Sam O'Malley: Living the Hong Kong life

by NZ Lawyer23 Mar 2016
If there’s one thing Sam O’Malley has learned while working as a lawyer in Hong Kong, it’s the high regard in which legal training in New Zealand is held.

“I didn’t fully realise until moving to Hong Kong just how lucky we are as junior lawyers in New Zealand in terms of the training we receive from our universities and the law firms that take us on,” O’Malley tells NZLawyer.

“I think the comparatively informal, collegial and flat working culture in New Zealand is a real advantage for New Zealand young lawyers coming through,” he says. “It lends itself to getting a higher level of access and ability to learn directly from partners and other senior practitioners than junior lawyers in larger jurisdictions might enjoy.

“It seems New Zealand trained lawyers are regarded highly [in] the Hong Kong legal market. Most of the advertisements for legal positions in Hong Kong will refer explicitly to New Zealand trained lawyers alongside the UK, US and Australian jurisdictions as being preferred for the role.”

Originally from Wellington and educated at Otago University, O’Malley made the move to Hong Kong in June, 2011. “Before moving here I worked in Bell Gully’s Wellington office for almost four years,” he says.

On what started the cogs turning on his move to Hong Kong, O’Malley says: “I was fortunate enough to have some family with professional connections to Asia, and talking to them about the region and its growing importance to New Zealand sparked my interest in living and working in Hong Kong.”

O’Malley then contacted a university friend who was working as a legal recruiter in Hong Kong. “He gave me an overview of Hong Kong’s legal market and which firms were strong in my area of practice.

“A short time later I started talking to Minter Ellison’s Hong Kong office, and after two interviews I undertook while still based in New Zealand, I took up a position in their Projects team.”

That team advises on infrastructure projects being undertaken in Hong Kong, Mainland China and Southeast Asia. “The projects I work on are mainly in the PPP, energy and resources and hospitality sectors,” O’Malley says. “We also advise on a reasonable amount of international trade matters, usually acting for Chinese SOEs or other commodity purchasers regarding their Australian coal purchasing activities.

“Periodically I also work on matters with a New Zealand element, alongside my colleagues at Minter Ellison Rudd Watts. These transactions usually involve a client of our Hong Kong office looking at an acquisition in New Zealand, or a company in New Zealand seeking to raise capital from Asia.”

O’Malley describes his day-to-day work as not particularly different from practicing in New Zealand, with a mix of contractual drafting, teleconferences and meetings throughout the day.

“Almost every project we work on has a cross-border component,” he says. “This means there is a lot of liaising required with in-house counsel in whichever Asian jurisdiction is relevant to the particular project. These jurisdictions are also not usually based on the Commonwealth legal system.

“One practical difference to practicing in New Zealand is that often the documents we will be working on will need to be translated into two or sometimes three languages, so building in time for, and managing, the translation process is a practical aspect of the job which differs from most New Zealand transactions.”

Currently, O’Malley is working on a Hong Kong Government-led PPP for a new sporting precinct, which has an expected development cost of NZ$4.5bn. “The centrepiece of the precinct will be a new national sports stadium which once completed will host the Hong Kong Sevens and the city’s other major events,” he says.

Asked what he enjoys most about his current role, O’Malley says: “I enjoy the fact that I get to practice an area of law I find interesting in a regional economy that’s only going to become more and more relevant to my generation over our working lives.
“Everyone that comes to Hong Kong to do business has a different background, world view and way of operating, which makes no two projects the same.”

And what would O’Malley cite as the most challenging facet of the role? “At a practical level the most challenging aspect of working in Hong Kong is not having the language skills (Mandarin and Cantonese) that a lot of our clients have,” he says. “This is relatively easily overcome, but if I could magically acquire an additional skill then languages would be it.”

Moving the discussion to daily life in Hong Kong, NZLawyer asked O’Malley what he finds most interesting about the city in which he currently resides. “Hong Kong, since it came into existence through an accident of history, has always been a unique meeting place between western and Chinese culture,” he says.

“This, combined with the city’s confined space (twice the size of Lake Taupo) and the fact the region is being looked to for the world’s growth over the next 50 years makes Hong Kong in my opinion the most unique world city.”

While living in Hong Kong does mean living within a foreign culture, O’Malley says there’s enough western influence to make Hong Kong “a very easy existence” for expats.

“Behind Singapore, Hong Kong is the most densely populated city on Earth. This is both a good and bad thing. It means we get world class public transport and cheap mobile phone and broadband plans. But it also makes it often difficult to walk down the footpath.”

O’Malley then raises the issue of housing. “Almost everyone in Hong Kong lives in small high rise apartments, and the rent is some of the most expensive in the world. However a top income tax rate of 17 percent makes these high rents manageable.”

Living in Hong Kong has required O’Malley to learn to live in a climate far removed from that to which he was previously accustomed. “Hong Kong’s average daily temperature is over 30 degrees plus for nine months a year. Wellington’s isn’t.”

Looking ahead, O’Malley contemplates where he sees himself in five years’ time - both in terms of his career and country of residence. “In five years I see myself continuing to practice law in a way that allows me to continue to have some exposure to China.

“Location wise, that could either happen here in Hong Kong or back in New Zealand.”

So what advice would O’Malley offer to a New Zealand lawyer considering a role in another country?

“I would recommend a sting in another jurisdiction to any New Zealand lawyer,” he says.

“I’d also encourage junior New Zealand lawyers to consider an OE experience somewhere in Asia. The connections made and experience gained here will often be directly relevant to your career if you want to someday return to New Zealand in a way that an OE in somewhere like London might not.”

The Hong Kong Market
“The trend in the Hong Kong market is all about how the city will carve out a place for itself within China, and its long term relationship with Beijing,” O’Malley says.

“Hong Kong is extremely dependent on the Mainland Chinese economy continuing to use the city as a professional services hub. However as was evidenced by the Occupy Central protests last year, this increasing dependency is raising a lot of social and political issues that have still not been resolved.”

He adds, “Beijing has the ability to do a lot of good things for Hong Kong, but it can also direct favour towards other cities within China that have designs on replacing Hong Kong as China’s professional services hub, such as Shanghai and Shenzhen.

“How well Hong Kong navigates the political process will go a long way towards determining the future success of the city, and as a consequence its legal services industry.”

So what are O’Malley’s own predictions? “I think Hong Kong will be okay,” he says.

“One of Hong Kong’s key comparative advantages over all other Chinese cities is its common law based legal system. I can’t see Beijing allowing a common law legal system to exist anywhere else within Mainland China.

“I think so long as Hong Kong continues to respect the Rule of Law, it will also continue to be a good place for lawyers!”