Top lawyer sees huge potential for growth in China’s capital markets and for women’s advancement in her profession
(MA XUEJING / CHINA DAILY)
Connie Heng once had dreams of becoming an entrepreneur, but she left them behind to become a partner in a world-leading law firm. Today, however, the high-flying lawyer has managed to marry her professional skills with the world of business.
Heng, from Singapore, showed an interest in business from a very young age. She is the third generation overseas Chinese of her family, as her grandparents immigrated to the city-state from Chaozhou, a city in South China’s Guangdong province.
“People from Chaozhou like to do business, whether big or small,” said Heng. “By the time I was deciding which discipline or which profession to do, there were no professionals in my family. Everybody was some sort of small business owner.”
But her father persuaded her to be a professional with one sentence, which led to her to where she is today as a Hong Kong-based partner and head of capital markets for Asia-Pacific with leading global law firm Clifford Chance.
“He said if you become a professional, you have the skills and you can do your business with the knowledge you gained without too much capital expenditure,” said Heng. “That was a pretty enlightening thing to me.”
In 1998, Heng obtained her bachelor’s degree in law from the National University of Singapore. This was during the Asian financial crisis and while it was a difficult time for many graduates to find jobs, Heng received an offer from the Hong Kong office of international law firm Herbert Smith Freehills.
“That was probably one of the most significant steps I have taken in my career — to move from Singapore to be a junior lawyer in Hong Kong,” said Heng.
She worked for roughly two years with the firm before joining Clifford Chance, a leading law firm in business and finance, to get more exposure to international deals and transactions.
“Being a lawyer, now head of the group, is like running a business. There is a business element to it, which I enjoy very much,” said Heng. “The business we are in is about professional services, and the product we sell is our legal expertise.”
Her achievements include advising on Agricultural Bank of China’s US$1 billion dual currency bonds listed in London in 2015 — the first green bond from a Chinese bank.
The following year, her team advised on the issuance of the largest green bond by a Chinese entity in the international market — Bank of China’s US$3.03 billion in green bonds — and later, China’s first green covered bonds from the same bank.
Being the world’s largest green bond market for two consecutive years, China accounted for nearly 40 percent of new green bonds in 2016, followed by the United States, France and Germany, according to Xinhua, citing data from global rating agency Moody’s Investor Service.
The Chinese government has been promoting the development of green finance for sustainable growth. It is predicted that an investment of between 2 trillion yuan (US$295 billion) and 4 trillion yuan will be needed in the next five years to counter the impact of pollution and climate change.
Green bonds represent a new asset class for investors, said Heng, noting China’s policy push will be a continuous driver for the market. At the same time, new initiatives and standards, both domestically and internationally, will continue to shape the market.
“As lawyers, we can actually play a strong role in educating companies on how to fulfill or comply with the principles,” said Heng. “These are important things that a law firm can help to add value to the issuers.
“This is a new era of finance. It’s exciting,” she said.
Heng said the product range needs to grow as it is mostly still limited to green loans and green bonds, while more derivative products can be explored as “the next sort of thing to watch”.
There are other challenges, such as the strict time requirements for Chinese companies, especially large State-owned enterprises, to better adapt to international practices.
“International investors used to dealing with sophisticated companies in the international capital markets expect a certain type of information disclosure, or the way that things are done,” said Heng. “(So) it is a process of discussion, communication and education (with Chinese companies).
“It’s very rewarding, because at the end of it, the clients begin to know how to do a transaction, and the next time when they do a repeat transaction, you can see that they’ve actually learned all of this,” said Heng.
“The Chinese capital markets have developed in leaps and bounds over three to four years through a concerted effort by the government to liberalize the industry.”
As China proposes to further open up its financial market, she said more foreign investors will be willing to introduce best practices, which can be another positive factor for market internationalization.
Clifford Chance was one of the first international law firms to enter the Chinese mainland, with the opening of an office in Beijing in 1985. The law firm has around 15 partners in its Beijing and Shanghai offices, the majority of them recruited from the local market.
“We are also part of the Belt and Road Initiative,” said Heng. A case in point is the firm advising China CITIC Bank on the acquisition of a majority stake in Altyn Bank from Halyk Bank, a leading financial services group in Kazakhstan.
“China is like an unpolished diamond. There is so much potential, and we are just scratching the surface,” said Heng, who expects more companies in second- and third-tier cities to explore offshore markets.
“As long as there is political stability in China and the economy continues to grow at a manageable and reasonable pace, I think that represents a lot of opportunities,” said Heng.
“My hope is that in China, and in Asia, we can develop to a stage where if someone is raising funds in Europe or the US, they would think of coming to Asia to do a road show to attract investors,” said Heng. “At the moment, it is often the other way (around).”
As a female leader, Heng takes personal responsibility to advocate gender diversity in her company and even the broader community. She sits on the board of the Karen Leung Foundation, a foundation formed after her friend died from metastatic cervical cancer. The foundation works to raise awareness in Hong Kong about gynecological cancers and raise funds for women to receive HPV vaccination.
“In Clifford Chance, I personally believe that an organization can only succeed if they have positive views on gender diversity and culture diversity,” said Heng.
Heng and the company’s Women’s Network that she chairs also formed a new initiative to provide mentoring for female lawyers to increase their retention rate.
Being a mother of two young daughters (aged 5 and 7), Heng hopes her experience can set an example for female lawyers in the company about family-work balance and help them to fully understand their career choices.
“There are just some experiences that women will go through but men do not, like having kids,” said Heng. “I think those experiences help give me a different perspective to deal with different issues, which is beneficial.”
She is also open-minded about the future choices of her children and will let them do what they enjoy, partly due to being compelled by her mother to learn the piano for almost 10 years during her childhood.
“I’m really grateful that she did it, but I was fairly resentful at that time,” said Heng.
So what is success for females? To Heng, the key is choosing what is suitable for them, and she said organizations need to make female employees aware of what they can do in special situations.
“We want to let them know there are some options you can choose, encouraging them and making them confident (of what they do),” said Heng.
Partner and head of capital markets, Asia-Pacific, Clifford Chance
Member of the Clifford Chance Asia Leadership Group and Wider Leadership Group
1998: Bachelor of Laws, National University of Singapore
2017-present: Board director, Karen Leung Foundation
2015-present: Chair, Clifford Chance Hong Kong Women’s Network
2005-present: Partner, Clifford Chance
2000-05: Associate, Clifford Chance
1998-2000: Associate, Herbert Smith Freehills Recognition and awards:
2018: Band 1 Notable Practitioner, Chambers and Partners
2018: Leading Individual, Legal 500
2018: Highly Regarded Lawyer, IFLR1000
How often do you go back to Singapore to see your parents?
About three or four times (a year), but my mother visits a lot as well to spend time with the grandchildren. She is very supportive of my career. When I have a long business trip, she often comes to help. We (Clifford Chance) also have a very big office in Singapore, so if I am traveling there (I can visit my parents).
What do you do to relax?
I like doing yoga, but obviously I have to prioritize my time. So, ideally I’d like to do it every day, but I only get to do it a couple of times a week. Doing yoga is one place where you cannot carry any devices. You are in there and you have to focus on yourself to do a particular pose. I think it’s a form of meditation.