Recently elected as Baker McKenzie’s first Asian global chair, Milton Cheng has ambitious plans to grow the firm’s Mainland China presence, while maintaining a steady commitment to the Hong Kong market. In an interview with ALB, Cheng also unpacks his plan to boost gender diversity and streamline the firm’s global network.

 

ALB: You’ve received a lot of recognition in the media for being the firm’s first Asia-based chair, do you think your election signals an effort to focus on Asia going forward?

CHENG: Baker McKenzie has always been a truly global firm with no one region dominating our management or our culture. I like to see myself as the latest in a series of firsts that we have led the legal sector on: First female chair with Christine Lagarde in 1999, first Latin American chair in 2010 with Eduardo Leite and now with myself as our first Asian chair. I think it is a big tribute to the region and recognition of the growth and the growing importance of Asia, but also an example of how, in Baker McKenzie, everyone has the opportunity to be successful and to lead, regardless of background.

ALB: Baker McKenzie recently set 40:40:20 gender targets for 2025. Can you tell us about some of the initiatives you have in place to achieve this?

CHENG: I am a big supporter of these targets and we are already making great progress toward this critical goal. We have more female partners than any other law firm and for the last three years our promotions to partner have been 40 percent women. However, we still have a number of our locations that have no or very few women partners at senior levels of management. So, we need to do everything to make sure our firm is a fair and inclusive place to work, acknowledging that in some cases we may need to do even more to address underlying structural or other impediments and that we create the best environment for all our people. Which is why we announced the Gender Aspirational Targets in July. I am proud we were the first global law firm to do so.

From last July all candidate pools for external recruitment for partners or senior business professionals should meet the new targets. From July 2020, for offices which do not yet have at least 25 percent women partners, at least one out of four partner promotions should be a woman. Offices with no female partners must advance a woman partner by July 1, 2023.

ALB: What are your plans for China heading into 2020?

CHENG: 2020 will be a year of some significance to our firm in China and glob-ally, as it marks the fifth anniversary of the establishment of our joint operation office with FenXun Partners in the Shanghai FTZ. Over the years, the team has grown six-fold in size, serving an expanding suite of domestic and multinational clients. We have recently confirmed that we are exploring plans to take this co-operation a stage further by expanding our presence in the Greater Bay Area, including potentially applying or offices in the southern Chinese technology hub of Shenzhen.

ALB: Hong Kong has recently gone through a period of upheaval. Going into the New Year, what are some of the areas of opportunity you see in the market?

CHENG: Hong Kong is certainly under-going a challenging period, but equally Hong Kong has proven time and time again that it can over-come major challenges and remain a key financial centre. Going into 2020, China’s Belt & Road and Greater Bay Area initiative will continue to be a major source of opportunities for businesses in Hong Kong across a wide spectrum of sectors including for law firms. As an international financial centre at the doorstep of Mainland China, I am confident that Hong Kong will continue to be a vital conduit to cross-border trade and investments between China and the rest of the world.

ALB: What are your plans for the immediate future?

CHENG: The complexity of any organisation like this is a challenge. I have found the enthusiasm and helpfulness of so many people has helped me as I take on the role, so I feel well prepared. My top three priorities for the next few months coming into this new role are to listen and engage, work with the global board to agree and communicate short, medium and long term goals and chart a clear implementation plan for the next 12 months and beyond, and articulate and attain buy-in of the plan as I visit offices around the world and talk to our partners and our people.

 

To contact the editorial team, please email ALBEditor@thomsonreuters.com.