HK firm OLN marks 30 years

Hong Kong firm Oldham, Li & Nie (OLN) celebrates its 30th anniversary this month. John Kang talks to founding partner Gordon Oldham about his firm’s biggest growth, achievements and challenges in the past three decades.

ALB: What have been some of the most significant achievements for Oldham, Li & Nie?
Oldham: From my point of view, our most important achievement is reaching the point where we are now able to attract high calibre partners and associates to help grow the firm and widen our business base. The light bulb moment came when we realised that to grow, we had to upgrade the skills of our people. They say A-Grade people hire up, B-Grade people hire C-Grade people and C-Grade people don’t hire at all! We put this into practice and have attracted local and international talent who felt being a small cog in a big wheel, undertaking the 16-hour days, at large law firms wasn’t for them. Creating opportunities and an environment for capable people who want to shine in their own right has been very important to our business strategy.

ALB: In which practice areas are you seeing the biggest growth, and what has been driving it?
Oldham: We are mostly a business-centric firm and, of course, the key to such is a deep knowledge of accounting and finance. Being Hong Kong based, a lot of our work involves overseas and cross-border business transactions. Because of this, we created a tax department where our partners and associates are dual-qualified in both law and accounting. Indeed, tax and business advisory as well as our digital business group are driven by our focus on business related matters. Although, curiously enough we are also seeing continued growth in our matrimonial department given the financial implications of divorcing!

Needless to say, the untiring ability of tax authorities around the world to make tax more and more complicated has increased the need for familiarity with international tax regimes. Furthermore, the increase in business transactions undertaken digitally has dictated that we seize opportunities ahead of the curve. The advent of Bitcoin, ICOs and other digital exotica means we have to be in a constant learning mode and anticipate what is coming next.

ALB: What were some of the biggest challenges for OLN?
Oldham: The biggest challenge for most businesses is the transition from an entrepreneur-led enterprise to a fully-fledged business. OLN has brought in human resources managers who introduce skill sets – people managing – that lawyers aren’t necessarily always gifted with! In addition, having someone acting as the CEO, dedicated to the development of the firm as a business, has been hugely significant for us. It is surprising the number of firms that believe they can grow without the specific skill sets that one finds in a business development manager, human resources manager and CEO.

ALB: How has the Hong Kong legal market evolved in the past three decades, and how did OLN adapt?
Oldham: In common with business in general, the internet has democratized the Hong Kong legal market and taken away a lot of the issues that was previously associated with it.  

We adopted a long time ago, not necessarily refined but certainly applicable mantra “Practical Legal Solutions – On Time – No Excuses”. The emphasis has always been on providing practical solutions that understand and address the clients’ needs. This practical approach arose from actually listening and adapting to our clients’ requirements!  

ALB: What’s next for OLN? What are you most optimistic and not optimistic about?
Oldham: What I am optimistic and excited about is our ability to thrive and grow. We will continue to pursue the OLN business strategy of establishing business groups that cater for companies involved in both local and international business and providing these clients with tailored, practical and above all results oriented business solutions.

What I’m not optimistic about is that dispute resolution in Hong Kong seems to be getting slower and slower. Our Judiciary are amongst the finest in the world yet the support that they seem to be getting from the underlying government authorities seems to be sadly lacking. One of Hong Kong’s greatest claims is its adherence to the rule of law and the way that justice is dispensed within a timely and relevant manner. However it’s now embarrassing to say to a client that notwithstanding the fact that they have all of the merits of the case, it may be two or three years before it comes to a trial. It’s not just a question of increasing the number of judges, it’s giving judges more administrative support. Justice delayed is justice denied.