Today, most big businesses in Hong Kong will have some form of in-house legal function. In an environment where regulation and legislation are constantly changing and more companies are operating on a pan-Asian basis, it is essential.
Despite current unsettling times, Hong Kong is, and will continue to be, a legal hub. Many Asia-wide businesses chose to base their in-house legal teams in the region due to its reputation as a global legal services centre, the quality of legal talent and its trusted and well-respected local legal system. All of these factors mean the region has a high number of in-house lawyers and specifically, those in the general counsel (GC) role.
Traditionally these in-house legal teams did exactly what it says on the tin – legal work, whether it be advising on incoming legislation which might impact how a business functions, changing employment law, or doing the behind the scenes legal leg work on a deal. Whilst essential, these teams were often dismissed by the wider business as the ‘naysayers’, risk adverse and not a money-making department. Therefore, this often meant they received the bare minimum when it came to budget and resource. However, attitudes are changing and more than ever we are seeing businesses not only beginning to recognise how essential this in-house legal role is, but also what these teams can contribute to the wider company when it comes to expertise, advice on strategic direction and decision making.
Commenting in an interview in 2017, Nadine Maurellet, general counsel for The Hongkong and Shanghai Hotels spoke about how the role of an in-house counsel has grown and how the skillset for people in this role has also had to change - “Project management skills, the ability to think ahead of the game and evolve with the business and problem-solving: these are the skills for aspiring in-house counsels,” says Maurellet.
The business world is evolving and with this, we’re also seeing in-house lawyers having to break new ground as technology evolves.
Commenting in the latest Financial Times’ Asia-Pacific Innovative Lawyers report, Katrina Johnson, Asia-Pacific head of legal at Uber touches on this: “We do not have the benefit of established case law, well-formed regulatory frameworks, and clear-cut legislative environments to guide us in our legal work.”
Evolution of this sort makes the in-house role exciting and very important. And whilst we are seeing businesses recognise the vital role GCs and their team play in the wider company, this switch in perception does not necessarily mean smooth sailing for lawyers in this role – in fact, we often see the opposite. Rather than seeing legal budgets increased due to this bigger, more holistic role within the business, we’re increasingly seeing these teams having to do more with less. Pressure is increased and stress levels for GCs are high.
So, with budgets under pressure across the business world, what can be done to ensure a company is getting the most out of their in-house legal team, without breaking the bank?
• Invest in technology - often the in-house legal team would be left behind when a business invested in its technology infrastructure, with the assumption being that the finance or HR team would benefit more acutely from better technology. Those days are over. Now we are seeing innovations like artificial intelligence shake-up the legal profession to a significant degree and the efficiencies this sort of technology can offer is important. Investing in this technology can free-up time for a GC and their team by offloading some of the more routine but time-consuming legal work to tech.
• Invest in team - a shrunken budget also means an in-house team has to do more work with less people. Working with legal consultants can be a good way to increase the team’s capacity without having to ask for an increased budget to cover ongoing staff costs. A legal consultant can be brought in to cover particularly busy times of year for example, and by working with a provider like Vario, GCs also don’t have to devote time to ensuring they hire a quality candidate as this work is done by the provider.
• Don’t forget wellbeing - this piece has talked a lot about the pressure and stresses a GC and their team can be under in Hong Kong. That is why a focus on wellbeing should be a priority to ensure staff remain healthy, motivated and working. Relatively simple and cost-effective policies, such as increased flexible working or sessions on meditation and yoga, for example, can go a long way in boosting mental health in the long-term.
GCs and their teams in Hong Kong are undeniably some of the hardest working in business – recognising the stresses and strains these teams are under can go a long way in ensuring they can function effectively and successfully for the wider company.
The views expressed in this column are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect this publication's view, and this article is not edited by Hongkong Business. The author was not remunerated for this article.
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Kirsty Dougan is Managing Director of Asia for Vario at Pinsent Masons. Kirsty joined Vario in March 2019, and led the Hong Kong launch. Kirsty is responsible for Vario’s operations across Asia and the growth of the business in the region. Vario has become the leading law firm led provider of flexible legal solutions, representing over 500 lawyers across numerous jurisdictions. Kirsty possesses significant experience in this field and is a pioneer of alternative legal services in Asia as co-founder of an international ALSP business in the region and was the Managing Director there for over 8 years.