Wendy Wysong, who joined Steptoe & Johnson in 2019, is managing partner of the firm’s Hong Kong office. She focuses on regulatory compliance and white-collar defence of international laws as well as government fraud and public corruption. She represents clients in the U.S. and Asia in the logistics, defence, aerospace, healthcare, telecommunications, gaming, consumer goods, and energy sectors. Wysong was previously an assistant U.S. attorney in Washington and deputy assistant secretary for Export Enforcement in the Department of Commerce's Bureau of Industry & Security (BIS).
ALB: Tell us about your legal career so far, and what led you to taking up this role.
Wysong: While I’ve been certain of my career choice since I was 14, my career path has largely been opportunistic. If an opportunity arose that sounded interesting and challenging, I made certain that I was in a position to take it. That is how I began my legal career, clerking for a U.S. District Court judge, who thereafter encouraged me to join his former law firm. There, I was presented with the prime opportunity to try my first case and eventually, argue it before the Virginia Supreme Court. It was unusual to try cases as a very junior associate but at the time, the firm had no other “cheap” Virginia-barred lawyers to take on small personal injury and pro bono cases, so I got to first-chair two more trials.
I realised my best chance of becoming a true trial lawyer was to join the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia, which I could because I had trial experience. My four-year commitment turned into 16 as I tried over 70 jury trials, had the chance to prosecute corrupt politicians, and pursued international criminals all over the world. My experience in international export controls and economic sanctions led to the opportunity to serve at the U.S. Commerce Department Bureau of Industry & Security as the Deputy Assistant Secretary for export control enforcement. I very much enjoyed leading and managing our team of over 150 special agents and analysts, designing and implementing strategic plans, and being in a position to influence major enforcement policies. But I missed being a lawyer.
It made sense to choose a global law firm to re-enter private practice. Due to my unusual combination of prosecutorial and regulatory background, there was a lot of interest in the unique insights that I could offer to clients. Later, when companies recognized the need to expand their compliance programs to include export controls and economic sanctions, I was well-positioned to advise clients on a coordinated approach to compliance risks. This led me to Hong Kong, as Asia had become a focus of U.S. enforcement efforts. You’ve probably read about some of our cases but we have been very successful in keeping most of our clients out of the news.
Our success in Hong Kong did not go unnoticed and when Steptoe approached me to open their office in Hong Kong, to focus on regulatory compliance and investigations, I looked at this as a real opportunity to once again manage a team, which is important to me.
The opening of the office in Hong Kong couldn’t have happened at a more challenging time! We are guiding our clients through the crossfire of the U.S.-China trade war and the economic turmoil caused by the pandemic. Building a practice and integrating into a new law firm, whilst under a mandatory travel quarantine—who wouldn’t have jumped into this role?
ALB: What have been some of your highlights from your time in charge? And what are some leadership lessons you have learnt?
Wysong: Our Hong Kong office has only been “open” for eight months, and we’ve been in lock-down for more than half of it. And while I’m nominally “in charge,” one of the core reasons I took on this role is that I wanted to work as a team, with people who shared a vision and strategy that wasn’t dictated from above but developed from within. I wanted everyone to feel empowered working toward goals they thought were important. Making sure that the firm’s goals match our team’s personal goals ensures ownership and responsibility, encourages transparency and trust, and empowers everyone to take risks and then, to take pride when those risks pay off.
The highlights so far have included some wildly successful resolutions for clients that have come relatively early since joining Steptoe. We had been representing a European company on three related investigations, involving four U.S. enforcement agencies, including both of my former agencies, for two years. Although the client was facing potentially astronomical fines, appointment of a monitor, and significant business disruption, our thorough investigation and the company’s willingness to accept our best-in-class remediation recommendations convinced the agencies to close the investigation with a warning letter. That result was followed by two more declinations for clients. This has no doubt contributed to a steady stream of repeat instructions from those clients and others who heard of our ability to convince agencies to see their side of events.
Other highlights include the well-deserved recognition of one of our counsel among the 40 under 40 outstanding lawyers by Government Investigations Review and our team being named as sanctions advisors to one of the most prominent NGOs in Hong Kong.
