Frederick Kan, LLB 1967

The first Chinese-Canadian graduate of the Faculty of Law talks about China’s law firm market, volunteering to help youth mental health—and resolving the mystery of No. 31

Interview by Lucianna Ciccocioppo / Photography by May Truong

From the Fall/Winter 2016 issue of Nexus

Lucianna Ciccocioppo: Many Canadian and US law firms, indeed firms around the world, have been feeling the pressures to consolidate in mergers. How has your firm been able to maintain its independence and grow its business?

Fred Kan: We are a medium-sized firm, with 20 lawyers. Of course, in Canada and the United States, a medium firm would be at least 200 lawyers or so, but not here in Hong Kong. Our niche is in dispute resolution, and we can maintain that niche. However, we need to expand to take into account the market opportunities in the mainland. That's very important. It’s the second largest economy in the world, with a population of 1.4 billion. How are we going to tap into that market? It is a question that we have to deal with.

We had an office in Tianjin for many years. We decided two years ago to close it down because the distance is quite far and it was not economically cost effective. By doing so, we were not giving up on the market. There are many big law firms in mainland China, some with over a thousand lawyers, but they are not organized the way we are. They are chamber practices, with maybe 50-60 small groups. That's not the type of law firm we want to be.

We want a law firm that shares our organizational structure. We have a partnership, we each have specializations, and we all work as a team. Instead of us going to mainland China, we decided to let them come to us, so we save on costs. We won't be taking a loss in the mainland.

LC: What do you think about Chinese law firms expanding abroad into Canada, the US, and the UK?

FK: It’s the right approach. About three years ago, I was in a group from the law society who received a delegation from the Federation of Japanese Bar Associations to Hong Kong. There was a very candid, frank discussion, and the conclusion was that the Japanese felt that they had missed the boat. At the time, the Japanese economy was riding high, and Japanese companies were going abroad for acquisitions. Instead of setting up their own law firms in those countries, the Japanese firms would give the work to a US law firm. They did not set up their own offices and did not utilize this opportunity to venture out.

I think the Chinese are doing it now—for example, the King and Wood Mallesons joint venture in the UK, which seems to be failing. Still, it will not dampen their spirits. It is happening and if we can fund a law firm in mainland China that can grow closely with us, I have no problem in changing the name of the firm. I am more than happy to be part of a big family. We would be the outpost, we would be able to assist the mainland law firm in reaching out to the west, to Canada, the United States.

Currently, we have a small practice in Tokyo, Japan. My partner is there 10 days every month.

LC: Why did you want to become a lawyer?

FK: I studied mechanical engineering [at U of T], and I graduated in 1964. My undergraduate thesis was in solar energy. When I graduated, I applied to McGill University for its program in solar energy, which is run in Barbados. In my final year in engineering, '63-64, I was very active in campus life. I was the president of the International Law Students Council, I initiated the international student festival, and I was elected by the Faculty of Applied Science and Engineering to be a representative to the house committee in our house.

[Hart House] Warden Joseph McCulley was a very influential father-figure to me at the university. He said to me: "Fred, you should study law; I think you're cut out to be a lawyer." I decided to apply. He probably wrote a good recommendation for me because it was difficult to get into law school, very competitive. When I graduated, my father wrote to me and said: "Son, I am very pleased that you have graduated. I'm going to give you a round-the-world plane ticket, so that you can see the world. The only consideration is that you write a travelogue, so that I can share with what you have seen and your experiences traveling the world."

Of course I accepted. It took me a long time to get back to Hong Kong. Meanwhile, two letters of acceptance arrived at our house in Hong Kong. One was from McGill University, accepting me to their Barbados campus to do solar energy research, and the other from the University of Toronto law school. With no secrets between father and son, he opened one and thought: "Oh, my son's applying to a U of T law school, okay." Then looked at the other letter from McGill: "Barbados campus, studying solar energy."

