Law practitioner, regulator, professor and technology whizz, multifaceted legal brain Albert So talks arbitration, money-laundering within the blockchain and robo-law, a deep learning AI technology…
How did you get into law?
My first degree was in computer science, but I took some elective social science subjects including law. It was then that I discovered my interest in the subject and pursued a second degree in law at King’s College London before studying business law at the University of Cambridge. I then went on to Harvard Kennedy School in the US for my research degree in investment law.
You are the founder and Chief Executive of the Hong Kong Mediation and Arbitration Centre. How did that come about?
I started my professional experience in Canary Wharf, London, where I learnt about regulatory issues and commonwealth jurisdictions, then I returned to Hong Kong just before the global economic crisis and the collapse of the Lehman Brothers. At the time, I was a regulator doing investigative work on money laundering and financial disputes, but because the incident involved so many complainants and victims, and the caseload was tremendous, and nobody knew then what financial dispute resolution or mediation were, it called for civil justice reform.
That was when [in 2009] the Hong Kong Mediation and Arbitration Centre (HKMAAC) was founded. Traditionally these cases would have been brought to court for litigation; however, with the founding of the HKMAAC, we would instead try to settle disputes by arbitration, or alternative dispute resolution. It’s a means to handle financial disputes to omit the high legal costs of going to court, the long waiting time, and overall, coming to a solution that would be beneficial for all parties.
At the time of its inception, we were only 15 regulators, today we are probably more than 40,000 students, mediators, arbitrators, as well as graduates that have undertaken our arbitration training. We also provide about 10 scholarships at different local universities including the University of Hong Kong (HKU), the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) and the Hong Kong Polytechnic University.
You also teach law. Is teaching something you have always been passionate about?
Soon after founding the HKMAAC, I took up teaching posts at several universities in Hong Kong, including teaching anti-money laundering at HKU, and teaching students and doctors at CUHK about the legalities of wealth succession planning. I love to teach, but I also want to share my own practical experience from work. I can see the value in sharing first-hand experiences, real case studies, market trends, and the challenges, questions and objections of clients and how to solve problems effectively given each unique situation.
So, this is why I love teaching, however if I had to choose [between teaching and practising the law], I don’t think I could do one without the other. If I were solely a practitioner, it would be a waste not to share my professional knowledge. On the other hand, I could not do traditional teaching work at the university without any practical experience. Anybody can teach theories, but I believe a good educator is very likely a very good practitioner as well.
“Anybody can teach theories, but I believe a good educator is very likely a very good practitioner as well”
You have since co-founded your own law firm and followed paths outside the courtroom. Tell us more.
I co-founded AC Lawyers with my partner Carina Chan. I am Chairman of the Wealth Succession Planning Association, and Dean of the California University School of Business Law and Technology. I’m also an honorary legal advisor for several NGOs in the city and I am leading a few legal robo-advisory services for the community. I currently fund a legal technology project for the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. It is basically a robo-lawyer.
That sounds intriguing. Could you explain what exactly is a robo-lawyer?
Since my first degree was in technology, I am still very interested in this field. A robo-lawyer is basically a deep-analysis AI that will allow potential clients to enquire about legal matters, and practitioners to do the most value-added legal work. It does the more tedious and routine tasks such as drafting contracts from scratch and answering questions regarding the law, for example, if it is possible to settle different assets in various countries with one will, or if one is required to pay inheritance tax in a certain country. Of course, this won’t replace the practitioners and the paperwork that requires careful attention to detail, but it will help save precious time, lower legal costs, and reduce embarrassing situations in some cases.
How far away are we from having a robo-lawyer?
We still have a long way to go. The project is not mature enough to commercialise. Unlike customer-service AI and concierge support which utilise simple AI technology for answering questions and providing information without much deep analysis, in law, questions and answers are not straightforward. It may be for the better that we have this time to explore and continue to improve the development of this kind of technology – but I think it would be an amazing thing for the law industry.
“A robo-lawyer won’t replace the practitioners, but it will help save precious time, lower legal costs, and reduce embarrassing situations in some cases”
As a former regulator, what is your opinion of cryptocurrency investments?
It’s a very hot topic in the industry, not only for citizens but for corporations as well, and in particular in the wealth succession planning industry because before the emergence of cryptocurrency, we would do a lot of traditional investment in antiques, art, gold and diamonds.
However, investing in NFTs and cryptocurrency can be too volatile to predict. The value fluctuates a lot and makes it difficult for investors to foresee the future of this new investment method.
I personally love blockchain technology and the idea of decentralisation behind it, but from a regulatory perspective, there can be challenges and loopholes that raise alarms, especially when it comes to criminal activities and money-laundering issues. The problem arises when tracking the transactions of these individuals or syndicates as the blockchain is anonymous in nature. So, from a regulatory perspective, appropriate or suitable regulations may be a good thing for future development.
What can the Hong Kong government do to further progress the cryptocurrency market?
I think the government can further the progress of cryptocurrency in the city by minimising platform risk. Platforms at the moment will hold cryptocurrency and NFT assets for clients. However, there is a chance that they can mismanage the assets or lose the device which holds the assets, which is why we need consumer protection.
There is also the issue of money laundering due to the anonymity of the transactions within the blockchain, which poses a problem for the government and regulators, but if we have suitable supervision, we can do things well. The Securities and Futures Commission’s proposed licensing registration for platforms running crypto businesses is a good solution, as this doesn’t strictly prohibit NFTs and cryptocurrency investments, but provides some degree of consumer protection. It strikes a fair balance for both sides to get the best of both worlds.
What’s your favourite way to relax?
Before the Covid-19 pandemic, I loved travelling. It’s very important to go outside the bounds of what you are familiar with to see more things, meet more people and broaden your perspective. It’s not only good for your health, but also for your way of thinking and assimilating ideas. It would be pointless, however, for me to take a long vacation because clients will always call for decisions and advice, so I remind myself to take time for myself and that rest is for the longer journey ahead.
I love working in the city, but living in the countryside. Some of the activities I enjoy are punting, canoeing, boating and generally being out in nature.
Interview by: Roberliza Eugenio; Photographer: Jack Law; Art Direction and Styling: Jhoshwa Ledesma; Videographer: Jackie Chan; Venue: Farrington Interiors Ltd.