Career Hack is thrilled to be presenting Kent Wong, an accomplished international legal professional with a depth and breadth of experience that many aspiring internationalists would love to achieve. Today we’ll shed some light on his own path and see if he can’t give us some insights on crafting our own extraordinary international careers.
1. Please tell us briefly about your bio and background. Your career has been highly diverse in both scope and scale and we’d love to see what you’ve done.
I grew up and was educated in New Zealand.
After graduating law school, rather than taking the usual “OE” (overseas experience) route to the UK (which most New Zealanders do) I went to the US and worked for several years. After moving from the US, I have worked in Korea, Cambodia and Hong Kong on a variety of corporate finance and cross-border transactions.
2. How did you end up with an expatriate career in the legal field? Can you tell us your “origin story?”
I was never particularly enthused by litigation and commercial disputes. It seemed too procedural for me, so I preferred law with a more international dimension. I had always wanted to experience Asia at some point, ever since my high school days, when I had traveled throughout Singapore and Malaysia. A summer internship gave me the opportunity to work on some antitrust cases at a major Korean firm and it gave me a feel for what it was like to work and live in Asia. I have always had an interest in international relations and diverse cultures, having traveled extensively during my youth.
3. Do you feel that there exist strong opportunities for young legal professionals to break into opportunities abroad? What would they have to do to seize these opportunities?
There are many opportunities for young legal professionals to work abroad in various capacities, whether in private practice or non-profit fields. In order to seize these opportunities, they should do what every good legal professional does, research their area of interest and network as much as possible.
4. Can you tell us some of the most interesting projects you’ve worked on? How about the most challenging? In what ways did these experiences give you a unique competitive advantage as a manager and as an individual?
I have worked on a number of interesting projects throughout my career so far. One project involved the IPO of a Chinese fishing company on the Korea Stock Exchange. It was the third ever Chinese company listed on KOSPI (Korea’s main board) and was considered novel at the time. The listing also involved the first-ever pre-IPO issuance of Korean-won denominated convertible bonds (“Arirang Bonds”).
Apart from the technical side, this was made even more challenging by the use of English, Korean and Chinese in the negotiation and drafting of the legal documentation. Another project which stands out in my mind was a multi-jurisdictional M&A, worth over US$400million, which spanned Europe, Asia and the US. It required many late nights to tackle various legal issues (and due to time zones) and much cooperation with local counsel from throughout the globe. Now that I manage a legal team, these experiences developed my cross-cultural understanding and preference for broader, big picture outcomes.
5. Your career spans a wide range of locations. Did you choose these spots or did they choose you? Are these particular locations good for a career in the legal field?
I would like to think destiny played a part in the places I’ve worked in. A legal career can successfully made without being restricted by geographical boundaries.
6. Language fluency is increasingly becoming a basic requirement for international professionals – regardless of their position within the company. How have your language skills, or lack thereof, helped or hindered you in your journey?
Being fluent in another language is definitely an advantage in any occupation. Although I am not fully fluent or bilingual in Korean, I progressed to the management ranks at my firm. Languages are important, as well as your professional development.
7. For those young professionals in your field who don’t speak the local languages, how would you suggest they set themselves apart and break into the industry abroad?
I would suggest that young professionals highlight their desirable skill sets, areas of practice and qualifications and their affinity with the target region They could also demonstrate their specialized knowledge in a particular market or technology.
8. Please share with us any particularly humorous or outrageous stories you may have in your arsenal of expatriate experience.
- A partner, a former judge, of a major Korean firm was caught sleeping throughout a conference call.
- An attorney copied and pasted an entire due diligence report wholesale from a Chinese firm, including all typos and grammatical errors and then unceremoniously padded his timesheet for his “hard work”.
- To save legal costs, a client had an employee copy some contracts from a previous file. The employee left out a standard provision when copying over the file. The mistake was caught 5 years later, when the client had to defend a multi-million dollar lawsuit because of the omission.
9. Things have changed a lot since you first decided to work abroad. What sorts of things are now easier for international professionals? What things are more difficult?
Technology has made things easier for international professionals. For example, large document depositaries can be uploaded, shared and accessed around the world from one site. Communication is a lot easier and can be made in real time.
10. Where would you recommend that aspiring international legal professionals head? Are there any expatriate destinations that are more attractive than others for your field?
It depends on the individual. I know lawyers who have headed to the sun and surf of the Cayman Islands. Others have toughed out the cold in Moscow. Great legal center locations are London, New York and Hong Kong. Working from here can be the stepping stone to other locations throughout Europe and Asia.
11. What steps should students currently in law school take to set themselves up to break into an international career in law?
Current students should take advantage of study abroad or exchange programs, participate in clubs or groups relating to subjects such as international human rights or rule of law, and study a language.
About Kent Wong
Kent is a senior foreign attorney and partner at APEX LLC, a leading law firm in Korea. Kent is a member of the banking & finance team and heads the International Practice Group. Kent represents major Korean financial institutions investing overseas as well as foreign clients with business interests in Korea. Prior to joining APEX LLC, he worked in the US, Korea, New Zealand and Cambodia. You can reach Kent at kentwong (at) hotmail.com.