An Interview with Laurent Tam Nguyen
Laurent, as an introduction maybe you can tell us something about yourself and your
profession. About the things you do on a day-by-day basis in the legal sector and so
I am a business development and marketing professional with a passion for building and transforming brands into sustainable businesses.
In 2007 right after WTO, we decided with my wife to live a new life and settled down in Vietnam.
Realizing the needs for marketing services were growing, I founded my company and since we have been servicing companies in various industry sectors not only in Vietnam but in the ASEAN region, and now in Europe and in the US. We help companies build their brands and improve their business development and marketing capabilities, reputation, teams. Ultimately we help them create a better impact on their markets.
In terms of background, I am a former Arthur Andersen marketing manager when the firm was the global leader in advisory services (audit, legal, tax, consulting). Over there, I learned the fundamentals of successful global professional service organization: the immense power of a well structured brand, the multi-disciplinary approach, global client development programs and great execution and delivery. The only thing that has changed since is the impact of technology that can make all these critical growth components easier and faster. This experience naturally brought me to cross path with professional services firms and notably law firms.
Over the past 12 years in Southeast Asia, I have helped professional services organizations, including preeminent legal and Multi-Disciplinary Practice firms, bring their brands to the next level and develop in ASEAN.
In the legal sector, I am servicing a number of law firms from boutique law firms to ASEAN regional players. I am representing the ASEAN Legal Tech Association in Vietnam. I have recently created an informal network of BD professionals in Vietnam.
You are the Founder and General Manager of Digital Mekong. Digital Mekong is a creative marketing agency in the ASEAN region providing tailormade marketing and communication strategies to all industries, including the legal services sector. It represents an innovative approach to legal practice. What are its key elements? How do you provide value?
Digital Mekong is a virtual marketing agency. It is an innovative form of marketing agency as we leverage on an ecosystem of freelancing talents (designers, photographers, video producers, IT developers…). We aggregate the teams and skills depending on each clients’ needs and objectives. As we operate from Vietnam without overheads costs, we are then capable to offer state of the art marketing services at local costs with agility, flexibility and price efficiency,
We serve clients in all industries including B2B services, F&B, hospitality, startups and of course professional services including legal.
For law firms, we increasingly act as a CMO (Chief Marketing Officer) on demand, allowing firms to build a growth roadmap in a price efficient way.
What we do for law firms is to create growth plan that can take them from legal 1.0 to 2.0, eventually for the most advanced 3.0 and implement it. This allows the firms to benefit from our experience helping law firms get to the next level ASEAN regional development in a very cost-effective manner.
One additional aspect law firms do appreciate is that we deliver our services under a BOT (Build Operate and Transfer) mode helping firms to build at the same time their own BD teams. We can build their own BD teams, coach them, train them and bring them to autonomy.
I had the immense opportunity to help DFDL and ZICO, 2 of the most fast growing law firms in SEA establish their brands, build their BD teams as their first regional marketing director under the CMO on demand mode, leaving for each firms operational BD teams of more than 10 promising individuals across the region and helping them to significantly develop their practices across the region. I am currently helping a number of other law firms develop in the region as well with the same operating model.
What’s so appealing to you about the legal services sector in the ASEAN region?
It offers many exciting opportunities. Several mega trends are impacting the ASEAN legal markets:
ASEAN is growing fast at an unparalleled pace. By 2030, ASEAN should become the fourth-largest market (after EU, US, and China) benefiting from increased skilled workforce, abundant natural resources, and favourable geographic location for trade and commerce.
ASEAN is undergoing a fast digital transition. The SEA internet economy will grow x3 to reach $240 billion by 2025 according to Google’s annual study on e-ASEAN. The digital economy-ready population will naturally impact the legal services industry. The huge push for digital under industry 4.0 will create opportunities for law firms.
