Dao is the Managing Partner of DN Legal, a law firm in Vietnam, which she set up 6 years ago after more than 19 years of corporate practice in Vietnam as Managing Partner for two international law firms in Vietnam. She has been recognized by many reputable legal publications over the years as the "go-to" lawyer in Vietnam in the areas of corporate M&A, real estate and banking.
She graduated from Harvard University as a Classics (Ancient Greek & Latin) and obtained her law degree at UCLA School of Law. She has practiced law for 29 years in the United States, Japan and Vietnam. She is qualified in NY, California and Hong Kong. She is also the co-President of the Harvard Club Vietnam and this year's President of the Vietnam Chapter of Entrepreneurs Organization.
But the most important thing Dao wants you to know about her is that she loves the color pink. It is the color of her firm's logo. She even has a pink desk at work. Pink is the color of compassion and she wants to convey that one can be a lawyer and also compassionate.
> What advice would you give your 20-year-old self?
I don't think my 20-year-old self would take advice from me! Life is a journey and mine has been incredible so far. So there isn't any advice I would give to my younger self, because all the failures, as well as successes, have been incredible lessons. I would not be who I am today had I done things differently; I would not want to do anything differently. Even some of the darkest moments of life have been radiant in terms 0f the lessons learned.
There is, however, one advice that my 20-year-old self can give me: "It is OK to say 'no' sometimes". I found that in my 25 years plus of corporate life, I spent a lot of time trying to meet other people's expectations (thinking they are mine). I was certainly well rewarded for this but this further encouraged me to continue this same path.
Along the way, however, about 8 years ago, I felt I lost the drive. I no longer found passion in my work. I thought the solution was to go to an even bigger firm and to take on an even bigger challenge. However, it turned out that was not the solution. It took me some time to realize that I lost passion because I had lost myself. So, sometimes, it is important to step back, slow down, say 'No" in order to find yourself and to make yourself the priority.
Remarkably, when I started doing so, I found passion again and somehow I was able and wanted to give more to others because this time I can stay true to myself. So in the last 3 years, I began to be more involved in giving back.
I am currently the co-President of the Harvard Club Vietnam and the President of the Vietnam Chapter of Entrepreneurs' Organization ("EO"). EO is a peer-to-peer network where we help each other to grow and to learn. Meeting and sharing experiences knee-to-knee, toe-to-toe and learning from other entrepreneurs all over the world has been transformational for me. I have not had this kind of authentic sharing in such a supportive and safe environment before. I have become more involved because I want other Vietnamese entrepreneurs to know that this is available and they are not alone. I have never been happier professionally and personally.
> What is one piece of advice you would give to young people who want to go into law?
If you are hesitating about law school, I would say go for it. I wasn't sure if I wanted to be a lawyer when I applied to law school. I was still unsure when I started law school until my summer internships at the law firm I ended up joining after graduation and my semester internship at the Court of Appeals, Ninth Circuit. I got a chance to see the law in practice and loved it. The skills learned such as to solve problems in a different way, to listen actively, to communicate in a succinct manner will carry you through life and any profession even if you choose not to practice as a lawyer.
> To date, what professional achievement are you most proud of?
In my 29 years (and counting) of practicing law, I have reached some milestones professionally that I never dreamed was possible.
The proudest professional achievement for me is the totality of the last 25 years of practicing law in Vietnam. Vietnam opened its doors for investment in 1987 after 20 years of economic isolation. I arrived in February 1995, right after the US lifted its embargo. All the multinationals flooded to the country and literally had to build their business from the ground up. So I had the chance to work on some amazing projects helping companies set up business. For example, we assisted HSBC to set up a bank in Vietnam and advised on all aspects of the Bank's operations from reviewing house leases for expatriates to adapting all its standard banking forms into Vietnamese to setting up a legal compliance framework for it. We wrote the compliance manual covering all aspects of banking operations for the Bank in Vietnam and was even part of the Bank's compliance team. We watched the Bank grew over the years from a handful of staff to now over 1000. When Vietnam acceded to the WTO, we also helped the Bank set up a wholly-owned bank in Vietnam because under the WTO Vietnam allows foreign banks to do so. How amazing is that to be able to say you have set up a bank? Vietnam gave me that opportunity.
