"Good communication, common sense, and clarifying doubts when something runs against your intuition are important skills that apply."

Irene Ng is a Singaporean based in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) and Austria. She is a Senior Attorney (admitted in Singapore and New York), part of the corporate transactions team and Head of the Far East Asia Desk at CMS Reich-Rohrwig Hainz, part of the CMS Law firm network which is unmatched in CEE in terms of presence and deals.
Irene graduated with a LLB (Hons) from the National University of Singapore where she was also the Deputy Chief Editor of the Singapore Law Review. She has also obtained an LLM and PhD at the University of Vienna’s Faculty of Law. She is a Fellow at the Stanford-Vienna Transatlantic Technology Law Forum and a Research Fellow at the Singapore Management University’s Centre for AI and Data Governance. She is the co-founder of a startup herself.

CEEC: Irene, please tell us how is practicing law in the CEE region different from Singapore and Asia in general? What are the similarities and differences and where are the opportunities for collaboration?

Practicing law in a corporate transactions team in the CEE region is an adventurous experience, considering that I was trained in litigation with a focus on construction law in Singapore. In the CEE region, English is the lingua franca when working on cross-border mandates, but a basic understanding of Slavic languages can be helpful. While the substance of the law is different, the soft skills applicable for day-to-day work are similar in both regions. Good communication, common sense, and clarifying doubts when something runs against your intuition are important skills that apply. 

There are opportunities for collaboration in cross-border CEE work, such as when there is an acquisition or restructuring that involves multiple subsidiaries or branch offices across several jurisdictions. Since joining CMS Reich-Rohrwig Hainz full-time, I have had the opportunity to work with many colleagues across the CEE region, which I enjoy greatly. 

CEEC:Tell us about some interesting deals that you’ve worked on? Also, what is the Asian investor looking for in CEE? What is their level of risk tolerance and general profile?

To be honest, almost every transaction that I have worked on is interesting – but it could be simply because the region, legal system, and department which I am working in is new to me. We have worked for both Asian companies and private clients and their level of risk tolerance depends on their background and is often needs-driven, just like any other client. A good read on this would be the CMS Emerging Europe Report 2019/2020, which has two articles (“No turning back the tide of South Korean Investment” and “Singapore/Southeast Asia: Asian investors turn their spotlight on emerging Europe”) that discuss Asian investments in the CEE region. 

CEEC: You speak seven languages, among which are Slovenian and Russian. That is impressive! Tell us, is it easy to adjust to life in Central and Eastern Europe? What was your experience like and what would you like to tell fellow Singaporeans about the culture, the tourism, food and the people in those countries?

Life in a different part of the world is slightly easier if you enjoy the food. I would not say that adjusting to life in Central and Eastern Europe was easy – adjusting to life in any foreign country always has its ups and downs – but I was lucky to have met wonderful people who helped me tremendously when I first moved into the region. My colleagues from CMS Reich-Rohrwig Hainz have also been keeping a lookout for me, especially during the winter as they are worried that I might freeze from the cold! They have also been encouraging and convinced me to try out skiing, which I did this winter season together with my colleagues. 

As for culture, while CEE is often referred to as a collective noun (in a sense, this is similar to Southeast Asia), each country has a distinct personality. People are friendly, and I would strongly recommend a tour around the CEE region once the COVID-19 situation has passed and borders reopen. The Mediterranean coast is renowned for its beautiful beaches and since moving here, I think I have somehow adapted to the European summer spirit and have spent several summers by the sea.

CEEC: Your research interests stretch across legal technology, legal informatics, legal technology regulation. Are there any new developments in this field in CEE and Singapore and are any of them comparable? Is there an area that both regions can exchange knowhow in? 

New developments are always abound in the legal technology field. Singapore is a key regional player for developments in legal technology, due to the various stakeholders in the legal industry pushing for such developments, such as the Law Society of Singapore’s Tech-celerate for law programme and the Singapore Academy of Law’s Future Law Innovation Programme. CEE has also seen a fair share of legal tech developments. I have worked with the Legal Hackers Ljubljana (Slovenia) on various projects, one of which was a Legal Hackers Slovenia event on the Model Law of Electronic Transferable Records in February 2018 – we invited a legal officer from the United Nations Commission on International Trade Law to speak about the latest UNCITRAL e-commerce model law at the European Blockchain Hub. It was a great event and was the venue was fully packed with people interested in technology law and blockchain. The Legal Hackers community is strong in both CEE and Singapore, and almost every CEE country that CEEC represents has a Legal Hackers chapter. I collaborate with the Legal Hackers community in Singapore and Slovenia often and it would be exciting to have a joint CEE-Singapore Legal Hackers event someday.

CEEC: CMS have a startup development program called EquIP. Tell us more about it and how it helps startups to scale. 

EquIP is designed to help startups scale in various ways, such as through reduced legal costs, introductions to big industry players, and access to meeting venues and events. For startups that wish to scale around the world, they can also benefit from these same conditions from every participating CMS jurisdiction. Our offices in CEE and Singapore are part of the EquIP programme and are actively working with startups to achieve their ambitions. 

CEEC:What do you think of the legaltech startups which are trying to disrupt the legal industry? Is there a future for them? Why? 

I think that it is great that there are innovators in the legal industry seeking to provide legal services in different ways. One category of legaltech startups, i.e. Do-It-Yourself (DIY) legaltech startups (or sometimes classified as alternative legal service providers), are interesting to watch. There are some DIY legaltech startups that provide low cost and effective legal solutions for consumers; these solutions include repealing parking fines and lodging claims against airline companies for delayed flights. Such legal services could technically be performed by lawyers; however, in most circumstances, the cost of hiring a lawyer is more expensive than the damages claimable. These DIY legaltech startups can arguably fill this void in the legal services market, although there are several debates on whether such legaltech startups can and should provide legal services legally; this was recently discussed at the Law Society of Singapore’s colloquium on “The Role of Lawyers in the Age of Disruption: Emerging Regulatory Challenges”. 

CEEC:You are the co-founder of Sustainc, a venture dedicated to developing sustainable development reports and strategies which can be implemented into organisation’s corporate strategies, reflective of ESG/ CSR. Tell us more about this.

I co-founded Sustainc with a friend in mid-2018, prior to joining CMS Reich-Rohrwig Hainz as a full-time foreign lawyer. Sustainc provides sustainability reporting, strategy and advisory services to a range of organisations and institutions, such as public listed companies, privately held companies and educational institutions. My Co-Founder, who used to be a consultant at the UN working on sustainability measures, and I both felt that as interest in sustainability strategies or sustainability compliance gradually became a priority for companies, there may be a demand for such services. We decided to harness our skills and knowledge to set up our small sustainability advisory firm. Upon joining CMS in a full-time capacity, I took a backseat seat managing the venture, but it has been exciting to see how it has grown. 

CEEC: You have recently completed your PhD. Congratulations. What is next for you? What inspires you to move forward and to align your goals for the future? Will you be staying in CEE or moving back to Singapore?

Thank you! For the near future, my life will revolve around Austria and the CEE region. Nonetheless, I always endeavour to meet new people in Asia (and around the world) while maintaining close ties with my network in Asia and Singapore as much as possible.  

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