ASEAN local champions are expanding. M.A.C.s (Multi ASEAN Corporations) are blossoming. Regionalization is accelerating. In 2017, the largest M&A transaction in Vietnam was a Thai company acquiring a VN brewer. Indonesia has already 5 Unicorns…
ASEAN economies are entrepreneur and family oriented businesses: 96% businesses are SMEs. They represent a huge source of legal work, provided legal pricing is not perceived as an obstacle.
ASEAN is more than ever part of the global economy. The situation of hyper competition that can be found in more mature economies can now be spotted in ASEAN and it forces legacy stakeholders to adapt with the convergence in the market of Big 4 legal arms, New Law, Legal Tech, and emerging new local dynamic firms, regional networks and other law firms from major FDI contributors in the region (Korea, Japan, China…).
Overall, the Asia-Pacific legal industry is a $90.6 billion market that is growing at 5% CAGR…and projected to grow to $111.1 billion by 2020. (Sources: MarketLine, 2016 | State of the Asia-Pacific legal market Forces shaping firms of the future by Eric Chin)
Vietnam is your home base. What would you say is the current overall climate for (foreign) law firms looking for opportunities in Vietnam? Does that differ from opportunities in the ASEAN region in general? And if so, how?
Vietnam has the status of a regional outperformer. Since 2010, Viet Nam’s GDP growth has been at least 5% per year, and in 2018 it peaked at 7.1%. Vietnam’s GDP expanded 6.98 percent in the January-September period, the highest nine-month growth rate over the past nine years according to Vietnam General Statistics Office (GSO) allowing the country to remain one of the fastest growing economies in Southeast Asia.
In Vietnam, there is definitely growth dividends for law firms now. Many well established law firms in the market reported a double digit growth in 2018. They remain very optimistic for 2019.
Some market drivers are currently impacting the legal market in VN, notably:
The US-China trade war
The rising costs of doing business in China
The rising number of FTAs. For example, the EVFTA (Free Trade Agreement between Vietnam and the EU), even if not ratified yet, brings a surge of interest of European companies for Vietnam. Many more French mid-sized companies are looking at settling down in industry, food processing ….
The development of the economy notably to new horizons and activities : Fintech, e commerce, solar energy, startups just to name a few…
Last but not least, a relative political stability compared to other ASEAN countries…
In Vietnam, the competition in the legal sector is also increasing. The local battle for clients and talents includes notably :
International firms (with international network or only local) often founded or led by foreign lawyers since the 1990’s-BakerMcKenzie, Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, Russin Vecchi, Frasers, Allen Overy, Mayer Brown,etc.
Dynamic regional firms such as DFLD, Rajah Tann LCT, ZICO Law, Tilleke Gibbins, etc.
Vietnamese market leaders VILAF and YKVN
A new generation of dynamic Vietnamese law firms founded by Vietnamese lawyers with international background or coming from larger firms such as LNT, Lexcomm and this segment will increase in the future.
These firms are as many opportunities as potential local partners for foreign law firms willing to develop their cross-border activities with Vietnam.
As for the region, Acritas describes it as “incredibly diverse”. ASEAN remains a mosaic of 10 countries with very different stages of development (including education), contrasted markets and business environments, various legal systems and a wide range of local sensitivities.
Each country has its own fundamentals and own business opportunities for law firms but currently Vietnam is certainly witnessing a great momentum.
When you think about development, planning and implementation of (innovative) marketing and business development strategies, what’s overall your opinion on this current process in the Legal sector? Do you see differences between Asian, American and European firms in their daily operation and how they develop, plan and implement these (innovative) strategies?
“Growing a practice requires a director or partner to take risks, which by definition is, attempting something without a certain outcome. That uncertainly is quite different to the confidence with which successful lawyers otherwise approach much of their client work”. Jacob Albridge, Consultant, Business Depot | Deloitte
The legal industry is known to be quite conservative in general.