That period was such an exciting time to be part of a country's as well as client's development from the ground up. It still is. I feel like I have grown up with Vietnam and the clients here. In addition, I have had the chance to work with many Vietnamese lawyers over the years (as Managing Partner of Mayer Brown JSM, we were one of the first foreign international law firms to promote Vietnamese lawyers to partners in Vietnam) and it is so wonderful to see many move on to in-house positions helping companies grow or set up their own firms or become partners. I take great pride in their development and success.
In many ways, there is still much to be done and that is why I am still here and still passionate as ever about being here and practicing law here. I want to continue to contribute to the country as well as to the legal profession.
> What personal achievement are you most proud of?
I am most proud of my son. I have never experienced unconditional love for someone until him. It gave me a deep appreciation for my family, especially my mom who brought up 12 kids but still had time for each of us. I remembered her making frozen sticky rice (which I love) for me in law school and sending them from Boston.
> What is your favourite book?
My favourite book as a lawyer is 'The Trusted Advisor" by David Maister. The most important takeaway is that to be a good lawyer, one has to be a good person first. This really resonates with me and has been my mantra personally and professionally. I love the last suggestion in the book on how to become a trusted advisor: "Tell your romantic partner how much he or she is appreciated. Do it today!" We had a firm retreat last year on building trust and everyone had a chance to read the book and explore how we would try to live this daily at work with one another and with clients.
My favorite book on the personal front is "The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success" by Deepak Chopra. The 'Law of Least Effort' is one that I try to practice every day, especially during this pandemic. "Nature's intelligence functions with effortless ease ... with carefreeness, harmony, and love." For example, flowers don't try to bloom, they just do. Often, we waste energy seeking power or control over people or approval from them or get upset at things easily. Instead, what I learned from the book is we should learn to accept things as they are at that moment although we can wish for things to be different in the future, take responsibility and choose to interpret an upsetting situation as an opportunity to learn and remain open to all points of views without the need to convince others. The book says that this approach will allow you to be lighthearted, free and carefree instead of resentful, angry. So true!
> What changes do you hope to see for Vietnam in the coming years?
To be honest, all the changes in Vietnam since I arrived in 1995 have been beyond my expectations and most people's predictions. Thus, I only hope that the Government will continue to do what it is doing. As you know, Vietnam is becoming more and more integrated and prominent in the world's stage. Its response to COVID-19 is an example.
In the 25 years of living and working in Vietnam, I have seen so much change. For example, the Government in the last 10 years has revamped the entire legal framework to create a favorable environment for investment for both domestic and foreign investors. The changes ranged from complete changes in company law, investment law, real estate law, securities law, etc. Its signing of the US-Vietnam Bilateral Agreement which went into effect in December 2001 was the catalyst for these changes and lead eventually to Vietnam's accession to the WTO in November 2006. The BTA covered trade in goods, protection of intellectual property rights, trade in services, investment protection, business facilitation and transparency. All these laws create a more level playing ground for all investors.
Since 2006, Vietnam has further amended the new laws to update and improve on them every 4-5 years. Thus, the changes didn't just happen overnight. It was part of the Government's concerted effort to integrate Vietnam's into the global economy and improve lives. Even mine has improved so much. I hope for more of the same.
> What advice would you give an Overseas Vietnamese who is going to move to Vietnam to start his/her career?
The ability to speak Vietnamese is not as important as the skills that you will bring to the table. So I would say don't let language be a barrier for coming to Vietnam. In terms of skills, this means that you may have to work for some years in a more developed jurisdiction before coming to Vietnam. Working here requires flexibility and the ability to pivot quickly to changes and situations. Prior experience is valued for this reason.
At the end of the day, it really depends on your reason for wanting to work in Vietnam and the job you are looking for. Perhaps, try to see if you can get an internship or try to talk to people in Vietnam first.
> What is a lesson you learned the hard way?
There have been many! I think I mentioned earlier that I thought happiness was to change jobs to an even bigger and more challenging one. It turned out that this was not the solution. I had lost myself along the way and so more prestige and success in terms of a bigger job were not what I needed. Since then, one of the skills I have learned is to listen more actively to myself through journaling, yoga and listening to others.
Bonus > What is your favourite Vietnamese food?
My favorite Vietnamese food (hands down) is sticky rice (or xoi). I love all kinds and it is usually my go-to breakfast food. The best xoi comes from Hanoi because of the short-grained variety of sticky rice used.
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