King & Wood Mallesons’ Joint Worldwide Head of Arbitration and partner talks to Patrick Dransfield about Hong Kong, dispute resolution and working for China’s first international law firm.


Asian-mena Counsel: What brought you to Hong Kong?

Paul Starr: In 1980, I won my university’s travel scholarship. You had to write an essay to win the prize, explaining where you wanted to travel and why. There were many laudable applications: to Antarctica, monitoring receding glaciers; to Galapagos, studying the blue-footed Boobie. I wrote a slightly risque entreaty, concluding that I wanted to visit Hong Kong to make money — and won the prize! I so loved the first visit that I vowed to return immediately upon completing my UK law articles, which I did in September 1985. I rushed so quickly to Hong Kong that I missed my admission ceremony in London, presided over by the late Lord Denning. I made up for it some years later, when he very kindly autographed his caricature.

AMC: You must be sick of being asked about what has changed since 1985 — so, what hasn’t changed?

PS: So much remains. The food — my favourites are still foo yung dan fan, zap har, crispy chicken, dim sum. Our beaches, islands, country parks. But most of all the resilience of Hong Kong people. We are so good at re-inventing ourselves. Our low point was the Sars epidemic in 2003. Brian Downie [now in-house with MTR] and I were lucky, because we had an assignment at that time with Siemens Dematic, in beautiful Lake Konstanz, Germany. All of our secretaries ordered us to buy up as many masks as we could find, which we did. There was not one surgical mask left west of the Maginot Line. No one was flying at that time — there were so few business travellers that Cathay wrote my name on one of the toilet doors. Siemens banned us from their canteen: “Oh well,” we said, “we’ll just have to take (long) lunches by the lake.” But after Sars, Hong Kong bounced right back. And now, the Greater Bay Area and Belt and Road Initiative are once again placing Hong Kong at the regional forefront.

AMC: What did your practice focus on in those early days?

PS: Arbitration law. I had loved my articles at Frere Cholmeley [now Eversheds], where I had the great fortune of being able to attend the US-Iran Arbitral Tribunal at the Hague and a huge ICC arbitration in Paris. Someone told me that if I wanted to combine Hong Kong with arbitration, I should apply for a job in construction law. A few firms saw me, but Denton Hall (as they then were) interviewed me in Courts wine bar, Chancery Lane. Five hours of “interview” later, I was hooked. I had a fabulous induction at Dentons Hong Kong. I was met and taken out by a very young Jonathan (now Justice) Harris. At my first lunch with the partners, I made the slight faux pas of copying what 1980s London did at lunchtimes and ordered a vodka. Imagine if one did that today.

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AMC: What are your earliest arbitration memories in Hong Kong?

PS: Climbing up the endless steps of Hong Kong’s first international arbitration centre, in 1986 (photographed above).  It was housed within the then working Central Prison ( now the Tai Kwun Museum).  There were no Lifts, so you lugged up your hundreds of files, step by step.  There was no internet then – no “e-bundles”.  If we (then) youngsters found that challenging, imagine the more elderly Arbitrators.  We used to deliberately accelerate past them,  as they lay gasping on the steps, with a cheery “Good Morning”, and of course no offer to help.   The old  Centre had two hearing rooms.  I recall the infamous arbitration where, while we sat eating the same Olivers sandwiches every lunchtime, those in the other hearing brought in daily caterers, with silver service three-course lunches. One or two of those luncheon participants still work in Hong Kong today: you know who you are.

AMC: So why King & Wood Mallesons?

PS: I have only ever been in two Hong Kong law firms: Dentons, and then from 1990 different iterations of Bateson Starr in association with Mallesons — today KWM. The firm has just grown and grown. I cannot believe that we are now third largest in Hong Kong. Had I known that I’d end up in China’s first international law firm, I definitely would have learned Putonghua back in the 1980s. In truth, I never wanted to work in a mega-sized firm. That’s why for articles I had chosen Frere Cholmeley. Now, though, I love it.

AMC: What do you love about it?

PS: I love in particular our people. Our Hong Kong DR team, many of whom have been with us for years and years. I always joke with our lawyers when they reach a milestone of five or 10 years with us, because our firm gives them a crappy pen or a Park n Shop voucher worth tuppence. But of course we really treasure them. Then there’s the international arbitration group, headed worldwide by Meg Utterback and me. Dispute resolvers are of course quite individualistic and our group members are no exception.

The China mainland DR team is fabulous, involving us in far-flung pitches, my two favourites so far being Shandong (very pretty) and a certain client’s office where in the month of May, they still had displayed a lit Christmas tree and decorations, replete with Christmas music. Much to the consternation of our partner, James Guan, Meg and I didn’t win the tender — because we were too busy giggling. And of course I have known our wonderful Australian team for decades and still get a buzz visiting them.

Then there are my Hong Kong and worldwide partners. There is a huge drive to integrate all of our offices. The Southern China partners, Beijing and Shanghai teams are an inspiration, always ready to receive us warmly, spend time with us and work on opportunities. I spent six months in Shenzhen as part of our chairman’s “100 Lawyers Abroad” initiative. Gao Feng, Haidi Teng and the whole office made me part of the Shenzhen family. Last but not least our support team. Again, there are long-termers: Matt Coleman, our head of IT, walked in off the street for a job when we were tiny Bateson Starr. David and I said “You’re hired!” I don’t think he really knew how to switch on a computer back then. Danny, our chief messenger, must have given the first message to Adam and Eve. Joanne, Marie, Constance and Maggie, our DR secretaries, wouldn’t want me to reveal the decades they have worked with us.

