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INSIGHT: What Baker McKenzie’s Global Chair Learned at Davos

Feb. 4, 2020, 9:01 AM

Followers of Bloomberg Law’s Twitter feed will have seen that somebody at Bloomberg was kind enough to say they saw a familiar face at Davos. I found it particularly welcoming, as the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting wasn’t familiar territory for me. It was my first time at the Swiss mountain resort with 4,000 heads of state, CEOs, and NGOs.

I had been told by people who had been before it that it would be fascinating. That was certainly the case.

I had a full schedule from early morning to late at night. Listening to world leaders (from German Chancellor Angela Merkel to President Trump, Chief Executive of Hong Kong Carrie Lam to Finland’s Prime Minister Sanna Marin), meeting clients, participating in a panel discussion, doing live TV interviews and trying to give our Baker McKenzie people around the world a sense of what was going on during the week.

So what did I learn and what were the three main takeaways for me, for Baker McKenzie, and indeed for the legal profession?

First, sustainability is no longer a marketing ploy or some optional extra that the corporate social responsibility team rolls out. It’s real, and it’s part of every board discussion, whatever sector you are in. When the leaders of the world’s largest fossil fuel companies are proactively announcing initiatives on sustainability, you know it’s real. Even the unseasonably warm weather and lack of snow in Davos seemed to echo the need for action.

Second, there was plenty of meaningful debate about the importance of purpose for an organization. At the heart of that were questions about the future of capitalism and the company model itself. With my Baker McKenzie colleagues Bea Araujo and Julia Hayhoe, I authored a blog on this theme which was posted on the WEF site before Davos and I was pleased to hear lots of positive feedback.

As we concluded in that blog there are plenty of questions boards need to be asking themselves including:

Have we a clear understanding what our fiduciary duties are and who we owe them to? Are our purpose and our values strong enough for the whole company to embrace the highest standards of business integrity, thereby helping us attract and retain both employees and customers? Do we have the appropriate skills to understand the risks and opportunities presented to our business by the environment, especially climate change? How well do we communicate to our shareholders/investors our progress as regards the above? What reporting standards do we follow?

For all of the above there are significant implications for attorneys.

And third, the impact from technology on our present and future cannot be understated or underestimated so I was fascinated to hear from some of the world’s leading minds on everything from blockchain and cryptocurrency, to automated vehicles and artificial intelligence, developments of which are of major significance to the legal profession.

I am not the only law firm leader who has been talking about how our new recruits and our young associates are working in a completely different environment from the one I joined 30 years ago. And they, and we in turn, require a completely new set of skills and ways of working.

Before I went to Davos, a couple of reporters asked me what I was expecting from the event and why I was going. I explained that for me, “It is good to be part of the conversation and being able to have a say about the things that will move us all in the future.” It certainly was.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. or its owners.

Author Information

Milton Cheng is global chair of Baker McKenzie. He has considerable experience in mergers and acquisitions, real estate investment trusts, financial services regulation, corporate finance and corporate restructurings and advises clients—including REIT and other asset managers, financial institutions, multinationals and Hong Kong-listed groups—on a wide range of acquisition, REIT, restructuring, regulatory and corporate finance matters.