'Legal expertise alone does not make a successful lawyer'
Youdy Bun of Bun & Associates discusses career advice, surviving the crisis and the benefits of investing in Cambodia
As the only IFLR1000 Market Leader for banking in Cambodia, what do you consider to be the greatest achievements of your career?
I have always been passionate about banking law and any assignments related to it. This practice area is very technical and little about it was taught in law school, but I have always found it to be intellectually stimulating and challenging. Moreover, probably more than any other sector, the financial industry is being transformed by technology in an unprecedented way. I am thrilled with the new opportunities. I consider it to be a true privilege to have been involved in so many complex and ground-breaking financing deals transacted in Cambodia over the years. Whether it is assisting with the financing of a hospital or advising on a digital payment solution, the sense of satisfaction of having facilitated businesses to unlock their potential or helped the public to access needed services is very rewarding.
What advice would you give to lawyers in junior positions to encourage them to work towards success?
Do what you feel passionate about, set up a career goal, choose the right mentor, value integrity and stay focused. These are the few pieces of advice that I regularly share with peers, including young lawyers.
Do what you feel passionate about, set up a career goal, choose the right mentor, value integrity and stay focused
It is important to identify a legal area of specialisation early on and from there, to work towards industry specialisation. A career in law has more or less standard stages of progression and junior lawyers should understand where the pivotal career points are, so that they can prepare themselves.
Lawyers need to make it their personal responsibility to continuously invest in professional development, both in business and technical skills. Self-development in the legal profession is vital. The legal landscape changes rapidly and there is no escaping the digital transformation that is shaping the way we work today and will work in the future. Young lawyers should also be aware that competition in the legal space is going to get progressively fiercer. Competition now comes in various forms. We are not just competing among traditional law firms but also with non-law firms.
Strong legal expertise alone does not make a successful lawyer. Having high commercial awareness, being innovative, having passion and compassion and last but not least, putting in good old-fashioned hard work, are all equally important.
What do you feel are the biggest obstacles for young lawyers in your country?
The skills gap remains a serious challenge in Cambodia. Good quality education, resources and exposure to international best practices - things that are taken for granted elsewhere - are not easily accessible to a lot of our lawyers.
Much more needs to be done in our legal education system and we practitioners need to play a bigger role in contributing towards preparing prospective lawyers for the reality of practising. Student secondments and internship programs, which could greatly help law students gain invaluable work insight and exposure, are not common in Cambodia and if they are available, they are not necessarily well designed.
Despite these challenges, I am confident that the future for prospective lawyers in Cambodia remains bright if they take the right steps. As Cambodia deepens its integration into regional and global economies, the size of the legal market is expected to grow and the demand for legal services and good legal advisors will rise in tandem.
What does your firm do to nurture and promote talent? Do you think it compares well to others in your market in this area?
We are proud to have built an amazing team, that is the open secret behind Bun & Associates’ success. Our team is highly qualified, skilful and diverse. The majority of our team members graduated from prestigious universities. We have proficiency in at least six major languages and our lawyers are qualified to practice in five different jurisdictions, spanning both civil law and common law traditions.
Client service and relationship building is instilled into all our professionals from the onset
We prefer to build our talent organically because we operate in an emerging legal market where talent is scarce. However, we do not hesitate to consider lateral hires and foreign talent when their expertise and expectant value fit our needs. Bun & Associates is a strong proponent of diversity and inclusion; the majority of our colleagues are women.
Bun & Associates has a robust learning and development plan which is guided by our development and competency framework. We take the development of our lawyers seriously and do all we can to help them progress and navigate those pivotal points in a career mentioned above. We emphasize the building of a strong learning culture in the firm because we believe learning becomes more effective when it happens naturally and frequently. For example, client service and relationship building is instilled into all our professionals from the onset of their employment and we continue to reinforce this throughout their employment with us.
An open-door policy also allows our junior lawyers to have easy access to all the partners, and many of them have formed natural mentor-mentee relationships. Our culture of openness is somewhat unique and is likely to be an area which distinguishes us from our peers.
If you could introduce one policy across the entire legal profession what would it be?
I would say collaboration. We live in an increasingly VUCA [volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous] world and for the legal profession to thrive, it is a imperative to work collaboratively, not just within the firm but with external parties as well.
