A school trip to Europe inspired Lilian Chiang, senior partner at Deacons, to think big
Whatever their natural talents, all young people benefit from advice and encouragement, which can suggest career paths and open their eyes to what is going on in the wider world.
For Lilian Chiang Sui-fook, who is now senior partner with leading law firm Deacons, that early boost came in the form of a summer scholarship to tour Europe, and she still looks back on those few weeks, and all they entailed, as a life-changing experience.
“I was part of a group of university and high school students chosen to represent Hong Kong,” says Chiang, who was in the arts stream at Marymount Secondary School in Happy Valley at the time. “Before leaving, we were invited to meet the then governor at Government House; we visited the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in London, went to several other capitals, saw historical sites, and were provided with cameras, pocket money, uniforms and two chaperones to look after us.
“For someone from a modest family who had previously never even been to Macau and thought of the New Territories as remote, it was a completely eye-opening experience. It gave me a lot of confidence, new ambitions, and was a sort of transformation.”
In essence, the trip inspired Chiang to think big and not settle for second best. In practice, that meant deciding to study law at the University of Hong Kong, joining Deacons in the early 1980s, accepting the responsibility of fulfilling parental expectations and forging an exemplary career in the field of property law.
“I had a strict upbringing; my late father always expected a lot and wanted me to be a lawyer – I think that was mainly because I argued a lot as a child,” says Chiang, who describes herself as single-minded, driven to succeed and, at times, almost a perfectionist. “My brothers and I were scolded if we didn’t get good marks, so we understood the importance of getting a good education. Initially, I had some doubts about doing law. I found the subject very dry and was extremely unhappy in the first year at university. Later on, it took time to settle with Deacons and I didn’t plan, for instance, to become a partner in so many years. But I did know that, whatever happened, I had to give my very best and, looking back, I have been very lucky.”
As things unfolded, Chiang specialised in property-related cases, starting with conveyancing, sales and purchase agreements, and title deeds, but soon moving up the scale. More recently, she worked on the tender for Ho Tung Gardens, which, at HK$5 billion, was Hong Kong’s biggest deal of its kind this year.
In general, the work ranges from interpreting stamp-duty measures and tax regulations and to assisting first-time sales and setting up joint ventures between owners and developers.
As head of the firm’s real estate and property practice, Chiang is keen to maintain close day-to-day involvement. But in also overseeing the smooth running of the wider firm — which now has 50-plus partners and a total of close to 660 staff — a different, yet complementary, set of skills is called for.
“Any senior partner has to balance management responsibilities with client contacts,” Chiang says. “Because I’m a lawyer at heart, I want to feel I’m really contributing by working with clients, not just attending lunches or dealing with aspects of general strategy.”
The dual role brings a number of challenges. One key issue at present is that the fees earned in property law have been under pressure, intensifying the competition for business and, by extension, making it harder to recruit and retain specialists.
“We focus on handling the more difficult and complex cases, where we can add value, and don’t compete for those transactions where the fees are unreasonable,” she says.
On the management level, it is a challenge to get the best out of all individuals in a team with diverse talents and motivations.
“You can’t just do things your way,” Chiang says. “I’ve become more aware of the need to look after the well-being of staff, including the mental and emotional aspects. You have to be supportive and flexible to create a strong team spirit and a sense of camaraderie.”
To this end, she makes a point of using younger colleagues as a sounding board, and ensures there is a clear link between training and career advancement. She also reminds others to keep work pressure and deadlines in perspective. And in the service of team building and artistry, she is a regular and enthusiastic performer at informal events like the firm’s monthly singing sessions.
Away from work and to give her own life balance, Chiang started practising yoga and meditation three years ago and now tries to set aside some time every day to read books about “mindfulness”.
“I’m completely convinced of its value. There is a calming effect and it helps me focus and prepare for future changes.”
Looking for new interests and challenges, she also took up golf and, last year, was appointed a council member of City University and chair of the HR committee. “It is something completely different from law and quite a commitment, but I believe education is very important to the future development of Hong Kong.”
She keeps as closely in touch as distance allows with one daughter, a doctor working in Britain, and travels regularly to meet the other, a Singapore-based banker, at convenient spots around Asia.
Despite the challenges, Chiang is dedicated to her work. “Some of my contemporaries are thinking of retiring, but I am very easily bored and really enjoy working, so I have no plans to wind down quite yet.”
This article appeared in the Classified Post print edition as Route to perfection.