Working with firms with various sizes, geographical footprint and partnership with Western to Asian origin, I do not see not much difference between Asian, American and European firms actually. Adopting and implementing of (innovative) marketing and business development strategies is more a matter of:
Mindset & strategy: does the firm have a clear growth roadmap and is it willing to invest in people, technology and processes to achieve it? is it ready to change its part of its culture and organization subsequently?
Resources: technology may be perceived as expensive but it is actually less and less costly. Essentially, is the firm financially robust enough to absorb new people and teams able to implement innovative strategies, tools and very importantly to maintain them consistently over time. Can the firm find in its own jurisdiction the right human resources to simply “get these things done”?
Market maturity and pressure: how large or sophisticated are your clients? where and how are they developing? how sophisticated are your competitors? are they growing faster than your firm?
In the developing legal markets of ASEAN, most of the firms are SME practices. Most of these I have been in contact with are progressively transitioning from Law 1.0 (basic practice management solutions, MS office, limited website, no social media...) to Law 2.0 (the adoption of cloud-based document sharing platforms, office 365, responsive websites, online marketing...). Very few have reached Law 3.0 (collaborative work and tools, software as a service tools, customer relationship management, automation, analytics...).
Amongst all websites from law firms in Vietnam ranked on Legal Directories (Legal 500, Chambers, AsiaLaw, IFLR), more than 20% are still not responsive. This is an indication of firms’ sensitivity to some aspects of tech and business development critical tools.
In ASEAN, since the maturity and sophistication of the legal markets is of course very diverse, innovation can simply be achieving simple wins that could be considered mundane in other jurisdictions:
Adopting Sharepoint and basic collaborative tools
Publishing well written English content
Implementing a responsive website and communicate through social medias
Timekeeping on smartphones
Adopting CRM systems
At the end of the day, the critical concern is very often beyond the supposedly financial burden a matter of human resources and right skills. The business development professional community in developing ASEAN is still limited but it is a WIP and there are very promising individuals who will be tomorrow the key transforming agents for local and regional firms willing to grow.
My experience is that most of the firms that have been able to engage in (innovative) business development and marketing strategies and start to dedicate appropriate resources are local champions and some regional players or firms that are demonstrating a real commitment to get to the next level.
Many lawyers, GC and corporate counsel talk about the importance of the business of law and it looks like they easily adopt words like Brand Management, Consultative Selling, Legal Tech, A.I., workflow software etc. not knowing what it really stands for. Do you also experience this lack in knowledge and how do you cope with the difference in knowledge levels?
According to Deloitte Management Global Human Capital Trends 2018, if 90% CEOS believe their company is facing disruptive change due to technology,
30% believe they have the skills to cope with the changes
17% feel they are ready to manage a workforce with people, AI and robots
14% are highly confident in their ability to harness the changes associated to industry 4.0
A vast majority of lawyers and GCs are likely to be in the same situations than most CEOs.
The evolution of the legal industry into the business of law is relatively recent and most of these concepts did not exist a few years ago in the market, hence certainly a knowledge deficit in some of these areas.
There is also certainly a lot of buzz on certain concepts or technologies that today are still at very experimental phases with no real business realities behind.
There is no magic recipe to fill these gaps but there are always essential questions to focus on:
What are the real critical pain points the company is facing today to get to the next level?
Does it have a growth road map?
What kind of resources are available to achieve their development plan?
These questions will drive the adoption of relevant technologies and solutions to accelerate the firms’ development.
I am often surprised to see that in the business of law some fundamentals are not often enough taken care of
Brand management is not treated as a critical asset
Client development program do not always exist
Interpersonal skills are not systematically developed
Firms very rarely leverage on their data to simply know their clients better and be more efficient
Each situation may be different and depends on the strategy and resources of each firm but helping firms to transform goes through :
Helping the firms’ management to change mindset
Helping adopt a growth roadmap
Focus on some of the fundamentals mentioned above with gradual implementation starting with low hanging fruits
Assisting in the implementation notably by helping them build their own Business development and marketing human capacities and skills
Do you think that Law Schools understand the need to change the traditional curriculum or at least give more attention to the business of law, including topics like marketing, business development and strategy?
