TAKING CARE OF BUSINESSES: AN INTERVIEW WITH H.E. DR. SOK SIPHANA
We recently sat down with H.E. Dr. Sok Siphana, practicing attorney and the principal at one of Cambodia’s most reputable law firms – SokSiphana & associates – to discuss his early beginnings, how his law firm started and the principles that he abides by when advising businesses that may potentially invest in the Kingdom of Cambodia.
How and when did your interest to become a law practitioner begin?
To be honest with you, I don’t know why I wanted to study law in the first place (laughs). Sometimes, destiny leads you to a certain path and you just follow it. But, in reflection, I think the interest began when I was in the United States (US). As you know, I went there as a refugee and experienced a lot of hardships. So, I studied law in the US because I wanted to do something meaningful. That decision led me to work for the United Nations Development Programme in Phnom Penh way back in 1993. I worked there as a management consultant at first, and then later on as a legal expert. That was the beginning of my saga in this profession.
Can you share with us the story behind SokSiphana &associates ? How did the idea to start a legal firm begin?
It’s interesting because, from 2005 to 2009, I served as Director with the International Trade Center UNCTAD / WTO in Geneva, Switzerland. And, while I was there, the trade round was really slow. Nothing was happening and I felt like a knife with no opportunity to sharpen. Whereas, whenever I visit Asia, I can feel that there’s a lot of action happening. So, after more than three years of staying outside the country, my wife and I decided to come back in Cambodia. We thought, “Hey, we’re both lawyers, why not start our own law firm? We can even start our practice from home because there’s no zoning in Cambodia. It won’t cost us anything.” And, that’s how we started. Just the two of us. Now we have around 30 staff.
SokSiphana & associates is now one of the most reputable law firms in the country, if not the whole region. In your view, what led to its success?
Integrity. We have a good reputation with clients because we have integrity. You know, in a small city like Phnom Penh, word gets around very fast. And if clients say that you or your company don’t have integrity, you might as well close shop. We also try not to get too technical when advising clients or when explaining the local legal system. We simply tell them the reality of things and provide them with practical solutions. I think that clients really appreciate that.
What beliefs, values or ethics do you abide by when doing business or managing the firm?
I think what really sets SokSiphana &associates apart from the rest is that, here, we treat each other as professionals. Although I give my staff guidance, I don’t micromanage them because I know that they also have good skills and knowledge. I also just remind them that, at the end of the day, it’s up to them if they want to become successful or establish a reputable name for themselves.
In terms of doing business, I always emphasize on quality and integrity. I have a philosophy that one more client will not make me richer, one less client will not make me poorer. We will never compromise our integrity. And I think that’s why we’re doing well.
The last time we met, you mentioned that Cambodia is now transitioning from a mixed legal system to a civil legal system. In simple terms, can you explain to us why this transition is happening?
Actually, Cambodia used to have a civil law system. However, after the civil war, the country had to start from scratch and there was an emergence of “donors” wanting to help re establish a system. The result, though the intention was good, was that different kinds of legal systems were introduced because each donor also come from various backgrounds. Now, the transition toward a civil law system that best fits into our society is completed.
But what are the implications of this transition to law firms, legal practitioners and businesses?
Personally, I think that we shouldn’t be too worried about the
technicalities of the process. Lawyers, however, must be very mindful that certain concepts in a particular legal system don’t exist. For example, if the client is from Singapore, the lawyer must be able to explain the difference between the systems in Cambodia and Singapore and also provide the best and most practical advice.
Do you have any advice to businesses that are planning to invest in Cambodia?
Be compliant and invest in corporate compliance. It will prove cheaper in the long run.
In your view, is Cambodia still a great place to invest in?
I think that the main magnet that attracts businesses to invest here in Cambodia is full liberalization of the economy. You have a great business idea? You can make it happen here. In other countries, your idea may have already been done by thousand other entrepreneurs. Also, here, they allow you to repatriate your money and own 100% of your business. In other countries, there are certain restrictions against these. So, to me, that sums up the beauty of doing business here in Cambodia. You control your own commercial destiny. You’re not mandated to have a local partner.
* This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity
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