Conversations with Hannah Lim

By Gracia Chua and Joseph Khaw

As Head of Rule of Law and Emerging Markets at LexisNexis, Hannah works with governments to leverage technology to support the rule of law and build meaningful partnerships with key stakeholders and international organizations. Hannah is passionate about the impact that technology might have on the legal industry and society, as well as the future of the legal profession. Prior to joining LexisNexis, Hannah was a corporate lawyer in Myanmar. She read law at the University of British Columbia and is called to Bar in New York and Singapore.

Simply put, I try to find ways that LexisNexis can support the rule of law in Southeast Asia. In doing so, we leverage our core competencies (such as technology and managing legal content and data) and our network with lawyers and judges to improve access to justice and the rule of law.

It’s a really fun job and I have not come across any other role like this before. It stems from the heart of our corporate mission, which is advancing the rule of law, and is a combination of corporate social responsibility with business strategy. While we support the rule of law through my work, we also get to learn more about the market, the legal system and the needs of the community. From there we are able to generate business ideas and go-to-market strategies.

We do a lot of different projects, some big and some small. Some examples would include running conferences on constitutional law and the rule of law for lawyers and training programs on legal drafting in emerging markets; all the way to advising judiciaries on how to digitize their processes and systems to enable more effective access to judgements. I’d like to believe that the accumulative effect of these projects has moved the needle somewhat. 

But what is really needed for effective change is for a deep respect for the rule of law to take root in society, and this means inspiring the people we engage with. Be it our employees, our partners and our clients, it is important that we walk the talk. That advancing the rule of law is something we genuinely strive to do and is not something we pay lip service to for branding. I’d like to think that we’ve inspired people along the way. We have had interns who put off starting their legal careers for a year to continue working with us because of the rule of law work that we do! That’s a good sign, I guess!  

There is NO typical workday for me! Before COVID-19, I was on a plane every other week and my days would be jam-packed with meetings from the moment I land. I’d be connecting with people to figure out what it’s like on the ground, and what we could do to support the rule of law, or executing rule of law projects that we have been entrusted with. I have full freedom and rein to go out there and just do stuff!

Because my role is so unique in LexisNexis, I end up doing a lot of random things to ensure our projects succeed, from figuring out administrative arrangements (like getting Myanmar visas for everyone) to planning events to developing the product of our rule of law work. I don’t do this all by myself of course as I can always rope in the appropriate expertise from the rest of the LexisNexis and RELX family. I also do a lot of presentations, conferences and paper writing to share ideas and perspectives. If there’s a lull when I don’t have a project running, then I’d be researching for a paper (I’ve got an academic streak and I LOVE writing papers) or supporting the larger team with product development.

In short, there is no usual day, but every day is fun and there’s always a lot to do. 

The main highlight is when we deliver a project and see it make a difference. Seeing stakeholders genuinely thank us for our work, take the next steps, and the invite us to come back to help them implement our suggestions is just great. You really feel that the work is going to make a difference. Also, very precious to me are the relationships that we build during these projects. Even though I don’t speak the same language as many of the people I work with, working on a fulfilling project together creates a lovely bond. 

I also enjoy the opportunity it gives me to meet and connect with people so easily – LexisNexis is quite a known brand in the legal sector and when they realise that I’m looking for ways to support the rule of law, the doors usually fly open. I had a free day in Indonesia once and found myself wandering around a university, knocking on professors’ doors and introducing myself, and people would talk to me. It was great! 

With every large institution, there’s always a lot of bureaucracy which of course results in a lot of administration. I’m not great with that. My work within the organisation falls outside of business-as-usual for which our processes are set up. So, everything I do is a bit of an administrative hassle. But I have an amazing team who believe in the mission, so everyone is willing to go the extra mile to help!

I had been a lawyer for seven years and my entire legal career was in Myanmar. I started first with Kelvin Chia Partnership before moving to Allen & Gledhill (A&G). I had a great time at both firms, and I’m still good friends with my bosses and colleagues from my lawyering days!  

However, I always felt that lawyering was not for me. I wasn’t bad at it, but it did not make me happy (tip: just because you’re good at something doesn’t mean it will make you happy). It also dawned on me that what I liked about being in Myanmar wasn’t the law job, it was learning about the history, culture, and sociology of the country. In my free time, I wasn’t reading up on how to be better lawyer, instead I was attending talks about governance, reading books about Myanmar’s history, or talking to friends involved in the peace process. So, I left law to try to find a role more aligned with my interests. It was a very difficult decision because I loved Myanmar and I had great bosses and colleagues, and good hours (which is rare for an A&G corporate lawyer!). 

I left without a job, which can be risky, and many advised against it. It is easier to find a job while employed and you have better bargaining power. But having a full-time job meant that I didn’t have the mental bandwidth to explore possibilities. So, I took the risk, but it was a calculated risk: I had done the math and had enough savings to last me for a while. After quitting, I did all sorts of random things (I basically said yes to everything) with the purpose of learning about myself. Through these experiences, I realised that what type of work I enjoyed and where my strengths were. 

