Career Advice Successful High flyers’ story

Kareena Teh, senior partner at Dechert Hong Kong, has taken a few unexpected turns in a successful career as a litigator

Experience has taught Kareena Teh that good lawyers tend to come in two main types. There are those who look through the materials, identify a key area and zoom in on that. The others prefer to review everything, devise an initial strategy, but then modify it accordingly as things develop.

“That’s the way I approach cases,” says the senior partner of leading law firm Dechert’s Hong Kong office. “One thing I learned when pretty junior is that someone on your team must have read everything and know all the critical details. My mentor was magnificent in that respect. He could see the whole picture and run things through to a result.”

These days, Teh handles mainly commercial cases and investigations. That includes resolving disputes, overseeing arbitrations and advising on manufacturing contracts, but can extend to anything that goes before the civil courts.

Whether acting for the plaintiff or defendant, the claimant or respondent, she makes a point of explaining the client’s options every step of the way. She also emphasises, when appropriate, that settling out of court saves time and money. And, in general, she observes that things often work out better if both parties are “slightly unhappy” with an outcome, otherwise an agreement can start to unravel.

“When a client comes to us, we first have to understand what the real issue is, and that can sometimes take a while,” Teh says. “For instance, clients will say they are unhappy about one aspect of their relationship with a partner. But when you dig deeper, it may not be about money, but that one side feels cheated or betrayed. It can be very acrimonious and, sometimes, they will want to fight to the end.

“In such cases, I say principles are great, you think this is the only way, but you will end up paying a lot more. I believe if you reach an agreement, you’re more likely to go away with a sense of win-win.”

The youngest of three siblings, Teh grew up in Ipoh, Malaysia, where both her parents were school teachers. Though aware of certain expectations, she had no intention of following directly in their footsteps.

“We were very fortunate. Mum and dad wanted something better for us because they didn’t have the opportunity to go to university. I worked very hard to achieve that, but also got lucky.”

More specifically, when Australia unexpectedly cut their quota for foreign students, a friend gave her his unsent application form for New Zealand instead. After amending relevant details, Teh’s submission was just in time to beat the deadline, resulting in a move to Burnside High School in Christchurch to complete her A-Levels before going on to the University of Canterbury for a four-year law degree.

For her, the course was an obvious choice, but also serendipitous. She enjoyed the subjects and the intellectual challenge, met her future husband, and eventually spent 18 years in New Zealand. One of the few major worries was finding a job on graduating in 1988.

“My parents sacrificed a lot to put me through university, and I couldn’t go home with just a BA because I would starve. I had to find a job to get a work visa and, in the end, I was getting desperate.”

Fortune smiled when she spotted an ad for a litigation position on the college notice board. She applied, hit it off with the boss, and the following year was admitted as a barrister and solicitor of the High Court of New Zealand.

“Law covers a huge range of subjects, and I thought I could do contracts. I never thought I would also get into litigation and be standing in court arbitrating cases for clients.”

The practice she joined acted mainly for insurance companies, handling professional negligence cases, representing real estate agents accused of misrepresentation, and doing a lot of civil work involving public liability and home insurance.

“We were a mid-sized firm, but also a

litigation powerhouse,” Teh says. “It’s not just about being good at the legal side of things. You also have to be very good on the facts and know how to present and ask the right questions in court.”

After more than five years, though, in need of a new challenge, she opted to strike out on her own as a barrister, an unheard-of move for someone at her level of seniority. It meant taking on more criminal work and, in due course, defending accused murderers and other “hard core” cases involving sexual abuse, assault and robbery.

“I found a niche, starting out doing smaller cases for firms in Christchurch, then on the west coast and across the South Island. I slowly but surely developed a practice and a reputation for doing good work and holding my own with QCs on the other side.”

A subsequent visit to family in Hong Kong got her thinking about international experience. And, in 2002, when Baker McKenzie came up with an offer to join their litigation team here as a solicitor, the chance was simply too good to turn down.

“In Christchurch, people thought I needed my head examined, but for me, it is about being challenged. When I’m not learning, I want something new.”

She switched to Dechert Hong Kong in 2014 and was made senior partner last year. That role allows a fair deal for autonomy in building the practice, yet also the scope to continue working with clients.

“My first love is appearing in court,” says Teh, who was the first woman to get higher rights of audience in Hong Kong, by exemption not assessment. As such, she can run trials and appeals, mostly at the Court of First Instance, without having to appoint a barrister.

“I don’t focus on the gender issue and don’t want to be seen as ‘disadvantaged’. I think if you are good at what you do, you will succeed.”