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Axiom’s head of Asia Kirsty Dougan is driving disruption in the legal sector

Published on Saturday, 23 Jul 2016

The forms and structures of the legal world are built on precedent and tradition, but certain aspects of the profession are now undergoing something of a shake-up.

A new business model, which provides qualified lawyers on a contract basis to handle standard procedures at competitive rates, is challenging long-held ideas about how the traditional sector should operate.

Clients who need, for example, a non-disclosure agreement, or someone to work through the nitty-gritty of an M&A deal, can get it done without calling in high-priced staff from a big-name legal practice, says Kirsty Dougan, head of Asia for US-based firm Axiom. And, for the lawyers involved, there is the benefit of flexibility and regular work and a good income, but without the extra stress and excessive hours that can accompany the more standard career path.

“We are all about disruption and innovation in a precedent-based profession,” Dougan says. “Our lawyers – there are now 70 in Asia – are seconded into clients. They don’t give legal advice or opinions, but do the execution, offering transactional support on the ‘business as usual’ work, due diligence, handling special projects or covering for someone on leave, with no unnecessary overheads.”

For Dougan, the role has proved a perfect fit. Managing revenue goals, hiring and the client side of the business draws on her legal background and entrepreneurial streak, while allowing the freedom to enjoy family life and work-life balance.

Originally from Scotland, Dougan’s father, the managing director of Greggs bakery, exemplified the importance of hard work. Her mother, a go-getting lecturer in languages who later went into staff development and training, taught that gender is never a barrier. However, some of Dougan’s sharpest memories are of visits to the law courts in Edinburgh with her grandfather, who was a judge. By the age of 16, her direction was clear. “A law degree is a great stepping stone,” she says. “It helps you look at problems logically and pragmatically, and I like how it taught me to think about things.”

After studying at the University of Strathclyde and taking a master’s in international law at the University of British Columbia, she spent two years qualifying at Scotland’s largest law firm, Dundas and Wilson. The cases were varied, covering banking, commercial disputes and general practice, but the prospect of working her way up to partner just didn’t appeal.

“I like autonomy, creating things and a non-traditional environment,” she says. “One of the partners said ‘don’t you want to earn what I earn?’, but that’s just not me.” Instead, she left to lecture on law at Dundee University, focusing on international law, before heading back to and Strathclyde to teach anti-trust and European law, contributing articles, , and wrote a book on intellectual property law in Europe.

Subsequently, when her husband accepted a job in Shanghai with Scottish & Newcastle brewery, that experience came in handy. It helped her land guest lecturer spots at Fudan University and East China Normal University and brought an approach in 2005 to be general counsel for international spirits company Diageo.

“What I love about Asia is that opportunities just come along when you don’t expect them,” Dougan says. “I came on board as lead lawyer for Diageo’s biggest investment in baijiu, heading the transaction in Chengdu. After four months of joint venture negotiations, I could understand most of the conversations in Putonghua.”

Next came the chance to build and manage an in-house legal department and, in 2010, a move to Hong Kong to take on a specially created regional anti-trust role. It went well for a year but, in parallel, Dougan also had a “light-bulb moment” about setting up a new kind of legal services firm and had met a potential co-founder similarly convinced of the long-term prospects.

They took the plunge which, in the initial phase, meant explaining the concept, educating the market, building trust and relationships, and overcoming a certain degree of cynicism. “People said, ‘We like you and your story, but come back in five years when you have a track record.’ They were nervous about something that was not traditional,” she says. “We spent hours in coffee shops on our Blackberries, just trying to get appointments.”

The big break came with an invitation to fly to New York and meet Axiom, a company who saw things the same way and were keen to team up. Within six weeks, a deal was concluded, and they had the backing to shoot for the stars.

“We are now very well established in Asia, and lawyers who have been with us a number of years are getting equity in the firm,” Dougan says. “Expansion here is key to the global strategy, and there are huge ambitions. At present, we are actively looking at Australia and China and are rolling out tech-embedded services in other markets, so major banks and multinationals can outsource all their global supply and procurement contracts to us.”

Even when off duty, Dougan rarely looks to relax. She is currently overseeing the renovation of one property in Hong Kong and another in Scotland, is taking an online course in interior design and, with her two teenagers, raises funds for a children’s charity in Cambodia. In addition, she guest lectures, mentors young people, and does pro bono work for an organisation helping recently arrived refugees in Hong Kong.

“I would love to do an MBA and go back to university to teach again,” she says. “That was a real vocation, but the difficulty is trying to satisfy two sides of the personality.”



Kirsty Dougan’s tips for legal luminaries.

Consult with clarity  “In the legal profession generally, lawyers tend to think the role is to tell clients what the law says. For me, though, the important thing is to translate legal talk into layman’s speech so everything can be easily understood.”

Know your role  “You should be thinking about what the client really wants from you. Usually, that is help in assessing risks and then pragmatic, commercial advice tailored to the present situation. Even in Hong Kong, lawyers can be quite slow to recognise this.”

Act swiftly  “Overall, this is a fast-evolving environment with a huge amount of regulatory change. You have to be super-responsive in terms of the speed people expect things.”

This article appeared in the Classified Post print edition as Dealing in disruption.