Introduction to HKU Law Series (IV) Professor Douglas W. Arner’s Sharing

Douglas W. Arner is the Kerry Holdings Professor in Law, an RGC Senior Fellow, and Associate Dean (Taught Postgraduate) of the Faculty of Law at the University of Hong Kong. At HKU, he co-founded and is the Faculty Director of the LLM Compliance and Regulation, LLM Corporate and Financial Law, LITE (Law, Innovation, Technology and Entrepreneurship), and EAIEL (East Asian International Economic Law and Policy) Programmes. In addition, Douglas is Associate Director of the Standard Chartered Foundation-HKU FinTech Academy, a Senior Visiting Fellow of Melbourne Law School of the University of Melbourne, a non-executive director of NASDAQ and Euronext listed Aptorum Group, an Advisory Board Member of the Centre for Finance, Technology and Entrepreneurship (CFTE), and co-founder and an executive board member of the Asia Pacific Structured Finance Association. He co-founder and former Director of the Faculty’s Asian Institute of International Financial Law. Douglas has served as a consultant with, among others, the World Bank, Asian Development Bank, UN, APEC, Alliance for Financial Inclusion, and European Bank for Reconstruction and Development.

This article is based on Professor Douglas Arner’s interview in May 2022, in which he shared his experiences coming to HKU for the first time, his role at the centre of financial law education, working with students at HKU, his experiences in the industry and his academic research, as well as his experiences outside of work and his advice for scholars. Please click on the video in the article to watch the full interview.

When we asked Professor Arner about his beginnings at HKU, he explained to us that shortly after finishing his PhD, he began working at the University of London on issues related to financial regulation around the time when the Asian financial crisis had just erupted. During these years, Professor Arner and his team worked with several Asian countries on financial regulation and was eventually asked to establish the Asian Institute of International Financial Law (AIIFL) which is today one of Asia’s leading research centers in financial law. Over the next few years, he would help to create HKU’s Master of Laws in Corporate and Financial Law which has since gained a reputation as one of the best programs of its kind in the world. Since coming to HKU, Professor Arner has worked over the past 20 years to provide valuable insight to improve Hong Kong’s dynamic financial system. 

Looking ahead to what HKU can contribute to the future of financial and corporate law, Professor Arner reflected on the series of crises faced in the modern day and how they have disrupted global efforts towards sustainable development. From Covid 19 to the war in Ukraine, the challenges facing the world today have made Professor Arner question how we can build better, more resilient systems to face the challenges of tomorrow. On top of this, Professor Arner is also interested in financial technology both from the perspective of the opportunities fintech brings as well as the accompanying risks. Professor Arner contextualised these challenges and opportunities as fitting in a broader trend of global fragmentation and how high level decisions within major economies have been giving rise to several intense conflicts in international financial regulation. 

Despite these challenges, Professor Arner is encouraged by how motivated HKU Law students are to meet them head on. HKU has a number of programs in financial and corporate law such as the Law, Innovation, Technology and Entrepreneurship Lab (LITE), the Master of Laws in Compliance and Regulation and the Master of Laws in Corporate and Financial Law that help to foster an appreciation for big picture themes in the financial landscape. These programs are designed to ground students in both current and developing trends in the industry to give them support in their future careers. Professor Arner believes that these programs give students the exposure to several alternative career paths including students thinking about foregoing a traditional legal career in favour of starting their own businesses.

Professor Arner has also supervised and continues to supervise a number of PhD students, many of whom have gone on to careers in government, businesses and research institutes around the world.  His current students are interested in the intersection between technology and finance during this time when digital currencies and tech regulation have become a central focus for those involved with the digital economy. Professor Arner told us that what makes a PhD student successful is a deep interest in what makes things work and a desire to push forward the bounds of knowledge in a given subject area. While Professor Arner stresses the importance of helping students develop strong research and writing skills, he also believes that students need to be exposed to other skills necessary for entering the job market. This is in large part why he and his team have worked together to create a series of massive open online courses (MOOCs) with edX, the online learning platform established by Harvard and MIT, on topics including blockchain and the first edX certified fintech course which over one hundred thousand learners across the world have enrolled in. 

We asked Professor Arner to explain to us what it is that has drawn him to his chosen area of focus. He told us that the role of finance in society as both a positive force for growth and a source of great instability drew him to thinking about the possibility of designing better systems that benefit from the positive aspects of finance while mitigating the attendant risks. The emergence of Fintech perfectly reflects this dichotomy and is why Professor Arner has focused so much of his attention on it. Recently, Professor Arner and his team have worked with the Alliance for Financial Inclusion to create a strategy to use Fintech as a means of increasing access to financial services, largely through expanding access to mobile phones. Covid-19 has particularly highlighted the need for greater financial inclusion and Professor Arner sees initiatives aimed at greater financial inclusion as vital to fostering the kind of sustainable development threatened by global events like the current pandemic.     

Professor Arner is deeply concerned with having an impact with his research which is why he considers communicating with the public about the work he and his team are doing as one of the biggest challenges he faces. Ultimately, he believes that academics need to engage with the public as much as possible so that ideas can be implemented and challenged rather than merely exist, divorced from real world consequences.

We asked Professor Arner about his approach to research and his thoughts on the value of collaboration. Professor Arner has conducted several projects as part of a team and told us he generally prefers collaborative research over independent research. Noting that while most legal scholars prefer to work on their own, he personally enjoys the benefits of being able to have ideas tested and being exposed to different perspectives that come with collaborative research.

Professor Arner is also deeply connected with the financial industry and believes these connections are vital to understanding the broader challenges faced by the industry in order to conduct research to address those challenges. This is particularly the case for the financial industry which constantly requires fresh perspectives and insights capable of having a pragmatic and real world impact.

We asked Professor Arner to share with us some of his hobbies and what he likes to get up to outside of work. In his off time, Professor Arner takes advantage of Hong Kong’s many great hikes, bike trails and even manages to find time to coach his daughter’s rugby team. Having done his first degree in English literature, Professor Arner takes great pleasure in a number of classic works from Beowulf to Shakespeare while also having an appreciation of the works of modern economic historians such as Niall Ferguson and Douglas North.

At the end of our interview, Professor Arner shared with us some advice for young scholars. He said that the key to success is not merely the ability to work hard but also, a keen interest in the subject one is pursuing. Scholars need to grapple with the details and technicalities of academic work and so those without a strong interest in the subject may find themselves unequipped to get through the tedium and long hours required of good academic work.


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