Scott Murray recently dropped by to talk with Mark Driscoll about his law firm Coudert Brothers and his work as President of the Australian-Thai Chamber of Commerce.
Mark grew up, was educated, articled and played Australian Rules Football in Sydney. For the greater part of his legal career, he practiced in Sydney for the oldest Australian law firm called Norton Smith & Co. His specialty was real estate, construction and environmental law and all of his clients had offices within the Sydney CBD.
But in July of 1999, Mark's firm merged with the major multinational law firm, Coudert Brothers, which had established an office in Sydney in 1984. Coudert Brothers itself was established in 1853 when two French brothers, Frederic René and Charles Coudert set up their law practice in New York City. Frederic René and Charles Coudert were later joined in the practice of law by their youngest brother, Louis Leounce, who in 1879, opened a branch office in Paris, called Coudert Frères, creating the first international law firm in the world.
When Coudert Brothers and Norton Smith & Co merged, Mark thought it would have little effect on him, as all his clients and work was Sydney based. Little did he know that Coudert Brothers had plans to send him to the Land of Smiles.
When in October 1999, he was first asked to consider going to Asia, Mark assumed it would be either Hong Kong or Singapore and was very surprised when it turned out to be Bangkok. "But I did a due diligence, I talked to a lot of people who had worked or were working in Asia and the consensus by far was that Bangkok was a very exciting place to work and the lifestyle was preferable to many other large cities in Asia."
One part of the reason why Mark was asked to go to Bangkok was that his predecessor, Michael Polkinghorne, was also an Australian, and he made such an impression here that the senior Thai partner, Dr. Chanvitaya Suvarnapunya, requested that his replacement also be an Australian. (Polkinghorne has since moved on to Paris to Coudert Brothers' European Arbitration Practice).
Asked to explain this preference, Mark says that he believes sometimes Australians have an easier time adjusting to a Thai lifestyle than other Westerners. The Thai attitude of "mai pen rai" is comparable to the Australian, "No worries mate, she'll be right" outlook. "Australians tend to have more relaxed personalities than other Westerners, and that is more in tune with Thai culture."
What makes Coudert Brothers special? It has pioneered the practice of international law. It was, for example, the first foreign law firm in Hong Kong (1972), Singapore (1972), Beijing (1979) Sydney (1984) and Moscow (1988). Today, it has approximately 240 lawyers practicing in 6 offices in North America, 300 lawyers in 14 offices in Europe and 120 lawyers in 7 offices in Asia-Pacific. Coudert Brothers is a single worldwide partnership with a unique network of offices linking all major world markets having both international and local law expertise.
Coudert Brothers has been providing legal services in Bangkok since July 1, 1990, initially through an association with a local Thai law firm, and independently since 1993. It has extensive experience in corporate and commercial law and all matters relating to foreign investment in Thailand and neighboring countries.
In Thailand, Coudert has particular expertise in securities, tax, dispute resolution, intellectual property and customs related matters. Since mid-1997, the Bangkok office has been working with other Coudert Brothers offices to develop region-wide expertise in financial restructuring workouts, bankruptcy and the enforcement of creditors' rights in order to advise on issues arising out of the financial crises in various Asian countries, including Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia and South Korea. The expertise of Coudert Brothers throughout Asia and the rest of the world supplement the experience of the Bangkok office.
How have Mark and Coudert Brothers' other western lawyers adjusted to Thai work habits and the Thai temperament? "As a Westerner, it is expected that you will show emotion. Despite this, in the workplace, Westerners must to be sensitive to Thai culture and be careful how you display your emotions. I am fortunate in that because of the nature of our practice, our Thai staff have had a lot of exposure to Westerners. In addition, our Thai lawyers have all been educated in the West and we encourage them to spend time in other overseas offices."
Many Westerners complain about the inefficiencies of the court system in Thailand. Is this your experience? "Let me begin by saying that at least in respect of the Civil Courts, I have no hesitation recommending to clients to pursue litigation through the Thai Civil Courts. However, litigation should be a last resort. The secret is to recognize potential sources of conflict for a client and to develop and recommend strategies that minimize the risk of conflict and provide practical exit strategies should conflict arise."
What about the differences between contract law here and in the West? "The biggest differences that I have found is that the Thais hate lengthy contracts. In the West, a very simple joint venture can be 30 to 40 pages long. In Thailand it will be battling to 5 to 6 pages long. Thais just won't read big contracts. You need to learn to be able to draft concise contracts."
Summing up in a nutshell, what's the gist of your work here? "It's three-fold, really. One, its about giving practical advice to foreign clients about investing and doing business in Thailand. Two, it's ensuring that deals are correctly documented but in a manner acceptable to the Thais. Thirdly, it's assisting clients to deal with the frustrations of a large bureaucracy."
And the competitive edge your firm offers? "We are small, have the contacts, know the system, are cost effective and provide a very personalized service. We also have the advantage of Coudert Brothers' amazing worldwide network. If a type of deal or transaction has never been done in Thailand before, there is a good chance that someone in one of our twenty-seven offices has worked on one like it somewhere."