Are there any initiatives in the firm to help your clients deal with the repercussions of the Covid-19 pandemic?
Helping our clients overcome their business challenges in the current worldwide pandemic is our prime concern. Besides the implementation of new safety and sanitation procedures, one of the key priorities of our Covid-19 response plan is to ensure that we have the technology to continue to provide seamless service to our clients during the pandemic. In fact, we accelerated our technology plan to ensure that we are not lacking.
We continue to uphold our commitment to our clients to help identify the most critical areas of support, as well as opportunities that may be relevant to their businesses, especially in this unpredictable time. We have also implemented cross-team mobilisation initiatives to address the needs of our clients in the new normal of today’s business environment.
We should look at this crisis as an opportunity to adapt, learn and innovate so we can become a better, and add value as advisors to our clients. This is a commitment we firmly believe in.
Given the market environment in Cambodia, what would be your outlook for the coming year?
We are fortunate that the Covid-19 outbreak in Cambodia is not widespread and we hope it will remain that way. Aside from certain sectors which are severely affected by the pandemic, such as tourism and construction, most sectors continue to operate reasonably well. While some projects were understandably stalled or cancelled, many work-in-progress projects have bravely continued and there have even been some newly signed deals, which is highly encouraging. In fact, our team was busier during the first semester of 2020, as compared to the same period last year.
However, we have to acknowledge that the uncertainties we face today are unprecedented and the economic impact is still not fully known. Cambodia’s economy is very much linked to regional and global economies and therefore its pace of recovery will also depend on how fast other trading partners overcome their challenges. We must also not underestimate the side effects of the US-China trade war on our economy as well.
What kind of work do you expect will keep you busy over the next 12 months?
We see a lot of public infrastructure projects, including financing transactions, in the pipeline. There is also an interesting emergence of M&A deals. We expect to receive more enquiries on regulatory and compliance related matters. I foresee our niche practices, such as insurance, telecommunications and commercial arbitration will be among the busy teams.
Are there any upcoming regulatory changes or initiatives that investors should be aware of?
Legal reform is part of the main agenda of the Royal Government. Therefore, a lot of new laws and implementing regulations will be introduced in due course. The areas that will be impacted include investments, trusts, competition, commercial contracts, consumer protection, e-commerce, data protection and telecommunications.
In the tax space, regulations on capital gains will be introduced before the end of 2020 and double tax treaty negotiations between Cambodia and Korea as well as Japan are advancing.
In terms of international trade, the highly anticipated free trade agreement between Cambodia and China was due to be signed by the end of August 2020.
What do you feel is the biggest misconception others have about your market?
Due to limited awareness, Cambodia remains off the radar for many potential investors. Many continue to perceive Cambodia as a war-torn country and assume its legal system is still underdeveloped. Either they avoid investing in the country or they proceed without taking legal issues into serious consideration. It may be a surprise to some, but the legal framework governing businesses is becoming quite sophisticated in Cambodia.
I know of businesses whose Cambodian investments generate the highest rate of return across the entirety of the group companies
Cambodia has one of the most open and liberal economies. With the main exception relating to access ownership over landed properties, foreign investors can own up to 100% of most businesses, including those that are classified as restricted in other markets such as banking, insurance, securities and telecommunications. The country has consistent high economic growth, which averaged 7% per year over the last 10 years. We enjoy the benefit of a demographic dividend with a growing middle class.
While Cambodia might not be a large market on its own, it is strategically located in the dynamic ASEAN Economic Community area, which has a population of more than 600 million.
What is the one thing you think the IFLR’s international audience should know about how to successfully do business in your market?
Cambodia is definitely a market not to be missed. I know of businesses whose Cambodian investments generate the highest rate of return across the entirety of the group companies. That is testament that Cambodia is a lucrative market for investors.
As the country’s legal regime is developing rapidly, it is advisable to consult with legal and tax advisers as early as possible. Data is still largely fragmented; investors should not assume that a due diligence process can be conducted remotely without the assistance of local advisors.
Cambodia recently expanded its double tax treaty network with key countries, so more options are now available when it comes to optimising a deal structure.
Acknowledging that Cambodia’s judicial system is in development stage, a thoughtful litigation strategy needs to be planned from the outset. Many options are available. Cambodia is party to numerous international conventions, which means that contract enforcement and investment protection can be achieved by different means and in different fora.