Damien Laracy – Hill Dickinson Interview

By December 14, 2023 No Comments
Hill Dickinson Hong Kong 2019 thumbnail

Damien is an experienced litigator and arbitrator who has practiced law for more than 30 years.  He is admitted to the Superior Courts of New Zealand, England and Wales, and Hong Kong.


His practice involves advising on almost all aspects of domestic and international business, including shareholders and joint venture disputes, insolvency and asset recovery, commercial fraud, international trade, and urgent interim relief applications.


Damien also serves private clients and high net worth individuals, advising in relation to family and probate issues, asset protection and recovery, fraud, and defamation.


He represents clients and stakeholders in a wide variety of industries and sectors, such as trade and transport, financial and professional services, consumer products and foodstuffs, mining and resources, real estate and retail, leisure, and luxury.


Damien could tell me about the firm and your place in it?


We are a full-service global law firm with roots in Liverpool in 1810.  We have offices in England, Hong Kong, Singapore, Piraeus, and Monaco.  The firm is, by some accounts, the oldest continually practising law firm in the UK and we were one of the first law firms to admit a woman to partnership.  So, we’ve got inclusiveness and diversity in our DNA.  We handle corporate finance and public listings, commercial and real estate work, banking and finance and a wide range of disputes work.  So, all the big firm offerings but without the magic circle size.  We also have very strong pedigree in the maritime world and we handle a lot of international trade work acting for shipowners and insurers, commodities traders, banks, and finance companies.  We are also very well known for our super yacht work.


What do you do at the firm in terms of your practice and your role?


I manage the Hong Kong office and its growth.  I’ve been in Hong Kong since 1995.  I studied Law and Commerce in New Zealand, got to the age of 27 and thought I must go travelling overseas and get some foreign experience.  In the mid-90s in New Zealand when young lawyers thought “I must go overseas for experience”, there was only one destination they thought about, and that was London – me included.  I then travelled via Hong Kong for a week’s holiday on the way to London in September 1994 and felt immediately attracted to Hong Kong.  I ended up going on to London briefly but succeeded in coming back here in early 1995 to work for a shipping law firm, called Sinclair Roche & Temperley, which was very well known at the time.  I then set up my own law firm, Laracy & Co in 2009 and happened to be doing work here for Hill Dickinson, who then did not have a Hong Kong office.  They then approached me in 2012 and said, “we already know you and we’re thinking of setting up in Hong Kong, would you join and manage the office?” After the usual negotiations I sold Laracy & Co to Hill Dickinson, and we set up business in Hong Kong as “Hill Dickinson in association with Laracy & Co” in 2013.  That was a regulatory requirement to have “in association”.  After three years, in 2017, we could brand the business simply as “Hill Dickinson”.


How many staff have you got in Hong Kong now?


We are a medium sized office by Hong Kong standards.  We have recently been joined by eight banking and asset finance lawyers, so we have a much stronger non-contentious offering than we did previously, and a stronger China facing practice also as a result.


You fell in love with Hong Kong in the 90s, what do you think about how it compares to now with all the changes you must have seen since 1995?


There have been changes but I often think I’ve changed more than Hong Kong has.  I was 27 when I arrived, and the harbour was narrow, and the buildings were tall.  The harbour is a bit narrower, and there are more tall buildings, but that’s just a question of scale.  The real change that’s been apparent to me is the increased interaction with the Mainland, legally and politically.


Hong Kong remains a wonderful place to live and to work and the numerous islands and country parks make it a unique city in which to unwind away from work.  That has not changed over the years.


How was the Covid lockdown experience in Hong Kong?


We were fortunate to still have access to public spaces and the country parks for most of the Covid years and therefore we had a much milder lockdown in Hong Kong than in many parts of the world, including Mainland China.  For anyone that needs reminding about Hong Kong’s independence and that there are significant and substantial differences between the legal systems of Hong Kong and Mainland China, there’s a good reminder right there.


What do you enjoy most about living and working in Hong Kong?


