City was love at first sight for veteran lawyer
It was a tough choice for Robert Thomson as he weighed up the pros and cons of staying in England, where he could continue to closely support his beloved Manchester United football team, or heading for the bright lights of Hong Kong and pursuing a career in international law.
Asia’s World City dazzled the British lawyer the first time he saw it as he stepped off a plane at the old Kai Tak airport in the 1980s. He was visiting for just one day as a commercial litigation lawyer assisting with a shipping case for the International Transport and Workers Federation. Those 24 hours were all it took to hook him. “As soon as I got off the plane I thought ‘this is great, this is it.’ It was my first time in Asia and I’d been reading Joseph Conrad’s books and the like,” Thomson says.
A few months later, his London-based company asked him if he wanted to relocate. In 1988, he moved here with his wife and baby daughter. “The thing that attracted me about Hong Kong, and still does, is that it is a complete melting pot of cultures and people. It’s got a drive and charm and buzz about it,” he says.
Starting out as a commercial litigation lawyer in London gave Thomson the opportunity to gain a wide range of experiences in many fields. He worked on some big City scandals, including the Guinness share-trading fraud and the collapse of Johnson Matthey Bankers. “That gave me the love of doing complicated, multi-jurisdictional cases. I got into that zone of the all-encompassing work that takes over your life. It appealed to me. I’m fairly disciplined, driven and with the desire to do well,” he says.
At around the same time he became a partner in a large British firm, he married and had the first of three children. He was travelling extensively for cases, including the one he did for Jones Day on that fateful day in Hong Kong. That first visit to Hong Kong was when he first struck up a friendship with Steve Brogan, the then partner-in-charge of the Washington office of US law firm Jones Day. The friendship went on to become a long and important one.
“I returned to London in 1994 – I had a large case in the Cayman Islands, which went on for about 10 years. But we stayed in touch and I would see Steve on and off when he came to town,” Thomson says. He later became the first English lawyer to join Jones Day in its London office just after the English Law Society first allowed foreign firms to form multi-jurisdictional partnerships. For Jones Day, it meant they could absorb non-American partners.
“American firms operate differently from English firms – it’s not always easy to say exactly why, but they are different. But the day I started work for Jones Day I felt as though I’d come home,” Thomson says, adding that the culture of the firm involves cohesiveness, teamwork and intolerance of bad behaviour. “It’s about getting on with everyone for the good of the clients and the firm generally.”
He has been with Jones Day for 18 years and has enjoyed watching it grow and take on an international dimension. The company now operates out of 41 offices in 19 countries.
Thomson also believes in mentorship. “I’ve had three or four down the years, including Steve Brogan, who has been a big mentor to me. I’ve been lucky enough to work and travel with him a lot over the years and it has been very important for me as a person as well as professionally. He has given me enormous encouragement and confidence to do things, which we all need sometimes.”
One of Thomson and Jones Day’s proudest moments recently was when the company received the Best Firm for Diversity by an International Firm award at the 2014 Euromoney Asia Women in Business Law Awards. “It was fantastic,” Thomson says. “We’re very blessed to have some very strong female partners in the office who I was involved in recruiting in many cases and with whom I work closely. We’re delighted they’re getting recognition for the part they play in the profession and their standing in the legal community.”
In the firm’s Hong Kong office, there are seven women out of the 16 partner lawyers and 35 per cent of all Jones Day partnerships are female. In Greater China, 12 of 40 partners are female, which Thomson says is quite unusual.
Regardless of gender, Thomson says intelligence is an important part of being a good lawyer, “but you don’t have to be a rocket scientist”. More crucial are commitment, dedication, hard work, the ability to get on with people and sensitivity. “Because you have to be able to make judgments and follow your instinct,” he says. “I don’t always get it right, but I do more often than I get it wrong!”
Robert Thomson shares what it takes to be a good legal leader
Be obtainable “The best thing you can do is be accessible to people, be a human and be communicative with everyone in the office, from the oldest partner to the most junior member of staff. Be friendly and show interest in their lives. Don’t be aloof.