Asia-Pacific organisations had to manage unique risks last year, and they continue to do so as the pandemic rages on. In the thick of it all, legal leaders are helping their business executives to close deals and make crucial decisions. This has made the role of the General Counsel even more significant.
Ranajit Dam is the Managing Editor for Thomson Reuters Legal Media Group. He spoke with nearly a dozen, Asia-based General Counsel at a virtual roundtable. The group shared their unique experiences and fears about the year ahead. We’ve rolled these into three sections, aimed at helping you adjust to similar challenges.
1. Complex business issues
Last year, many GCs experienced their remit expanding beyond traditional legal leadership responsibilities. To put simply, it was not ‘business as usual’. Companies were having to double down on their efforts to maintain business continuity, so their in-house counsel were required to adapt quickly.
Christopher Y. Chan, EVP Legal & Government Affairs, Lazada Group, believes a seismic shift is underway for the legal function in the Asia region. The current climate has enabled GCs to transform into what he calls “crisis commanders.”
“I think that we had to learn a lot about leadership in these trying times. The legal function needs to be trusted by the management. Through this period, legal functions across the region gained more respect, which has helped out with prioritisations, headcount, and budgeting,” he said.
The shift to virtual working accelerated tech adoption among organisations last year. For some GCs, this resulted in new opportunities for business expansion. Christopher sees the technology space as a growth area for the legal function.
“If your company is not a tech-enabled company, you as a General Counsel should try to help your company become one. Unlocking new workflows and processes with software, automation, and other technologies can streamline the legal function to open up new opportunities and change the mindset of your business. It’s an area that the GC can influence and make that a part of their portfolio.”– Christopher Y.Chan, EVP Legal & Government Affairs, Lazada Group
Sarita Misir, SVP Global Legal and Legal Lead for M&A and Technology Transactions, Fullerton Healthcare, emphasised that GCs carry weight in some areas more than others and thus were quite often better positioned to advise on wider business-related issues. Their value particularly shines through when they support their companies with strategic planning for business survival and growth.
She explained that due to the pandemic, GCs have had to demonstrate a high level of “resilience, adaptability and flexibility”.
“What I’ve seen is that the role has really evolved into a true business and strategic advisory role where we’re not just called upon as firefighters or to approve transactions and negotiations, but where we’re here for strategy, business and an operational perspective.”– Sarita Misir, SVP Global Legal and Legal Lead for M&A and Technology Transactions, Fullerton Healthcare
Glenn Seah, Head of Legal, Compliance & Corporate Secretariat at SGX, noted that with the increased prevalence of remote working, another challenge GCs are also facing is the issue of maintaining company culture. Employees, especially new employees, can become isolated and lose touch with an organisation’s core values when social interactions diminish. Deliberate efforts must be made to recognise this new work dynamic and implement the appropriate culture-building initiatives.
“There is that natural tendency to lose connection with the mothership if you’re not careful,” he said.
Greg Chew, General Counsel and Chief Legal Officer, Nanyang Technological University (NTU), agreed that the remit of GCs continues to broaden out, touching on his recent dual appointment as NTU’s Chief Strategy Officer. He articulated that by its nature the role clearly goes beyond traditional legal matters.
Greg mentioned that with it he has a growing appreciation of the interdisciplinary elements of a university, now having to advise executive stakeholders with a strategic lens, rather than from a legal perspective alone.
2. Demonstrating more with less
Shrinking budgets are nothing new to corporate legal departments. The COVID-19 pandemic has applied pressure on GCs to add further value to their organisations in times of crisis. This pressure cooker scenario continues despite limited scope to spend.
Mark Tan, Managing Director/General Counsel, GLP, argued that proving legal value is connected to role expansion. The aim is to offer advice and assistance beyond the legal realm in order to support business growth. Taking this approach can help when it comes to building a business case for more budget and even legal tech investment.
“When the legal function is closely aligned with an organisation’s business strategy, the budget then follows,” he said.
Determining which legal work to outsource and within budget is another pain point that can keep General Counsel up at night.
Greg Tanner, Group General Counsel, International SOS, seeks guidance from external advisers from time to time. This will usually be done for large projects or when specialist expertise is required. At times, he also contracts legal work to independent legal contractors
Greg noted that these specialists offer the legal experience required and tend to work flexibly. Ultimately, though, the advisers who are selected have to have a deep understanding of the business.
3. Supporting the legal team (and preventing burnouts)
Remote work has certainly changed the way GCs conduct their legal operations, from legal intake to matter management. No matter how agile a legal department functions, looking out for employee wellbeing is a crucial consideration.
Dessi Silassie, Chief Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Officer, APAC & FS GC and Global IP Legal, IHS Markit, said that her team are working toward regular communication by setting aside 15 minutes a day for ‘watercooler’ conversations.
“We now have a deeper understanding of our team’s individual circumstances. For instance, we initiate more intimate conversations about their home setup and ask them how they’re coping,” she said.
Breaking down project silos is another tactic she has implemented. Dessi encourages colleagues to co-work in an effort to reinstate regular conversations a team would have at a law firm.
Dessi ensures all members of her team are adequately considered, as the pandemic has impacted individuals differently.
“We’ve paid particular attention to impacted groups like parents and particularly young people living alone, dealing with isolation. We think about how we can best support them and make sure their career paths are on track.”– Dessi Silassie, Chief Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Officer, APAC & FS GC and Global IP Legal, IHS Markit
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