In 1991 the government introduced a Points System of Entry for immigrants to New Zealand. This resulted in increased immigration to New Zealand from China, Hong Kong, Taiwan and the Republic of Korea during the 1990s. Most of these migrants settled in Auckland.
At the time lawyers Arthur Loo and Ken Koo noticed that few firms were catering to the growing New Zealand south-east Asian migrant community and, in 1995, Loo & Koo was established. They initially shared their 4,000 square foot office space with an architect but, 21 years on, the firm has taken over the entire floor space with their staff more than doubling in size from the initial nine-person team. From the outset the firm ensured it used the latest available technology.
Co-founding partner Arthur Loo was admitted in Auckland in February 1978. He was working with a Queen Street law firm and had built up a large Chinese client base when his former legal colleague Ken Koo contacted him to set up a firm which focused on the needs of the growing Asian migrant population. Active in the wider Auckland community, Mr Loo was awarded the Queen’s Service Medal in the 2012 New Year’s Honours for services to the Chinese Community.
Your website says one of the reasons for the firm’s establishment was “to cater to a growing New Zealand Chinese community”, noting that other firms lacked focus on this. Where were other firms lacking in their approach to the New Zealand Chinese/Asian clients?
“Dealing with them in a culturally appropriate way and being able to communicate with them in their own language.”
And how do you think focus and attitudes are shifting 21 years later?
“Client expectations are higher and they are more sophisticated. The legal profession as a whole is more accountable to clients.”
You are seen as a trailblazing firm when it comes to dealing with New Zealand Asian and international Asian markets. Can you tell me about the type of people you work with and represent?
“Our clients are essentially private clients. They hail from all over south-east Asia, China and the Pacific. We work mainly for private clients and small to medium family controlled enterprises. Some have very modest means and some are enormously wealthy. They range from first home buyers to wealthy, commercially savvy investors and business people.”
How do you market the firm to connect with this target clientele?
“We have a clear identity and project ourselves at our target market.” Mr Loo says the firm does this “by word of mouth, quality of our work and service, referrals from other professionals.”
Networking is also important, as he continues. “We do not advertise in the traditional way. We place importance on maintaining and improving the firm’s reputation and recognition.”
On the firm’s website, it states Loo and Koo “decided to have a true focus on Asians, understand them, talk to them in their own language and provide some cultural understanding as well”. How do you think this focus helped grow the firm’s diversity over the years, and why do you think it is important for firms to connect with their clients in this way?
“Communication and understanding of a client’s needs is pivotal to providing a satisfactory service and we are seen as a firm that understands our client’s needs culturally and provide a mainstream service at the same time. All lawyers are ‘presumed’ to be able to do the work. ‘Understanding’ is an added value – helping them make more commercial and cost-effective decisions.”
One of the firm’s visions was “to be a law firm that would foot it with the best in New Zealand”. Do you feel Loo & Koo has achieved this?
“Yes, I would like to think so. For example, the level of land development and commercial property work that we are involved in would rival that of bigger firms. When required, we engage counsel (horses for courses) and can run cases effectively against top-tier firms.”
And how do you see the future of the firm’s ideas and growth? Do you want to expand further?
“I think lots of other firms have cottoned on to the basic premise of our firm, but I would like to think that we are still at the forefront in terms of execution and delivery. We are not perfect, but we strive to be. Expansion is a vexed question. The firm has more than doubled in size since its founding.”
Mr Loo says smaller firms have some advantages: “We may want to expand a little bit more, but we do not want to do so at the expense of being nimble and light on our feet. Still being small means that decision-making in taking up new initiatives is still quick, management is still not bureaucratic and we still hope to maintain a friendly collegial atmosphere and culture within the staff.”
Some firms like following “the bigger the better” mantra, but Arthur says: “I think we would compromise the boutique feel of our firm if we were to expand too much more. However, I may live to eat my words.”
As a firm who embraced technology right from the start, and has seen it change so drastically over two decades, what are your impressions of the applications and effects of current technologies introduced into the justice system, and the way firms and the courts utilise them? Have you found there to be any notable pros and cons?
“When we first started, we thought using the internet and putting a computer on every desk and using email was being innovative! Now it is taken for granted.
“The pros [of technology] are that communication is now so much easier and quicker and, because we work with a number of offshore clients in different time zones, it is convenient to be able to deliver a message by email and have the recipient pick it up at their convenience, reflect and then reply.”
Mr Loo also says that technology makes searching titles much easier and that there is a “more or less instantaneous registration of property transfers, etc.” He is also conscious of the issues this constant connection brings: “…everybody now expects an instantaneous answer and so there is, sometimes, not enough time to think things through properly and everyone is rushing to get things done. This means there is often considerable pressure to get things right first time and not goof up. This, of course, is easier said than done. However, it is a reality of a modern law firm – the pressure to act swiftly, get things right and still meet clients’ cost expectations.”
A major technology-related complaint I hear from lawyers is that it can be difficult to disengage from work, and lawyers often work far beyond what are considered “standard business hours”. As managers, how do you encourage your staff to find a healthy balance and prevent stress related issues?
“While we are serious about what we do, we try to have a relaxed atmosphere within the office. We don’t expect our staff to work too late and not many of us come in over the weekend, unless required to meet deadlines … We expect most of our staff to be gone by the early evening. We have work functions and, being an Asian firm, it is usually centered around food. I would like to think that we are a happy workplace and staff will go the extra mile when the situation requires it.”
Arthur Loo is a trustee of four community organisations: The Skycity Auckland Community Trust, Foundation for Alcohol and Drug Education, Koru Care Charitable Trust and The Leukaemia and Blood Foundation. I asked him about his involvement and any other community work Loo & Koo is involved in.
“It is perhaps more me than the firm, although because my name is on the wall, people may identify me with the firm. Like many other lawyers, we do our fair share of pro bono work and like other lawyers, the motivation is probably the wish to ‘give back’.”
Do you find this charity work has influenced the firm’s practices and philosophies over the years?
“I think we recognise that having had the opportunity to receive an education and understand how law and bureaucracy works, it is incumbent upon us to make our contribution to better the community in which we all live. We try not to take our relative good fortune and what we have for granted. We expect all our staff to have the same regard for all our clients, no matter what their circumstances.”
Can you give any advice to young graduates and junior lawyers starting their careers?
Mr Loo participates in senior leadership roles within his community and he says: “I think it is important for all lawyers, no matter at what stage of their careers, to be involved with the community ... that they should keep up with current affairs, be open-minded and to give back as it is enormously rewarding.
“Nowadays we seem to be so self-absorbed in our online social networking and we generally seem so time poor that we don’t appreciate the finer things that are available to us. They are not found with our heads buried in our mobile phones.”
Loo & Koo, 8 Manukau Road, Newmarket, Auckland
Practising certificate holders: 10
Legal executives: 2
Support staff: 10 (and one licensed immigration adviser)
Website: www.loo-koo.co.nz – available in English, Traditional Chinese, Simplified Chinese, Korean and Japanese.