Many of the in-house professionals highlighted in this FT Innovative Lawyers Asia-Pacific report have made important commercial, as well as legal, contributions to their companies’ success. That is a reflection of how they are being increasingly valued as business advisers.
The legal team at Qantas, the Australian airline, stood out for several efforts over the past two years to keep the airline operational and solvent through the pandemic. They raised new funds, negotiated agreements with suppliers, and helped the airline to shift quickly to running repatriation flights for Australian citizens and freight services during the country’s pandemic lockdown.
“There’s a significant expectation now that the general counsel and legal team provide not only legal expertise but commercial and strategic advice and input,” says Ben Jones, head of legal at Qantas.
Other developments — such as the rise of legal operations as a discipline, and the growing importance of environmental, social and governance (ESG) matters for businesses — are also creating more varied and interesting careers for in-house lawyers.
In fact, the opportunity to build expertise in ESG, in particular, appears to be highly motivating for lawyers looking for new challenges and a sense of purpose in their jobs. Similarly, the ongoing digital transformation of individual businesses and wider industries means legal teams are investing in data and technology skills.
At DBS Bank, the legal and compliance team is being trained in sustainable business practices and in “Web3” principles — that is, to equip lawyers as the internet evolves based on the development of blockchain, cryptocurrencies, and the virtual world of the metaverse.
Gaining this knowledge will ensure they are “future-ready”, explains head of legal Chee Kin Lam. “This is about scanning the horizon. We are already trained for the law of today.”
The focus on employee development and engagement is particularly acute in Asia-Pacific due to the fast pace of growth in many of its markets.
Rita Kriz, head of legal for Asia at the consultancy McKinsey & Co, which has won an FT Innovative Lawyers award (see table, above), says the growth of the business in the region has created new opportunities for the legal team. “Because Asia is such a diverse region with different languages, laws, and cultures, we are constantly upskilling our legal team to stay abreast of business developments,” says Kriz.
The lawyers were recognised for creating a model to cover the complex and diverse requirements of McKinsey’s businesses in 16 countries across Asia. To help them manage legal requests from these businesses, the Asia legal team was reorganised to create single points of contact for each team of frontline consultants.
These lawyers develop deep relationships with specific business lines and clients. In addition, the lawyers have expertise in a particular practice area, such as data privacy or technology. The model allows them to work more closely with their business colleagues, while continuing to build technical knowhow.
The approach borrows from the agile organisational models McKinsey’s own consultants have developed and refined for the firm’s clients. “We engage with our consultants, learn from their approach and adapt what is optimal for ourselves,” says Kriz.
The market for top legal talent has been as tight in Asia as it has in Europe and the US over the past year. Legal teams traditionally recruit lawyers after they have worked for three to five years in a law firm — when they might consider a move in-house — but, as the firms increase their pay, this is becoming a challenge.
While competitive pay matters, one important draw of an in-house legal career is the chance to do challenging work and feel connected to the success and mission of a business. “We launch many innovative businesses and services in Japan — a big attraction for legal professionals is that they will be involved in these interesting projects from the outset,” explains Angela Krantz, legal director for Amazon Japan.
At Binance, the world’s largest cryptocurrency exchange, when general counsel Hon Ng joined, in November 2020, he was only its eighth lawyer. But, in just over a year, he has built the team to more than 50. He was able to attract lawyers to join the team partly by promising exciting work — such as engaging with regulators on establishing frameworks to govern cryptocurrencies and other digital assets.
At the most senior levels, general counsel roles can present a whole new challenge, too.
Christopher Betts joined the Singapore-based super app Grab as general counsel last year after nearly two decades in private practice, most recently as a partner in US law firm Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom’s Hong Kong office.
The technology company offers delivery, ride-hailing and financial services and closed a record $40bn merger deal with a special purpose acquisition company last December.
Betts could see the appeal: “The initial push factor was waking up one day and realising that chugging away at a big corporate law firm didn’t feel like the best use of my skills.”