I think they do but the trend is recent and it has not impacted all the facets of the business of law and of course not all parts of the world.
Going beyond academic legal skills in law curriculum is a discussion that probably started 10-12 years ago with various academics and researchers notably in the US starting to realize how the marketplace was changing.
Since quite a number of Law Schools notably in sophisticated legal markets have implemented programs, incubators that focus on all facets of the business of law. The startup Legal Tech scene is also accelerating the trend towards “beyond legal” skills. Understanding the marketplace, learning the business of getting business were the primary objectives and we see now also more and more bridges towards technology. In the LegalTech segment, Singapore Management University (SMU) is collaborating with the Singapore Academy of Law’s Future Legal Innovation Program to develop and share education resources for example.
The legal marketplace is changing extremely quickly and pure legal profession has now become a segment of a wider law industry with nonlawyers, technologists, and entrepreneurs. Legal delivery involves today legal; technological, and a set of soft skills. Understanding all three and being able to combine them are a must have for young graduates and practicing lawyers.
A very insightful 2009 study by Shultz and Zedeck identified 26 lawyer effectiveness factors grouped into 8 main categories.
Key takeaway is that traditional legal academic curriculum teaches a mere subset of what enables a lawyer to be effective.
In the Asian markets I am familiar with except to some extent Singapore and in some large firms active in the region, the trend towards training of lawyers in non legal skills is still extremely limited and the study takeaway is very valid. Subject expertise is traditionally well covered when business skills and more importantly soft skills are barely addressed.
Best lawyers (Asian or Western) I have met are those who have been able to develop persuasive and interpersonal communication skills and very importantly overcome some local cultural barriers such as fear to fail and capacity to speak up in any circumstances. They have then become extremely capable managers and problem solvers.
In most cases, these lawyers have also been educated abroad out of Asia.
As ambassador in Vietnam for the alumni of my business school, I often meet with Vietnamese alumni who did a master in France. They all have great manager roles in their companies and their key takeaway from this experience is for all : “ think out of the box”.
This attitude is the first step to acquire complex problem-solving skills that will enable tomorrow law school graduates to communicate and collaborate in a highly complex, globalized and fast changing ecosytems.
Creating of a new model of legal professional education or training that better prepares future young lawyers for the business challenges ahead goes through this. If law schools do not address these yet, firms need to bring this to their staff. It is part now of their attractiveness in the ragging battle for talents and the key for their future.
There is a lot of discussion ongoing about disruption in the legal market: a big bang against incremental chance. Some say the legal market is on the verge of a disruptive force that will have a huge effect on the market. Then again, others say change will be an incremental process and the market will evolve naturally. What are your thoughts on this?
“The future of legal services will be a world of virtual courts, Internet based global legal businesses, online document production, commoditized service, legal process outsourcing, and web-based simulated practice. Legal markets will be liberalized, with new jobs, and new employers for lawyers”
If the legal innovation movement is becoming a truly global phenomenon which is impacting South East Asia now, as of today I note :
Legal is tech is impacting more and more all areas in the practice of law and the business of law but gradually,
Adoption from Corporation is also incremental. Since “more for less” is driving GCs budget criteria, corporations are redistributing year by year their legal wallets arbitrating between traditional lawyering, New Law and internal resources leveraging more and more on Legal Tech and Legal ops but incrementally.
(ACC Australia, Leading practice report 2017, State of the Asia-Pacific legal market by Eric Chin)
Legal Tech for Law firms tends to be more widespread in larger organizations but smaller firms are willing to stay in the game and start to realize they need to change to survive in the long run. The tech adoption is also processed step by step. It is also strongly encouraged in certain jurisdictions with government incentives and appropriate programs such as Singapore Flip and Techcelerate initiatives. Changing mindsets is often a long process in this regards.
