In sharp contrast to law-firm themed TV programmes that feature lawyers relaxing, meeting friends and enjoying long lunches with clients, the more realistic picture is a work schedule that begins with early morning client meetings and runs late into the evenings, as Deirdre Fu, senior associate at international law firm Withers, can attest to.
As a senior private client lawyer who advises high-net-worth individuals and their families on trusts, estate and succession planning, which often involve complex multi-jurisdiction, multi-generation legal structures, Fu is not someone who complains about her work commitments. With clients coming from all over Asia, including increasingly from Mainland China, early morning client meetings are normal, while frequent changes to international tax legislation and trust regulations need constant monitoring. A process that requires regular internal briefing sessions with colleagues and late evening conference calls with the firm’s global offices. In addition, Fu is responsible for developing and leading the Withers Hong Kong tax and regulatory team. “I enjoy both the technical and the human side of my work,” says Fu, who explains that unlike commercial law, which mainly involves lawyer-to-lawyer communication, specialising in private client law, means she is able to work closely with individuals, many of which are entrepreneurs and successful business founders. “It’s fascinating to meet successful people and help them to structure solutions that meet their estate and succession planning needs,” says Fu who stresses the importance of building a strong relationship with clients to ensure that trust instruments and legal structures are executed effectively in alignment with their wishes.
Founded in London 1896, with offices in Asia, Europe and the US, Withers has traditionally differentiated itself by focusing on the needs of high-net worth individuals — for example, the founders of Fortune 500 companies and the rapidly rising household name companies in Asia — but not on the organisations themselves. Similar to many other professions, while the shift to digital technologies have enabled agile working and introduced efficiencies to the private client lawyer discipline, Fu prefers traditional face-to-face meetings with clients. “It’s far easier to discuss complex issues in person than by text messages or video conferences,” says Fu. She also explains how setting up a trust and succession planning are sensitive topics and not always easy for the head of a company or family to discuss — but are extremely important to get right. The goal, explains Fu is to provide beneficial solutions while avoiding trust disputes similar to those involving high-profile families, which have been played out in front of the public in Hong Kong courts in recent years.
Having begun her career working in litigation with “magic circle” (an informal term used to describe what are generally regarded as the five leading UK-headquartered law firms) law firm, Clifford Chance, Fu is acutely aware of what can happen when trusts and legal entities are challenged by family rivalries and misunderstandings. “Because of my background in litigation I am sensitive to a lot of the risks, therefore, from the early planning stage I try to help clients to avoid any pitfalls,” says Fu who features on the “Ones to Watch” list in Legal Week’s Private Client Global Elite ranking. Fu also features as a leading private client lawyer in Who’s Who Legal and recommended on both Legal 500 Asia-Pacific 2019 and the Citywealth Leaders List 2019.
Academically accomplished in both the arts and science, after studying at Malvern Girls College in the UK and earning her legal qualifications from Cambridge University, for a while Fu was undecided whether to follow in her father’s footsteps and become a lawyer or pursue a career in the arts. “I chose law because it requires skills in both areas,” notes Fu. As member of the Hong Kong Ballet Board of Governors, Fu’s love of the arts still features prominently in her social life and community activities. “My involvement with the arts provides balance in my life,” says Fu, who advises young lawyers joining the profession to look for balance. “You need to be fully committed to your work, but you also need to avoid burnout,” cautions Fu. With this in mind, in spite of her busy work schedule, Fu makes time each week to attend an adult ballet class.
Fu also plays a leading role in scripting and coordinating the popular abridged version of The Nutcracker, which is performed annually by the children of Hong Kong Ballet Board of Governors committee members’ and raises funds for worthwhile causes. Having taken part in ballet and different stage productions as a teenager, while Fu is no stranger to the stage, in 1997, three years after qualifying as a lawyer, she made the decision to resign from her job after auditioning and securing a part in Jackie Cheung’s hugely successful Snow Wolf Lake musical. The box office hit broke Hong Kong audience attendance records and ran for a total of 42 sellout shows at the Hong Kong Coliseum. “Luckily,” says Fu, “When the run of shows was over, the firm I left, Clifford Chance, offered me my job back.”
More recently, Fu stepped on to a stage by joining the Advisory Committee on Agriculture and Fisheries (ACAF) to provide the Government with constructive views on the promotion of the sustainable development of agriculture land. The committee is looking at the feasibility of hydroponic farming and new methods of farming that attracts young people to explore a new type of career opportunity that is becoming popular in Taiwan and elsewhere in Asia. “While I don’t come from an agricultural background, the Committee was looking for a female to provide diversity, someone to offer a fresh pair of eyes and, importantly, a lawyer not associated with the property development sector,” says Fu.