Mark was elected President of AustCham earlier this year and tells us AustCham is the voice of the Australian business community in Thailand. AustCham serves as a source of information for its members and Australian businesses that are considering doing business in Thailand and provides unique networking opportunities for its members.
Other foreign Chambers of Commerce envy its monthly Sundowners social networking night because it provides such a great networking opportunity for its members. "Sundowners in my view is successful because the majority of people go to Sundowners (which is held at the Australian Embassy at 5.30 pm on the 1st Wednesday of each month) not to look for business but rather to meet and share stories of the success, problems and frustration that go with doing business in Thailand. If new business flows as a consequence, it's a bonus." Right now AustCham is also making a conscious effort to attract more women and more Thais to Sundowners."
And while it's true AustCham, which is celebrating its 25th Anniversary this year, has a wonderful reputation as a networking forum and for its fabulous social activities, Mark notes that AustCham is increasing its focus on providing its members with better business activities and opportunities. "There are other business groups in Thailand like the Australian-Thai Business Council. AustCham is looking at how it can work with these other business groups for a mutual benefit. For example, the Australian-Thai Business Council is made up primarily of major Thai corporates. Clearly there are opportunities for the members of both organizations to get together for the purpose of increasing business and business opportunities both in Thailand and in Australia".
Another initiative that AustCham is participating in is an attempt to more formally link all of the Australian Chambers of Commerce throughout Asia (including China, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Singapore, Japan, Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam and Thailand) in an to promote Australian business in the region. "There are three main advantages. First, by banding together as a group and being the one voice for Australian business in Asia, we will be able to get Canberra's ear on Asian issues. Second, we can take better advantage of and promote members' expertise throughout the region. Third, one of the perks of AustCham membership is our 'Advantage Card' whereby members get discounts on, for example, air fares, hotel accommodation, restaurants and many other services provided by members. We will be able to add much more value to this card by linking it with all the other Chambers and increasing benefits.
"This umbrella organization could also help us deal with any adverse publicity Australia receives. For example, during the Pauline Hanson saga, there wasn't a united Australian Asian business community position to counter the negative publicity Australia was receiving in Asia."
What about helping to increase trade between the two countries? "Arguably neither Australia nor Thailand have really been on each others' radar screens when it comes to investment and we need to change this. There are great potential synergies between the two nations. For example, Australia has highly qualified and skilled service industries and this is expertise in something that Thailand could really benefit from right now."
And what about free trade between the two nations? "Prime Ministers John Howard and Thaksin Shinawatra agreed in April this year to progress towards a free trade and investment agreement. I know this is very high on the Australia agenda. This is a great opportunity for Thailand because it will want to enter into free trade agreements with other countries and it can use this one with Australia as a test case. In terms of goods and services, we are pretty much complementary so there are not many areas where there will be conflicts. This agreement would move towards reducing and in some instances eliminating tariffs on both sides. It will also tackle customs and quarantine issues."
How do you juggle all the demands on your time? "I rely very much on AustCham's Executive Director and staff. AustCham has been extremely lucky to have had Kathy Lindsay, Anita North and more recently Anne Noble as Executive Directors. The Executive Director is really the driving force of the Chamber. The Executive Director is also the face of the Chamber much more so than the President or the Committee, because they are the one who must deal with the day-to-day inquiries, they are the first point of contact for all the members and they attend all the functions."
What makes for a good Executive Director? "One, an enthusiasm and desire to promote AustCham, Australian business and its members. Two, as the focal point for Australian business in Thailand, the Executive Director must have a good personality, character and presence. Third, the Executive Director must have the ability to run and manage an office of only Thai people. And last but not least, the executive Director must be a person with ideas. Our constant question is what else can we do to benefit our members and Australian business in Thailand?"
AustCham and the Australian Embassy have been closely monitoring the Effective Planners/Ferrier Hodgson/TPI conflict, where does that issue stand now? "Effective Planners was appointed as the Plan Administrator of TPI in December 2000. Since then, there has been in excess of 30 legal actions commenced against Effective Planners, 10 of which has been dismissed. AustCham and the Australian Embassy are particularly concerned by several criminal court actions that are currently being pursued by the Employment Department acting on complaints filed by Khun Prachai, the former CEO of TPI. These cases allege that EPL and several of its key executives and directors breached conditions of their work permits. Let me emphasize, neither the Australian Embassy nor AustCham is trying to intervene in the Thai judicial process. All we want is for the law to be applied consistently and in such manner as to prevent the foreign business community from losing confidence in existing employment and immigration procedures.”
So many Australians have fallen victim to these boiler room scams, is there anything that can be done to prevent them? "This is tough one but we hope to work with the Australian Embassy and the Australian Securities & Exchange Commission to effectively lobby the Thai government to enact stricter and tighter legislation to combat these scams. We could also assist Thai authorities in formulating investigation and enforcement systems, something that Australia has considerable experience in doing.”
And back to the Chamber, summing up, what are the benefits of being an AustCham member? “It can best be described by the following words, networking, information, contracts, charity and mateship.”