing in Shanghai with Beijing-based Haiwen’s office here. I have always sought challenges, and I thrive on complex situations. So it seems to me quite natural to move from private practice to risk management, with a healthy dose of crisis management — each situation is different, each circumstance is new.
AMC: Now that you have left private legal practice, do you think that the global legal industry is truly changing? And if so, are traditional law firms adapting fast enough?
MH: Yes, the global legal industry is changing along with the global economy. The law firms who are nimble are adapting to some extent, with technology in particular. The industry seems to have grown so large these days — I would think managing a professional practice across a global network is a daunting task, particularly for the largest of firms. Maintaining quality and consistency of service has to be a daily, if not hourly, challenge. And I think clients notice these things.
AMC: Frank Knight, the author of Risk, Uncertainty and Profit, defined risk as being present when future events occur with measurable probability, and uncertainty as being present when the likelihood of future events is indefinite. Do you agree with the above and how does it apply to the services provided by Control Risks?
MH: It seems a contextual definition. We live with risk every day, but with risk comes opportunity. Risk, in the sense of threats, can be obvious — the biggest challenges are the more subtle risks. And coping effectively with those risks is what Control Risks does well — from integrity risks through to regulatory, political, business continuity and security risks. Identifying and containing risks to businesses in difficult operating and rapidly evolving markets is what we do every day. Being smart about risks builds resilience and sustainability — and makes for sound strategic growth.
AMC: You have been advising clients regarding China since the 1980s. How has the in-house community evolved during the past 30 years?
MH: Well, to start with, there really was no in-house community. Back in the day, lawyers were somewhat suspect. There were a handful of practitioners who had strong motivations to be here and help clients navigate what were then largely uncharted waters. Not really pioneers — rather, strategic advisers who could bridge linguistic and cultural divides.
AMC: Conversely, you have advised foreign investors regarding the China domestic market. How has this changed over the same period?
MH: Night and day. A common language for cross-border transactions now exists. It took a decade plus to develop and take hold, and now it is here to stay. Among many milestones, the early IPOs stand out. Accessing international capital markets rang in a new era in many respects — changing corporate structures, behaviours, reporting and accountability — adding a whole new set of external stakeholders with an interest in the business.
AMC: Given that Control Risks is headquartered in London, what footprint does the company have regarding North America? What differentiates Control Risks from other competitors?
MH: Control Risks has a global footprint — in North America, our offices are in New York, Washington, DC, Houston and Los Angeles. We also cover Canada and Latin America, where we have offices in Mexico City, Sao Paulo, Bogota and Panama City, not to mention our offices in Asia, Europe, Africa and the Middle East. Our global reach and the diversity of our professionals are key strengths — we know the markets in which our clients operate, and we are there with them side-by-side. And our team comprises people from all walks of life — law enforcement, diplomacy, journalism, accounting, technology, history, political science, economics — and from all over the world. Bringing the talent of that diverse pool of professionals together to create innovative solutions is how we do what we do.
AMC: Who has been your mentor — legal or otherwise?
MH: My earliest mentor was one of the first women to become partner in a major Wall Street firm — Marietta Poerio, formerly with Cleary Gottlieb. She had forged her own way in that world, and brought her unique perspective and style to the practice of law. She was known for her business acumen, particularly in complex project-based financings. If she took a deal on, it would close. I recall she even created a lease financing for a forest, not to mention for an entire automobile manufacturing facility. Learning from her was a formative experience — Marietta was all about getting it done, and getting it done right.
AMC: What is your hinterland; what are your interests outside of Control Risks? How do you control your time so that you can pursue them?
MH: I have become an avid reader — eclectic book grazing, I call it. I have many recent favourites — books on high frequency trading, cyber warfare, the singularity, the history of the oil industry, indigenous peoples’ history in North America and the Pulitzer Prize winning novels, just to name a few. Reading is something one can do every day — on the way to and from work, on planes, before sleep and over the weekend. The time is always there; it’s just a matter of taking advantage of it! And yes, electronic books are a marvellous tool — an entire library on a thin, portable device.