On a personal level, the best things about it are still the things that attracted me when I first came here: how close everything is and how easy it is to get around, to see people and to do things.  There’s an inbuilt efficiency.  It gives you more hours in the day to fit in family and recreation around work.  The opportunities for travel in China and regionally are also still very exciting.


On a professional level the international nature of the work remains stimulating and challenging, as are the opportunities with Mainland Chinese businesses and the greater legal connectivity between China and Hong Kong in terms of business law and reciprocity.


In terms of work, what are you seeing as growth areas Hong Kong now?


International arbitration, insolvency, and private client work.  We have recently had four of our Hong Kong office lawyers recognised by the Legal 500 on their Arbitration Powerlist.


Separately, my partner Bryan O’Hare has recently won a high-profile insolvency case in the Hong Kong Court of Final Appeal which addresses the issue of whether Hong Kong insolvency proceedings had been prematurely commenced in circumstances where there was a New York dispute resolution clause.


Any industry sectors affecting those practice areas?


International arbitration is fairly industry agnostic; arbitration clauses are found in banking and finance documents, commodities sale, and purchase documents, charterparties, aviation contracts and so on.

We anticipate more construction and infrastructure arbitration work for Hong Kong practitioners, driven by Belt And Road and Greater Bay Area (“GBA”) projects.  Given Hong Kong’s important role as a maritime centre there will continue to be a large volume of maritime and trade arbitrations conducted here.


Moving on from COVID are you all back in the office now or do you have some kind of hybrid working arrangement?


Everyone in our Hong Kong office is back in the office and that’s not been an awkward sell at all.  Our people seem to enjoy the office culture that we have.  Also, when preparing for a large Court or arbitration hearing there is still a lot of client facing work that requires office attendance and we’ve been fortunate to be involved in some important hearings recently.  However, as a firm, we are now much more accommodating when staff say they’d like to work from home.


Are you finding that there’s a generational divide in attitudes to working from home?


No, not in Hong Kong.  Of course, I do hear that this is not the case in other jurisdictions where there are more militant calls for more WFH.  It’s so important for young lawyers to see how other people practise – the good and the bad – and to witness how they cope under stress and deal with pressure situations.


I still recall my early days in Hong Kong when it was standard for law firms to open on Saturday mornings. At least now we can all work from home on Saturdays.


What does your style of management look like? How is it uniquely you?


I came into this role from running my own law firm.  As such I’m very aware of the need to try and manage relationships with staff and the general “ambience” of the office.  In a large law firm if a colleague resigns as a result of some comment or criticism about performance there will be a bench of other colleagues to draft in.  That is not the case in a small operation and so approachability and managing relationships with colleagues becomes even more critical.


Do you have any work highlights of which you are particularly proud?


I thoroughly enjoy my commercial and maritime disputes work because it’s challenging and it’s international.  One of my partners in the Hong Kong office acted for the owners of the “Costa Concordia”, a fascinating and high-profile matter.  Our China facing work is also extremely interesting and that part of our business is growing.  Personally though, some of my most memorable cases have also been the sadder ones –including the Aeroflot case.


In 1995, one of the first cases I was involved with in Hong Kong was suing Aeroflot.  You may remember that there was a tragic case of a plane that took off from Moscow in May 1994 coming to Hong Kong and went down in Siberia.  The pilot and co-pilot were having a party in the cockpit.  From the “Blackbox” data recorder it seems the pilot’s son switched off the autopilot and nobody noticed.  The plane went into an aerodynamic stall and 75 people died.  I ended up suing Aeroflot on behalf of two Hong Kong families – ordinary people who had tragically lost family members so needlessly.  We settled in the end, and I was proud to have been able to salvage something from that tragedy for our clients.


How did you get into the law in the first place?