And then of course I love the work.

AMC: What about the work?

PS: Well, leaving aside our international projects and infrastructure practice, of which I am immensely proud, my work load has so phenomenally changed since we became KWM. Previously, at Mallesons, we wouldn’t have got through the door of a Sinopec, Alibaba, Huawei. Now, more than half of my practice has a China mainland element to it. And where possible, we work in cross-office teams. It isn’t just about referrals. To achieve cultural integration, we need to work together. So on the ground-breaking Shandong Chenming case in the Hong Kong courts, we are a dual team of Hong Kong and our Beijing referrers Huang Tao and Xu Xianhong. For two arbitrations referred to us by Ariel Ye in Shenzhen, we have her team, Xinyu Li in Beijing and us. On the Kingkey litigation here, a client of Gao Feng and Haidi Teng, it is again Shenzhen and us. Shanghai referred to us a major defamation case. Handel Lee in New York a US$500 million alleged fraud in Angola. Former judge Liu Shoujie in Beijing a force majeure arbitration in Africa.

AMC: You gave some African examples. Is that Belt and Road?

PS: The Belt and Road Initiative is of such widely popular scope that it is dangerous to categorise qualifying projects too narrowly. My head of projects, Sam Farrands, with partner-supremo Ching Wo Ng and senior associate Ashley Phelps, are currently working on a huge proposed new port and railway in Ghana — and I’m not even sure that Ghana is actually deemed a Belt and Road country. Basically, where there is massive China investment into projects that broadly span the Belt and Road route, many are terming those endeavours “Belt and Road”. Certainly, as a construction lawyer, I am immensely excited about that initiative and I see huge opportunities for Hong Kong.

AMC: What opportunities, and what challenges?

PS: Starting first with the challenges, and looking at them as a disputes resolution lawyer, Singapore got off to a much better start than did Hong Kong, marketing itself as an arbitration forum and getting Singapore written into infrastructure contracts as the situs of choice. I handled a massive Guatemalan dispute where Singapore was selected, and when I visited Papua New Guinea, as a guest of UNCITRAL, the first thing that the solicitor-general said to me was: “Now, about Singapore arbitration…”

But Hong Kong is catching up in terms of visiting host countries to explain the advantages of Hong Kong. And I don’t just mean our rule of law. What host countries misunderstand is that they think Hong Kong is too proximate to the Mainland, so that they should shy away from Hong Kong as not being a sufficiently neutral venue to stage an arbitration. But those host countries misunderstand the huge advantage a Hong Kong arbitration award can bring to enforcement over assets held in the Mainland. They often don’t know about the special arrangement between the Mainland and Hong Kong governments for the mutual enforcement of arbitration awards. In other words, there is a special vehicle by which the Supreme People’s Court will look at Hong Kong awards and strive to enforce them. The statistics of successful enforcement are very promising.

The opportunities for Hong Kong are vast. Starting with the Greater Bay Area, there is a massive programme for connectivity (spearheaded of course by the high-speed rail and the HK-Macau-Zhuhai Bridge), but also for social development whether that be exhibition centres, retail and leisure, real estate, sports hubs, museums, concert halls, theatres. Hong Kong businesses can partner with mainland entities to develop and service all of this. Further afield, in my own area of infrastructure development, Hong Kong developers, contractors, suppliers and consultants can joint venture with recipients of Belt and Road funding to bring projects to successful realisation in countries, many of which carry high risk but high reward.

AMC: We heard that your firm is setting a trend for law firms as regards Greater Bay Area integration?

PS: Yes, we have opened our GBA International Centre, which will see a seamless service from our Hong Kong, Shenzhen, Guangdong and Hainan offices.

AMC: And the future of Hong Kong?

PS: Well, people always ask: “What of the common law — will it survive? What about your judges wearing wigs and gowns and still quoting Lord Wilberforce?” All I can refer you to is Mainland policy documents and formal agreements made between the Mainland and Hong Kong governments. If you look for example at the very first clause in the formal bi-governmental arrangement for Hong Kong’s “full participation in and contribution to the Belt and Road Initiative”, it stresses that the two governments’ overriding objective is the continued preservation of One Country Two Systems. This was emphasised again in the keynote speeches of top Mainland officials at Hong Kong’s recent (third) annual Belt and Road Summit. It is difficult to see how one could have two systems without preserving our common law. Indeed, abolition of our unique juridical features would surely give rise to the widespread loss of confidence in Hong Kong, which the very Belt and Road Initiative is there to promote. I thus remain extremely optimistic about our future.


In addition to being King & Wood Mallesons’ Joint Worldwide Head of Arbitration, Paul Starr is a partner of King & Wood Mallesons. He is practice team leader in Hong Kong for infrastructure and dispute resolution. An honours graduate in law from Peterhouse, Cambridge University, he won a scholarship and the university’s prestigious Squire Law Prize. Starr’s team has won awards for arbitration and construction, he has been cited as a world leader in litigation.

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