This inaugural ranking recognises the achievements of the top in-house legal teams around the region. For legal leaders, standing out during an especially tough year has required adaptability, empathy, and the ability to blaze a path ahead rather than just keep up. The evolution of the GC role also continues, as the job becomes increasingly demanding and exciting.
For years, the evolution of the role of general counsel (GC) has been under something of a magnifying glass. Its transformation has been rapid, resulting in once unimaginable career pathways and a lot of additional pressure thrown into the equitation. For younger lawyers today, the role of general counsel is starkly different to the role it was when their predecessors entered the industry. No longer in the background, GCs are taking charge, and stepping further into the spotlight.
Part of the reason the GC role has evolved is that they are expected to do more with fewer resources. The list of ALB Asia’s Top 15 In-house Teams for 2021 is incredibly diverse, spanning industries from education to consumer goods and new-economy companies, and also countries ranging from India to Indonesia and China. However, what connects this disparate group is that, not only are they more streamlined and busier than ever, with an emphasis on adaption and agility.
Complicating all of this has been the COVID-19 pandemic, which brought the whole world to a halt starting last year. While most of the shockwaves were felt throughout 2020, and vaccines are available in many of the world’s developed countries, the Asian region is still coming to terms with the full impact of the pandemic.
As companies scrambled to draw up new strategies to adapt to “the new normal,” legal teams were kept incredibly busy providing not just counsel, but also helping their businesses navigate through a rapidly evolving landscape.
When the pandemic hit, the ability of in-house teams to rise to the challenge proved a saving grace, an indication of the tightknit supportive environments and collaborative way of working that standout GCs have succeeded in fostering.
As businesses have suffered immense pressure during the pandemic, and GCs have truly proved their grit as they steered their organisations through the toughest of times and led their teams through the ambiguity.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, Vincent Ng, general counsel at Klook, says his legal team has had to become “even more agile and adaptable during the pandemic.”
“Due to the rapid changes in customer expectations and business demands over the past year, our team has had to be creative and adopt an entrepreneurial mindset to drive and support the rapid adoption of new ideas in our business. For example, in the early stages of the pandemic, we’ve had to support the launch of Klook Live! which uses live streaming as a channel to continue to engage with our customers meaningfully,” Ng adds.
The team has also supported the business during its pivot towards “more domestic and home-based experiences,” as borders have remained closed in many places and COVID-19 restrictions changed travel habits.
In addition to managing teams during these types of strategic developments, Ng says there has also been a need to emphasize empathy.
“The team had to be more empathetic with our customers, suppliers and service providers as we are all going through this rough patch. And, of course, with our colleagues who are also facing tremendous business pressures and challenges,” Ng says.
During the pandemic, Ng notes that “empathy and frequent communication were key.” Another important element has been engagement.
“When we began working from home more often, we increased the frequency of manager one-on-one catch-ups with team members. We also added more personal touchpoints, such as setting aside time during our weekly meetings to have different team members share more about their personal lives.”
— Vincent Ng, Klook
A team of 14 lawyers spread across five offices, Klook’s legal team was already “fully set up for working and collaborating remotely even before the pandemic,” says Ng. Still, the legal team has been having weekly team meetings online to ensure that “everyone feels engaged and is kept up to date on what other team members are working on.”
“When we began working from home more often, we increased the frequency of manager one-on-one catch-ups with team members. We also intentionally added more personal touchpoints, such as setting aside time during our weekly team meetings to have different team members share more about their personal lives. This allowed the team to get to know one another better even when we could not meet up physically,” Ng says.
FOSTERING STRONG CULTURE
With so many teams working remotely, much has been written about the need for strong workplace culture – and one that is flexible both online and offline. For legal teams, a resilient internal culture has been more important than ever before, particularly given the greater pressure and rapid developments experienced by businesses.
For Greg Chew, general counsel and chief legal officer at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University (NTU), where the legal department underwent a shakeup following Chew’s arrival, internal culture has been a priority.
“We’re very clear about our vision, mission and values when we bring on new colleagues,” Chew says.
These values of being authentic, being accountable, and appreciation are the guiding principles for the team.
“We call it the triple As, and all members have to live by these behaviours,” Chew says. His approach to fostering collaboration includes bringing people together in teams “despite their specialisation in day to day activities”, then forming working clusters across divisions and placing people in small teams, and thereby forcing a kind of collaboration, says Chew.
These clusters, each of them named and emphasizing collaboration, focused on a different area. For ‘Evolve’, the focus was team engagement, ‘Discover’ focuses on the team’s learning and development journey, CSR focuses on what CSR activities the team can engage with that are external to the department, says Chew, offering an example of the CSR team engaging in a beach clean-up during the pandemic – socially distanced of course.
