What new initiatives is Tilleke & Gibbins involved in?
LYMAN: There is a sign outside my door which says, “Hire the best, ignore the rest”. That is what we have been trying to live by since we first opened our doors in 1890. I first came here in 1967, and there were 33 people who were part of the firm. Since then, the firm has grown tremendously. We have given up portions of the types of work we used to do, such as commercial collections. They consumed too many resources and the returns were too small for a firm of our size. We no longer do narcotics defense work because such cases also take up too much of our resources, and most of the accused were guilty – we felt bad taking their money when there was nothing we could do for them. We have shifted our focus in terms of the types of work we do. Firstly, we focus on intellectual property, from registration to enforcement. Secondly, we have a large complex litigation practice. Thirdly, we do corporate and commercial work, such as M&A, financial and business transactions, formation of corporations, buying and selling businesses and real estate. These are the three principal areas. We have a great deal of competition these days. When I first came here in 1967 there were maybe 3 other firms of note. Now there are 50-60 firms that can all do the same type of work. In terms of the number of our lawyers, we are the second-largest law firm in the country. Naturally we believe we are the best, and the people who work here seem to think so as well. We do not have a high turnover rate. It is very difficult to get into this firm, but once people become a part of Tilleke & Gibbins, they seem to enjoy staying.
What do you see as the biggest growth and development areas for your firm?
LYMAN: Businesses are looking more at Asia than they have in the past. I have been a proponent of doing business in Asia since I first came out here as a lawyer. Back in 1989, when I started going to Davos for the WEF (World Economic Forum), Asia was an unknown. Participants knew about Japan, China, and India. Everything else was just a blur. That perception has changed. Europe, with its economic and political headaches, is kind of a blur now. People are coming to Asia for the first time. Both local and foreign businesses are expanding here. With the development of the concept of the AEC (ASEAN Economic Community) in 2015, there will be a lot of new business coming from other parts of the world, as well as from within the AEC member states themselves. We are looking at expanding into these other Southeast Asian countries. Some countries will welcome foreign lawyers and some will not. In some cases, we can go into joint ventures with existing firms. We want to stick with the practice of law. We do not want to branch out into accounting, for example. We stick with what we know.
We have been in Vietnam since 1988, and we have done quite well. We were the first foreign law firm to go into Vietnam after the end of the Vietnam War. It took the Vietnamese authorities three years to figure out what to do with us. At first, they welcomed us only because they knew they had to, but their initial attitude was, “Who needs lawyers? All they do is make trouble.” I told them that they were not alone with that view, but if they wanted foreign investment, they were going to have to have lawyers, accountants, and consultants, local and foreign. This is the price they have to pay to attract foreign investment. Myanmar is the new flavor of the month. There is a great deal of hype about this country, virgin turf for foreign entrepreneurs. Myanmar has a long way to go to catch up with its neighbors because it is so far behind. Infrastructure and education need massive improvements. The workforce there is very intelligent, but they have not been given the opportunities to apply that intelligence. We are not sure when the best time to enter Myanmar will be. We have learned our lessons at being pathfinders. When the time is right, we will see. Cambodia does not want foreign lawyers. Malaysia does not allow foreign lawyers. Singapore has enough lawyers, and so does the Philippines. Laos is an opportunity. Indonesia is also an opportunity.
What new legislative measures in Thailand have had the most significant effects on business and investment?
LYMAN: Thailand is very concerned about its image, and so sometimes legislation is introduced because the view is that will improve the image of Thailand in the world’s eyes. Whether there is any substance to that effort is a separate issue. Thais do not like to be pathfinders. They will follow along with others. They tend to follow the trend. Culturally, they do not take responsibility for mistakes or misjudgments. Thais are not that good at planning, but they are wonderful at coping, adopting, and adapting. Right now they are trying to focus on anti-corruption activities, better enforcement of IP (Intellectual Property) laws, new anti-money laundering and anti-terrorism laws, and laws related to the environment. Massive public infrastructure projects are being studied. They are planning for a court which solely deals with environmental issues because of the growing public awareness that the environment is important. This new court is still in the discussion stage.