ALB: How would you describe your strategy for the firm in Asia?
Wysong: Our strategy in Asia is to build Steptoe’s investigations and regulatory compliance practice regionally, now that we have established ourselves in Hong Kong. We work with our Beijing office, and we’ve also established a network of local law firms throughout Asia that we know have the particular expertise and skills that our clients need. We integrate their recommendations and views into our advice so that we can provide coordinated and sustainable approaches to the legal issues that our clients face.
We are aiming to be the key contact for our international clients in Asia when they require advice on regulatory compliance or investigations. We can be the lead firm for Asian businesses and their local legal advisors, who may be looking for advice on ever-changing U.S. and EU regulatory requirements, guidance on interpreting legal and business requirements, and understanding the bigger geopolitical landscape.
ALB: How important is law firm culture, according to you? What kind of internal culture are you looking to foster?
Wysong: I’ve sought to incorporate the work culture that I learned in the government; teamwork but self-reliance, shared goals but appreciation for individual differences, encouragement of “can do” attitudes and no tolerance for “can don’t” naysayers. In the government, I had autonomy and authority, but also responsibility and accountability. I would go from a seat at the table with the U.S. Attorney General back to the office to tear apart the copy machine in the middle of the night to get a brief finished. Useful skills for a managing partner in an office without 24-hour secretarial services.
Culture is created by people and it doesn’t matter how much you’re paid if you’re working with jerks. By nature, litigation, dispute resolution, investigations, and to a certain extent, compliance puts counsel in an adversarial role. It’s important, therefore, that your colleagues provide support, encouragement, and collegiality. Steptoe prides itself on that and deservedly so.
ALB: What are the keys to succeeding in the region for a firm or your size and focus? What are you currently doing well, and what are potential areas of improvement for you?
Wysong: Another important aspect of firm culture that I find of critical importance to the success of a branch office, is understanding how to work as an integrated global law firm. It isn’t enough to merely share a logo and interact only at periodic partner retreats. I’ve watched another “global” law firm’s U.S. office push aside its Hong Kong office on a case that the Hong Kong team brought into the firm. Rather than leveraging the local team to build a strong real-time relationship with the client, the U.S. office circumvented them and cut them out of the ongoing dialogue with the client. Tired of the in-fighting, the client fired the whole firm and brought us in to have the benefit of a U.S. and Hong Kong team working together, with integrated systems and skillsets.
Our team in Hong Kong works closely with our teams in other offices around the globe to ensure that our clients have the best lawyers wherever they happen to be based. We offer our clients advice and counsel during their business day and 24-hour monitoring of developments overseas. We cross-serve them. Particularly now, when travel is restricted, working with cross-border teams in the clients’ interests should be part of a firm’s DNA.
ALB: Where would you like to see the office five years from now?
Wysong: We plan to expand our offering in Hong Kong within the next five years to include other lawyers and practices, including Hong Kong qualified lawyers in keeping with local regulations.
I would like clients to have us on speed-dial. Our ambition is to achieve brand recognition for the firm in the key areas of our expertise. We are not planning to be “everything for everyone.” We have a reputation for technical excellence and strategic experience, for which we are recognized as thought leaders. We are brought in by clients and if needed, we work collaboratively with other advisers, to achieve successful outcomes.
ALB: What motto do you live by?
Wysong: When one door closes, find another one. As I said earlier, life presents a lot of opportunities but if one door doesn’t open for you, there is no sense in beating your head against it or quitting. Just find another door. I didn’t get the high school internship in Washington D.C. but I moved there after law school; I didn’t get a promotion I’d been promised, so I moved to Hong Kong which opened up a new world of possibilities (and the promotion); I got fired by a client who re-hired me a month later after recognising my advice was correct.
And also, have courage and be kind.
ALB Conversations is a weekly series of in-depth Q&As with leaders of law firms and in-house legal departments across Asia. If you are a managing partner or general counsel based in the region who is interested in being a part of this series, please send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.