My mother was a barrister and so I was aware of the law and legal practice from a fairly young age.  I initially thought that all lawyers practised criminal law and it wasn’t until my teens that I realised that there was much more law being practised out of the criminal law courts, involving the wording of contracts and interpretation of language and behaviour.  I found that analysis of business relationships very interesting.  I’ve also always enjoyed debating and as I have three sisters there were plenty of times when I was outnumbered in a dispute, so I had to be resourceful.


I started work in Auckland in 1990 for a large commercial law firm doing banking and finance litigation work.  I then transferred into a maritime and shipping team.  The maritime and shipping work that I had done in Auckland in the early 1990’s assisted me in my interview with Sinclair Roach & Temperley in Hong Kong in 1995.


If it wasn’t the law for you, Damien, would it have been medicine?


If it wasn’t law for me, I think it might have been advertising or marketing.  I enjoy language, whether it’s reading or writing and the process of persuasion.


What do you like to do in your free time?


My wife and I have eleven-year-old twins – a boy and a girl.  We regularly hike and play squash together.  They also both play youth rugby on Sunday mornings, and I am an assistant coach.


I am also on the General Committee of the Hong Kong Football Club and in that capacity I assist with the management of the Club in my spare time.


We love to visit my mother-in-law in Tokyo and my mother in Auckland when we leave Hong Kong.


Damien’s professional highlights include:


Regularly sitting as an arbitrator, as well as receiving party appointments as Counsel. Advising in connection with, or participating in, international arbitrations under the following rules: HKIAC, CIETAC, ICC, UNCITRAL, HKMAG, LMAA, SCMA, SIAC.  The subject matter of these arbitrations has included international trade and transport disputes, financial and professional services disputes, infrastructure projects, business mergers and acquisitions, shareholder agreements, loan agreements, wreck removal agreements, and real estate projects.

Involvement in numerous international trade and maritime disputes involving sale of goods, charterparties, bills of lading and ship mortgages.

Handling marine casualty litigation and arbitration matters.  These have included loss of life following collisions, oil pollution, limitation and general average issues, and complex forum non conveniens applications.

Winning a significant arbitration in Hong Kong for a listed commodities trader against a Chinese state-owned entity. This led to one of the earliest instances of recognition of a non-Mainland Chinese arbitration award (non CIETAC) in the PRC.

Advising in relation to detention and sale of luxury yachts by way of injunction or arrest.

Advising clients and insurers in relation to liability cover, including in respect of public liability exposure, transport and casualty cover, business disruption, and product recall claims.

Representing a prominent Chinese businessman as proxy at Board meetings in Hong Kong and in Mainland China during a particularly acrimonious shareholders’ dispute relating to a NASDAQ-listed corporation.

Making a successful recovery in Bitcoin against a prominent crypto trading platform after it froze our client’s “fiat” profits following an allegation of disruptive trading.

Acting for a high profile South Asian billionaire in relation to a shareholders’ dispute in Hong Kong. Damien’s team won the 25-day High Court trial.

Acting for a major European bank in six High Court litigation matters to successfully recover proceeds of internet fraud in Hong Kong.

Working closely with Chinese lawyers and commercial investigators to recover proceeds of business diversion in China. The local representative of our US client had set up a competing factory in the same Southern Chinese city.

Acting for a multinational United States consumer goods distributor suing Hong Kong vendors in respect of defective facemasks produced by Mainland Chinese factories.

Acting for an investment bank currency trader in conjunction with his former employer in connection with global LIBOR-fixing investigations initiated by the United States Department of Justice.

Acting for a senior mining company executive in respect of a dispute arising out of a ‘Mining Services Agreement’ concerning gold mining in Mongolia. Damien obtained an injunction preventing a hostile Board from convening a meeting to pass resolutions adverse to his client.

Damien successfully sued Aeroflot on behalf of Hong Kong families following a tragic air crash in Siberia in March 1994. 63 passengers and 12 aircrew died.  It was subsequently revealed by the “black box” cockpit voice recorder that the co-pilot’s 15-year-old son had disengaged the autopilot.


Interview conducted by:

David Adams, Managing Editor, Top Ranked Legal