written by Chris Chu, Director at Lewis Sanders
Timothy Ma, Head of International Privacy and Data Protection Department, Head of International Financial Legal at Tencent
To go in-house or not – that is a question faced by many lawyers by the time they hit mid-level. But not Timothy Ma. He decided on building his long term career in-house when he was just 3 PQE. Our Director, Chris Chu, sat down with Tim to chat about what the journey has been like and take a peek into what it is like to work in the legal team for one of the largest tech firms in the world.
C: Chris Chu T: Timothy Ma
C: When did you make the move in-house and what made you go for it at the time?
T: I moved in-house in April 2012. Back then, I had been an IPO lawyer for two years and it started to get boring… and exhausting. In private practice, you usually have to specialise in a particular area, rather than have exposure to a variety of areas, whereas I’m the type of person who likes to try new things, likes to learn, and likes to take on new challenges. The tech industry was already developing quite rapidly, so I wanted to find a tech firm to join, and Tencent was one of the larger ones at that time – so I made the move. At the same time, getting a healthier work-life balance was a big drive too.
C: I was going to ask you whether work-life balance was a factor, actually.
T: I’m not shy to say that that was one of the reasons. Being a capital markets lawyer, I was often committing to two or even three all-nighters in a row. It was really not sustainable. So a part of moving in-house was about me trying to find some work-life balance.
C: Back in 2012, did you know or have a feeling that Tencent would grow into what it is today?
T: No, absolutely not! (laughs)
C: So that’s a pleasant surprise then. You just never know with tech firms, right?
T: Correct. It’s very important to do your homework, know what the management looks like, and understand their vision, to assess if the company will grow successfully.
C: Lawyers moving in-house always feel like they need to make some adjustments initially – what was it like for you?
T: It wasn’t too much of an adjustment actually. When I joined, I was working directly for the Head of Legal and it was just a two-man team. He was from a Magic Circle firm, and since I was from an international firm also, the management style was something I was used to. Also, Tencent management and internal clients were similar to the clients I served while in private practice, and so we all spoke the same language. The only difference was that there wasn’t as much administrative support. We didn’t have secretarial support but that was easily overcome. I was quite junior at the time, so I just rolled up my sleeves.
Closer to the business, making bigger impact
C: What about the idea of being closer to the business? Can you tell us more about that, especially in the beginning?
T: It’s a very exciting aspect for in-house lawyers. Your advice can more directly impact how the company will develop. When you are at law firm, sometimes it is more piece-meal advice that you are giving to your clients and it is up to them to decide if they will implement those suggestions. Being an in-house lawyer, once you have become a trusted advisor to your internal clients, they actually respect you a lot and they will try their very best to implement your advice. Having spent more time with them, you get to know them better in terms of their style, as well as their aims and goals, so you will be able to provide more business-minded legal advice. Obviously they will still challenge you, challenge your judgment and advice, but because you are so much closer to the business compared to an external law firm, you carry much more weight when you are providing advice. This in turns gives you huge job satisfaction, knowing you make an impact.
C: Candidates are increasingly asking us about opportunities in the tech world. They all see it as a cool and hip kind of thing. Is Tencent / WeChat as cool as everyone thinks it is?
T: (laughs) I think it is even cooler! It’s all about innovation and changing different aspects of people’s daily lives. What makes our job more fun is that the advice we are providing would actually impact on how people use WeChat. WeChat is a large ecosystem with loads of services, so there are many legal issues that we need to look into, such as regulatory issues, liaising with governments, and online payment issues. All of these areas involve looking at various kinds of laws, so we are able to learn many new things, and that is extremely exciting. Now that I look after data privacy, it is even more rewarding to know that users entrust us with how their privacy is protected.
C: There are so many new products being released by Tencent or by the tech world in general. How do you keep pace with all the new legal issues? Do you hang out with other tech lawyers?
T: What we do is have a very solid panel of law firms, ones that we have grown with. There are a few firms that we have worked with for many years, so the lawyers there know our business inside out. We get feedback and updates about what other people are doing, or what the new legal issues are. Also, we keep very close contact with various of regulators, such as the ones in Hong Kong, the MAS in Singapore, BNM in Malaysia etc. We keep close contact to understand where they are coming from and what their concerns are, so we can get a hand on the market and understand what the legal issues are.
C: If there is one thing you could have done differently about your career, what would that be?
T: I wouldn’t change anything. When I moved in-house, I was 3 PQE. A lot of people were sceptical and thought I was too junior to move in-house when I did. Some people think you don’t get paid as much if you move in-house too early. I did take a pay cut, but money was not my main concern. As mentioned, my main aim was to learn new things, find new challenges, and to have a better work-life balance. Also, even though I decided to become an in-house lawyer for the long term, my private practice experience helped shape my career too. So, looking back, I would not change a thing at all.
Be open-minded, embrace new challenges
C: Okay, so on the flip side, what is the best decision you made in your career?
T: Aside from moving in-house and joining Tencent, it is that I have consciously adopted an open-mindedness and a willingness to embrace new challenges. As a result, I have come a long way from being a capital markets lawyer to now being involved in FinTech, GR, and privacy. If I wasn’t open-minded, none of that that wouldn’t have happened. It’s been a lot of hard work, but it has been worthwhile. Being open-minded is a key piece of advice I would give to people thinking about in-house.
C: What is it like juggling between a corporate job and family?
T: I think Tencent is an ideal place for in-house lawyers. It appreciates that talent and employees are important assets, and they put this into action by putting an emphasis on work-life balance and making sure that employees have enough time to rest and the opportunity to recharge. The legal function is well-resourced, meaning we have a good budget to hire external lawyers, which allows me to have more control over the time spent on my work and family.
If things are urgent, then they’re urgent, and we will act accordingly. But if a task is not urgent, then stakeholders are fine to wait. They’re generally understanding and respectful at Tencent. Compare this with private practice, where when a client says they want this by Monday morning 9 am, then regardless of urgency you have to scrap all your weekend plans and work overnight.
C: What is your advice for young lawyers? And do you have any role models?
T: It’s what I said earlier: keep an open mind, and embrace new challenges. These traits are what I look for when recruiting lawyers for Tencent. It’s quite important for young lawyers to have these traits.
My role model is Steve jobs. The “stay hungry, stay foolish” thing from him is inspirational for us as lawyers, as we need to appreciate that we are not able to know everything, and when you don’t know something, just go and learn so that you can be expert in that area.