Government officials and political figures are beginning to listen more to the voters and their concerns. The floods here in 2011 were dramatic. Never before has Thailand faced anything of that nature and scope. I believe the government is trying to come up with workable water management schemes. During the floods of 2011, fully one-third of the country was submerged under water, in some places up to 3 meters deep. Five industrial estates were flooded and the human and economic costs were staggering. This devastation cannot be allowed to happen again – if it does, political chaos will ensue and investors will leave in droves. When an investor comes here, it is a love affair with Thailand. It is said that in Thailand many things can go wrong, but they will still end up perceived as positive, and they will likely end up as being positive. “T.I.T. – This is Thailand”. There are always new foreigners coming in, and foreign business will continue to pick up. It is also an axiom that Thailand succeeds in spite of its governments. Many things can go wrong in this country, yet Thailand survives, landing on both feet. This does not hold true for all the countries of Southeast Asia. I have not seen much significant new business-related legislation come down the pipeline in the last few years, with the exception of anti-corruption, money laundering, and IP enforcement.
How are foreign investors protected in Thailand? How does Thailand compare to other countries in the region?
LYMAN: One of the problems for investors entering Thailand today is the shortage of available blue-collar and skilled labor and management talent. Thailand’s birthrate has fallen below 1% and the elderly are living longer. The populous are not producing enough new children to fill the void that will open up 20 years from now. They have to import labor from outside. This creates its own set of problems, such as adjustment by the laborers entering the country to the Thai ways, and Thais not being too put off by all the foreign labor descending on their country. The countries in this region of the Indochina peninsula have been traditional enemies for a millennium. It will take time for these nations to accommodate today’s pressures and influences. There are adjustments to be made by everybody. The larger investors into Thailand usually go through the Board of Investment or the Industrial Estates Authority of Thailand. There are a whole series of protections, as well as rights and benefits to be granted. These provide for work permits for individuals, longer stay visas, ownership of land for industrial purposes, tax and customs benefits, etc.
What does corruption cost the Thai economy and what steps are being taken to quell it?
LYMAN: Of course, corruption in government agencies and among politicians is rampant here, but not everyone is corrupt. Will they ever curb corruption? No. Corruption has been around since Biblical times. The best you can hope for is to keep it under control. In the old days here it was about 5-10% of a project’s costs, and investors could live with that. Today it is about 30-35% of a project’s budget. A recent survey revealed that between 2001 and 2010, an estimated Baht 192.6bn ($6.5bn) illegally flowed out of the country. Leakage from the government budget is said to amount to Baht 170-200bn ($5.8bn-6.8bn) annually or 1.5-2.0% of GDP. This level of corruption is intolerable.
Cambodia does not want foreign lawyers. Malaysia does not allow foreign lawyers. Singapore has enough lawyers, and so does the Philippines. Laos is an opportunity. Indonesia is also an opportunity.
How will AEC liberalization measures impact legal professionals?
LYMAN: It will generate a considerable amount of new work, and hopefully the work can be spread around. As I said, there are numerous law firms here in Thailand and in Bangkok in particular. My law firm has many very competent lawyers on board. When I first came here in 1967 there were 6,000 lawyers throughout the nation. Today there are about 60,000 lawyers. Law school education here is much better than it used to be.
What is your future outlook for Thailand?
LYMAN: In a word, positive. Thailand will be pushed to go faster because of the AEC. They now have real competition from some of their neighbors. They will have to accommodate the influx of labor and professionals. Doctors are an example. A doctor coming from Malaysia to Thailand must be able to speak, read, and write Thai under the Thai rules. This may change given time as the economy and the Community open up even more. There is an up-beat outlook for Thailand. There will be many bumps. Fortunately we have had relative political stability for the past few years. Investors look for stability and predictability. They also look at the ground rules. Once we understand the ground rules, they must not be changed abruptly. Businesses can succeed in any almost environment, provided these three key criteria are met.
What is a Chief Values Officer and, in an era of exacerbated corporate greed and malpractice, why is the role so important?
LYMAN: In this age of amazing technological advancements, broadband information overload, anxiety, turmoil, extremes, diversions and hope, a Chief Values Officer (CVO) of an organization is the guardian of that organization's values and virtues, its culture, its spirit, its integrity, its ethical principles and moral foundations, and promotes adherence thereto. A CVO keeps the engine of an organization's life running smoothly with minimal disruption to the environment and a maximum of character building and social responsibility. A CVO nurtures relationships and preserves the vital interests of all stakeholders of the organization within its immediate sphere of influence. A CVO is charged to keep the human side of an organization functioning on the course of honest, wise, responsible, legal, and accountable business and professional practices and in compliance with community standards and the organization's or accepted sectorial codes of conduct.