Despite this, I couldn’t think of any standard that might suit me. I did, however, have inspiration in the form of my friend and now manager, Gaythri Raman. Before becoming the managing director for LexisNexis Southeast Asia, Gaythri was doing rule of law work at LexisNexis and became my client while I was still a lawyer in Myanmar. I remember being so inspired by the work that I cancelled a holiday and flew back to work on her project! What struck me about her story was how she took her interests and passion (developing projects to support the rule of law) and aligned it with LexisNexis’ interests and mission, thereby creating a job that she loved. She was great at her work and provided value to the company which made them willing to support the work she wanted to do. That inspired me to think about how I could make a living out of my interests. Fortunately for me, I didn’t have to think too far as Gaythri asked if I’d be keen on a rule of law role in Southeast Asia. I said yes and jumped right in, and that’s how I ended up with LexisNexis, with Gaythri as my manager. 

Well, whether something is an opportunity or a pitfall really depends on your goals and perspectives. At the beginning of my career, I did not see it as an opportunity as at that time, there was a general impression that starting out in an emerging market would limit your development as a lawyer. There was some truth to that, in 2010 Myanmar didn’t have a stock exchange in Myanmar. So, I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to do capital markets work. If my goal had been to be a good capital markets lawyer, then that would have been a problem. 

In hindsight, Myanmar was the best thing that happened to me, because I gained more than a traditional legal career in Singapore could have given. Doing legal work in a different country requires you to question your assumptions and everything you take for granted. Because the law regulates the norms and relationships in society, having regional experience exposes you to the bare bones of how societies work, and to see how history, politics, and culture impacts our legal systems. The experience has also strengthened my problem-solving and analysis skills as the legal environment was more uncertain and fluid. I always tell people that Myanmar has given me so much of my purpose in life and of the work that I do. I really owe a lot to Myanmar.

I choose to work in Singapore as I wanted to be with my family and friends, but I got to work in Southeast Asia. And personally, compared to the developed and structured legal systems of North America where most legal processes are a matter of course, Southeast Asia is so exciting! I got to do all sorts of interesting things like develop novel legal structures, observe systems that have been in place since the late 1800s while trying to work around them. It’s just way more interesting to me. It reminds me of a passage in “Alaska” by James Michener (one of my favourite books), where a law student is receives career advice from his professor at Yale Law School: 

“If you went into a New York Law firm next fall, what experience would you have? An extension of what we gave you here at Yale. Nothing wrong with that, but it is limiting. However, if you go to Alaska, you’ll be thrown into problems that haven’t been defined yet. It’s a real frontier, an opportunity to beat new paths.”

Replace “Alaska” with Myanmar or Southeast Asia and you get my drift.

I’m no crystal ball, but I’ll do my best! I’m currently reading a book called Online Courts and the Future of Justice by Richard Susskind. He argues that people want justice, not lawyers. Lawyers just happen to be the way that we get justice in this current system. And from a global perspective, it’s not so effective. The World Justice Project estimates that 5 billion people have unmet justice needs and is in recent year seeing a negative trend in terms of rule of law performance globally. So, I think an overarching concern for the profession generally is devising systems to bring justice to people who need it. But how should the system change? And what is the role of the lawyer moving forward? 

Despite what some legaltech enthusiasts might say, I don’t believe that there will be no role for lawyers in the future. The core of a lawyer’s work is to bring order to the relationships in society and that is uniquely human work, not because it cannot be automated, but because it would not be automated. I don’t think we’d allow for robots to determine things like our values, and norms and what qualifies as fairness and justice. We still need to think about how this work of relationship-structuring and norm-ordering is going to be delivered to society, if not though lawyers in traditional law firms, then how? And in that question lies tremendous opportunity for lawyers to reinvent themselves, to find innovative ways to plug the gaps and to pour their intelligence, creativity and passion into building a better world. 

What I love to tell young people is that the single most important thing is to know yourself. Find out what your strengths and interests are and use that as a basis to craft your adult life. And don’t assume that you do know yourself. At least for me, it took me a while to figure that out as I’d just follow the path that was clearly set me. You’d just go to the top schools till you got to university, at which point you first choose to be a doctor and if not, a lawyer. In fact, I know quite a couple of lawyers who are lawyers because they didn’t become doctors! While I’m sure things are different in your generation, understanding yourself is still important. 

Because the journey of self-discovery can be a long one, don’t be fixated on making the “right choice” right now because, chances are, your older self is going to have a different perspective. I’m 36 now, and if you asked me if I’d allow a 21-year-old to make my career decisions the answer is obvious – no. So, don’t feel like you need to make the right choice for your 36-year-old self right now! Instead, use this time to prepare to make the right choice later, when the opportunity finally presents itself. This means learning as much as you can. Skill up, experience different things so you’ll have the skill sets and confidence to pursue what you really want to do. Network aggressively so you can learn from other people’s perspectives and experiences.

And when you do start working, don’t fall into what I call an “employee mindset” (i.e. I’m paid to work from 9-5 and to do xyz so I will not do anything beyond that). I’m not advocating that you work unreasonable hours and to let yourself be abused. What I am saying is to think of yourself as a start-up. If you’re a start-up then the work that you do is your product. Then you will have to think about how to make your product fantastic, so it always stays in demand. You’ll think about how you market yourself to your customers (i.e. your colleagues and your bosses), and how to ensure that their user experience is positive. And don’t think of your boss as a boss, think of him as a business partner, someone who is a resource, who can help you and your product succeed in the very long run!