Big-bang disruption happens when generally innovation due to technology or new services are becoming both low-cost and low-risk and then, once launched, enters their markets at ultra-high speed.
Rather than a big bang, a slow-motion disruption is probably more what I see has happened over the past few years with the rise of legal startups, millennials in the marketplace, investments of large firms in tech, competition and corporate pressure on costs.
But this trend is transforming into an accelerating evolution.
In Singapore for example in 2018, 47% of Singapore legal departments have increased their adoption of legal tech and 190 of 922 law firms have accessed the government LegalTech subsidy.
South Korea’s Yulchon has been investing in its own legal tech programs since 2014; Singapore’s Rajah & Tann has founded Rajah & Tann Technologies by acquiring an e-discovery startup; Clifford Chance has its own global innovation lab in Singapore since December 2018. Nagashima Ohno & Tsunematsu (top 4 law firm in Japan) just formed an alliance with legal technology firm MNTSQ Ltd. That will help the firm conduct due diligence using natural language technology.
These digital waves are certainly impacting more and more all aspects of the legal industry except what makes the profession so special: the trust between the client and his adviser, and the ability to bring sound judgement in complex (human) situations with no computerized precedents if ever this can be.
The heart of business Law practice is a human to human interaction built on trust. It is a personal-service industry and this core aspect is unlikely to change but the slow motion disruption and accelerating evolution mentioned earlier are triggering adjustments in a profession that had almost not changed since early days.
“Lawyers largely think they are selling their expertise in law. But more than that, they are selling supportive relationships. In the future, this is going to be more and more of what they are selling than just law. Because after all, a lot of law is going to be googl-ised.” Dr Bob Murray, organizational Psychologist, Deloitte presentation @ Techcelerate Singapore May 2019
What advice can you offer the young legal professionals or aspiring legal entrepreneurs about starting a company and working for a legal startup?
In general, I would say that young generations are lucky to live in a very opened world where access to information, experience, mentoring is transparent and easy. This is a huge opportunity to learn and grow faster. So be curious.
With globalization and influence of tech, business ecosystems are changing so fast that ability to remain opened and flexible is the norm. 100 days / year are considered now to be the volume of training necessary to ensure individuals skills stay relevant. So learn every day.
For ASEAN young legal professionals, I would advise them to travel and discover the incredible diversity of their region and all their cultural nuances. So travel, meet and work with other peers from other countries.
For young ASEAN legal professionals who are arriving on the marketplace:
Do not fear technology, use it smartly
Do to hesitate to speak up
For those who are aspiring to dive into the legal (tech) startup world:
Screen well your marketplace,
Check how sophisticated are the markets and clients you are targeting and define as well as possible your value proposition
Be very humble on pricing and transparent on hidden costs (particularly on implementation costs and skills needed to implement new solutions)
Focus on service delivery and client relationship
About the Author Entrepreneur and consultant, Laurent Tam Nguyen is a Senior Business Development & Marketing Specialist with 25+ years experience founding-managing businesses and leading marketing-business development operations in ASEAN and France.
Based in HCMC since 2007, he has founded 2 companies including Digital Mekong, an innovative marketing agency helping companies develop branding and business development strategies leveraging on freelancing talents (digitalmekong.com). His clients include regional based companies in a wide range of industries such as B2B services, F&B, hospitality, startups…
Within Digital Mekong, he is acting as a CMO
(Chief Marketing Officer) on demand, allowing companies to build their marketing foundations and teams in an alternative and price efficient way. Under this model, Laurent acted as the 1st Regional Marketing Director for 2 preeminent legal firms (DFDL, leading law firm in the Mekong region | ZICO, 1st Multi-Disciplinary firm listed on SGX) helping develop their reputation and business in ASEAN. Currently assisting numerous law firms to transform their business development capabilities and brand.
Vietnam representative of ASEAN Growth Hack platforms such as NSCS (Malaysia) and The Maven (Singapore) Vietnam representative for the ASEAN Legal Tech Association