Solar energy, what’s that?  You dry your clothes under the sun. You dry your salted fish under the sun. No one cares about solar energy. They were not familiar with Barbados. My father used to hold court in a restaurant in Wan Tai, for business dealings. He told people he wanted to visit this place called Barbados, and asked people whether they had been there. No one knew of it, until one day this smart alec came and said: "Mr. Kan, this a place they do the calypso.” When I returned home, my father took me to a restaurant the next day, and then he asked me:  "Son, do you know how to do the calypso?" Well, being an honest person, I said: "Father, sure I do; everybody does it." And he replied, looking me in the eyes: "Son, no more dancing. Be serious."

So I went to law school.

LC: That was that?

FK: That was that. And I always wondered, over these past 10 years or so, whether I made the right choice. Until I found out about my number. My office is on the 31st floor of the building. My club membership number is K-31. My golf club number is also 31. My telephone number has 31 in it, and so forth. I said to my daughters: “This number 31 seems to follow me everywhere." They said: "Dad, when we were in Canada, our Boulevard Club membership number was also 31."

So I decided to find out, what does number 31 mean? A friend of mine knew this feng shui master, someone he consulted whenever he opened up a new factory on the mainland. We went out for a round of golf—on the 31st day of the following month. After the golf game, I asked him about the number 31. He said: "In a Chinese astrology, the number 3 is associated with conflicts and disputes; the number 1 is literature and writings. Thirty-one suits you. You are involved in disputes, and you are writing all the time. Thirty-one is you." So, that settles it. I think I was pre-ordained to be a lawyer rather than a science researcher in solar energy.

LC:: You've accomplished a tremendous amount, not just in your career but in your community as well. What impact do you think you’ve had?

FK: I think the most important thing I have done is Teen Talk. It's a program for the Law Society [of Hong Kong] to engage with about 2,000 young high school students to discuss and debate the important issues of the day. It's very successful. It’s supported with more than C$200,000 a year, and this is the sixth or seventh year. For the first year, the theme was ‘Love Yourself.’ The suicide rate of young people in Hong Kong is very high, and I was concerned. First of all, they have to learn how to love themselves before they can love others. There's nothing selfish or self-centered about that, you have to love yourself. It was a very good starting place.

What we want to do now is select 50-100 bright, local high school students a year, and train them in leadership skills. In 10 years, we’ll have 500 or 1,000, depending on how many we train per year. They will make a significant impact.

LC:: What was life like as the first Chinese-Canadian at the Faculty of Law?

FK: There was another Chinese student in my class but he did not get through the first year of law school. He studied mathematics, and he always had to have the right answer. That's not the way to pass a law exam. So he flunked out the first year. Being the first Chinese-Canadian law graduate from the University of Toronto law school definitely opened up doors. I graduated in 1967, the year when the Minister of Immigration, Jean Marchand, changed immigration act to remove the last vestige of racial discrimination in our statute book.

Before then, Chinese were not allowed to apply for immigration, or only with great difficulties. It was also the time of the Hong Kong riots and a lot of Hong Kong Chinese came to Canada, to Toronto. I started practicing in '69. I had a tough time getting a job being Chinese – it was very difficult. I remember I finally got a job at a small firm. I faced racism. By 1975, I ran for the Ontario legislature. I may well be the first Chinese who tried. I did not encounter any racial discrimination -  it was a big change.

LC: What do you think of law students today? What advice would you have for them?

FK: I think they have more opportunities than we did. The practice of law has changed; there are so many new areas of law that we never thought of. Here’s an example. I was the deputy chair of the new body set up under the governmental procurement agreement of the World Trade Organization. Some years ago, when I was at conference, a Chinese official approached me to engage my counsel for China’s signing of the governmental procurement agreement. I agreed, and then decided to seek out the best institution for government procurement law, and that's at the University of Nottingham. I applied to become a visiting scholar and they accepted me, and I went there for two months.

LC: Why are you so supportive of the law school, and indeed, the University of Toronto?

FK: As the Chinese saying goes:  “When you drink from the stream, you always remember the source." You have to look at your roots, and the University of Toronto is an important root for me.