China (PRC)

Leaving behind a long-standing career as a private practitioner, James Jamison, moved in-house and joined Deloitte as General Counsel in 2011. Taking up the role against the background of a rapidly changing regulatory landscape which has seen China assert its national sovereignty in response to demands from US regulators, he describes his entry in-house as a ‘baptism of fire.’ 18 months in, his quest continues. He strives to find workable solutions and manage delicate situations with level-headedness and diplomacy with the help of a supportive legal network. Here Jamison tells us more about his day to day at one of the Big 4 accounting firms.

Asian-mena Counsel: How did your career lead you to your current role with Deloitte?
James Jamison:
When I was in private practice (as a litigation partner with Clifford Chance in Hong Kong) I worked a lot with Deloitte people. First of all we worked together on a substantial judicial review case. Later I was heavily involved with the estate of Teddy Wang and his widow Nina Wang, which at the time was probably Hong Kong’s largest and most high-value litigation case. A Deloitte partner was one of two court appointees who managed the estate. I also used Deloitte as litigation consultants and expert witnesses in cases I was running.
As a result I got to know a good cross-section of the Deloitte team, including my predecessor as General Counsel, Peter Griffiths, and others in the reputation and risk function of the firm, and we have stayed in touch over the years. They are a talented and friendly group of people, so it was more than just the usual ‘marketing’ contact. When Griffiths was coming up to retirement and they were looking for someone to take over, they were kind enough to think of me. I had been working at Clifford Chance’s office in Tokyo for three years at that point, when out of the blue I got the call from Deloitte to see if I would be interested. Having been in private practice for 25 years, I was intrigued by the idea of trying an in-house job, and Deloitte offered a relatively rare General Counsel role open to someone with a contentious background. In March last year I came back to Hong Kong to take up the role. 

AMC: What is the nature and scope of your role?
As China general counsel, I am responsible for the firm’s legal needs in Greater China. There is a lot of variety. The firm is growing fast, both organically and by acquisition, and that growth is mostly in Mainland China, where the regulatory landscape is also changing fast. I usually have external counsel working on transactions, but I need to ensure that the solutions we arrive at enable the firm’s culture to be imposed on the new components and we need to ensure that the firm’s brand is protected. There is also a practice protection component to the role, which is closer to my home territory as a litigator. The Big 4 accountancy firms in China have recently been in the news because of a difference between Mainland law and US law over whether US regulators may demand access to working papers for audits conducted in Mainland China. We have worked hard to try to find a solution, and that has taken up a lot of my first year in the job. Finally, there are the 101 legal issues which arise out of the comings and goings of a large partnership.         

AMC: What does a typical day for you look like?
The working day in the accountancy profession starts a couple of hours earlier than in the legal profession, but I stick to lawyers’ hours! I usually get in about 9 a.m. At least for the last year, a lot of my work has had a US angle, and there is a continual dialogue between me and my colleagues in the US. So typically I will have a full inbox of ideas and questions to think about when I get in, and a few hours to progress the dialogue before the US goes to bed. Luckily my US colleagues are insomniacs and workaholics. The middle of the day is usually focused on transactions and issues in China. An important function of the risk team is to monitor and advise on potential problem issues in the practices and make sure the firm’s response stays on the right track, but without disenfranchising the practitioners themselves. There is a lot of reporting and brainstorming. Then, at about 5 pm, the first signs appear that the US is waking up and that the trans-Pacific dialogue is about to resume. Frequently there are conference calls till late in the evening. If there aren’t, I try to head home about 8.00 or 8.30pm.    

AMC: What qualities and skill-sets are you looking for when recruiting for your team?
I am looking for people who are self-starters and who are thinking critically about their role – why are they being asked to do what they are doing in the grand scheme of things, what is the ultimate goal, could it be done differently and better? We are able to offer our people some flexibility to work around family or other non-work commitments, in a way which law firms rarely do. But it is important to me that that does not narrow people’s perception of the role. I want people to have a decent variety of challenges, to keep their interest and their skills honed.   

AMC: What qualities does Deloitte look for in external counsel? Are there any criteria followed in choosing suitable practitioners?
By far the main criterion so far as I am concerned, is quality of advice. Other factors like speed of response, cost, affability etc. are nice to have, but the main thing is to get the best expertise and the right answer.

AMC: Can you describe some of your biggest challenges/obstacles since you joined Deloitte and how you
overcame them?
The China/US regulatory issue mentioned above is a challenging one for the whole of the Big 4 auditing profession in China, and the start of it coincided almost exactly with my start at Deloitte, so it was something of a baptism of fire. I did not know much about US regulation of accountants, but I have picked a lot up in the course of the year. I have been fortunate in that the Deloitte network and my immediate team of colleagues in China are very supportive and collegial. The flip-side of the challenge is that it has been very interesting to see at close quarters the regulatory machinery of these two great powers interacting with one another.

AMC: How do you go about gaining the trust of your clients?
It is not so very different from private practice, and in fact in some ways it is easier. You have to demonstrate that you are there for people and that you are wholly aligned with their goals and are prepared to put your own time, effort and credibility on the line to help them achieve those goals. It is easier to be wholly aligned with your clients when you are part of the same organisation.
Of course, there are the occasional situations when it is unclear what the firm’s best interests are, or a particular individual is out of alignment with those interests. The task then is more subtle and difficult – to stand above those debates and try to represent the best interests of the firm as distinct from any particular faction. That can sometimes mean treading (gently) on peoples’ toes. Then all one can do is try to be transparent and to trust the fact that people can see you are acting in good faith and out of the right motives. I am happy to say it hasn’t been a problem so far. 

AMC: What is the nature of the relationship between Deloitte’s in-house function and the business?
I think it is closer to an in-house law firm than is the case in some businesses. We are embedded in a professional services firm full of individuals who are themselves experts in the work they do, and most of the legal issues arise out of the professional practice. We are very conscious that we do not want to usurp the judgment of the client-facing professionals; our aim is to inform and facilitate the decisions they make about their own businesses.

AMC: In your opinion, what are the main challenges in managing relationships with external counsel?
This is an interesting one. Life in private practice is still fresh in my mind, so I am a relatively sympathetic customer and I don’t have lots of war stories about how rapacious and annoying lawyers in private practice are. Come back in five years’ time and I may have a different perspective! Actually I am quite impressed with the ability and user-friendliness of most of the lawyers we use, and the effort they have invested to understand our business and problems. Having been in private practice until recently, I know what the score is on things like timing and staffing and fees, and that helps. There have been a couple of surprises though. One lawyer whom I have known for years, and whose judgment and abilities I admired, turned out to be unusable because of a total inability to prioritise and manage deadlines. I was sad about that.   

AMC: How is the value and cost of Deloitte’s in-house team measured?
There is no arithmetic measurement, but a lot of anecdotal feedback. All accountancy practices have (quite unfairly) been in the firing line for various business failures and alleged misfeasances over the years, and have learned the value of good legal support the hard way, particularly in the US and Europe. The member firms of the Deloitte network internationally, including Deloitte China, have chosen to invest in good quality legal support as part of a wider investment in good quality risk management, and I believe there is a high degree of support for that amongst the partners. Here in China we are relatively lawyer-light by comparison with the US and Europe.
However, on a day-to-day level we always have to keep in mind that we are a service function, and examine whether we can improve the way we interface with our internal clients. It is from those interfaces that we get the most feedback. Inevitably not all of it is positive, because circumstances often cast us lawyers in the role of naysayer, getting in the way of the deal. I am certain there is more we can do in that area.

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