“Innovate by its nature is how do we at legal come up with processes, policies and systems that not only enable our legal and compliance organisation but the University as a whole,” he says. “We are not going to single out any individual member for accolades, that’s the culture we want to have. We have to succeed as a team or fail as a team.”
Ng describes Klook’s legal team as “empathetic, collaborative, and supportive of one another,” noting the teamwork closely to “empower the company’s growth.”
“We aspire to be as helpful as possible when approached with any issues. This has enabled us to work closely together and be an effective business partner to our stakeholders,” Ng says.
For Ng, team development has also been an important focus this year.
“Besides growing the team by hiring the best talents, we’ve also always been keen to up-skill and cross-train our team members. For example, we’ve paired team members from different legal functions and seniority to allow the opportunity for both parties to pick up new legal skills and hone soft leadership skills, as mentee and mentor, respectively,” he says.
The team also holds regular sessions where different team members provide “a more in-depth sharing on an interesting project or piece of work that they’ve worked on.”
“From time to time, we also invite guest speakers from law firms and other companies to share on specific topics and insights. In particular, we are going to hold a monthly ‘Meet the GC’ series, where we invite GCs from other companies and industries to share their professional journey. We hope this gives inspiration to our team across all levels,” Ng says.
FLEXIBILITY IN DEMAND
For Ng, hiring people who can fit into the team is about balancing the technical along with the outlook. “In addition to technical knowledge and skillset, we look out for individuals with an entrepreneurial mindset as these people tend to be more adaptable and resilient which are important traits in a fast-moving company like ours. The individual also has to have heart and empathy to be effective team players to the legal team and the rest of the business, especially in these challenging times,” Ng says.
“Our institution, like many organisations, attracts people that are very focused on a particular role, or experts in a certain area. While this does work for some organizations, leaner organisations these days do need people who are good generalists and solution providers.”
— Greg Chew, NTU
Chew also prioritizes mindset in his approach to sourcing new talent.
“Our institution, like many organisations, attracts people that are very focused on a particular role, or experts in a certain area,” says Chew, adding that while this “does work for some organizations, leaner organisations these days do need people who are good generalists and solution providers”.
“You need to have a broad sense of the topics, but frankly we look for attitude more than skills when we are seeking talent or trying to attract talent. Skills you can teach, but attitude is harder to shape, so when you get people with excellent attitudes, they tend to be able to take on a variety of work which then takes your organisation even further,” he says.
Agility and versatility are also high up the priority list for Chew, who says NTU typically attract younger staff than most universities.
Chew says the millennial staff the institution attracts are “very keen to learn. Compensation has to be appropriate, but learning and a sense of purpose are even more critical,” Chew says.
“When we look to hire, we say to our talent that we may be, given our industry, unique when compared to other organisations, but what we can do is offer you the experience that you seek and directionally enable your career,” he says, adding that moving and rotating staff is part of the culture.
INTO THE UNKNOWN
There is no doubt that the COVID-19 pandemic has drastically changed plans for the future and changed the way work is planned and carried out. Ng’s priorities for his team in the coming months is to “look to continue to ride the recovery wave and be primed to take advantage of market opportunities once it arises.”
“For that, we’ve been continuously building our legal operations capabilities to ensure that we remain agile and efficient so that we are able to react fast to business needs,” he says.
In the meantime, Ng says there have been leadership lessons to take away from the team during the pandemic. The biggest he says is “That empathy is key.”
“Our work tasks and business environment are already tough enough. So sometimes being empathetic and understanding can be the most powerful tool to motivate a colleague or support a business stakeholder in the most challenging times. We are fortunate to have a group of empathetic managers in our team.” Ng says.
For Chew, the past year has also been one of personal and professional change. The nature of his daily work, he says, has “completely changed” since last year.
While the request to dive into something new was daunting, for Chew, rising to the challenge has enabled him to take a different perspective in the business. “Ultimately, I got my mind across it and thought, I’m going to do my best to grab it with both hands,” he says, despite the role falling radically out of the legal remit.
Despite the role being out of his traditional career path, for the legal team Chew leads as GC, this also provides an opportunity to consider their own careers and the directions these could take – does this have an effect on how they see their futures? “Absolutely”, Chew says, noting in some of the strategic streams, he’s already invited some of his lawyers to join in.
When the strategy ramps up into the implementation and execution stage, Chew will be encouraging his team to get involved in the process he says, noting this will not only help to learn as it goes beyond the traditional career pathway, but it also enables visibility and promotional opportunities as well.
Asian Development Bank
COSCO Shipping Ports
InterGlobe Aviation (IndiGo)
Nan Shan Life Insurance
Nanyang Technological University
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