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Traditionally, corporate legal departments have been asked to do much but given little. But, the era of heightened productivity has arrived with technology transforming how legal work gets done. We examine how today’s best in-house legal teams can act as valuable strategic partners to the business while successfully navigating Asia’s complicated commercial landscape, and doing so with the help of generative AI.

 

Corporate legal departments are tasked with pulling off the seemingly impossible. General counsel – often running a lean operation – need to protect their organisations from a full spectrum of legal and regulatory risks, weather market turbulence, enable growth and drive the businesses forward. And they have to do all that on a strictly controlled budget.

The arrival of emerging technologies, best exemplified by generative artificial intelligence (Gen AI), not only promised to disrupt the prevailing legal services models but transform the ways in-house legal work gets done.   

But that also means expectations ratchet up even higher for in-house teams today to optimise legal spend, safeguard the enterprise interests against evolving risks, and demonstrate the effectiveness and commercial function of legal departments in the organisations.

The most successful in-house legal teams have risen above pure advisers of law to become strategic partners, guiding companies to achieve their overall business goals. And AI technology is set to play a quintessential role during this transformative journey.

FUTURE PROOF

All these changes have prompted Samuel Huen, global head of legal and regulatory compliance at the Bank of Singapore, to believe that the future will be an even more exciting time to be an in-house lawyer.

“The run-of-the-mill work would be provided via self-service platforms, and work currently performed by junior lawyers would be replaced by technological solutions,” says Huen. “Lawyers must keep pace and adapt or run the risk of being outdated or replaced.”

The legal team at Korean pharmaceutical company Dong-A ST, led by General Counsel Gyeong Pyo Hong, envision that the future of corporate legal departments demands a dynamic transition towards workflow optimisation bolstered by the strategic use of automation tools.

Krisma Guyala, general counsel at Nestle Philippines, concurs. “With AI, general counsels can redirect the routinary, low-expertise legal tasks to free up the lawyers’ time to focus on business partnering, anticipating issues, and crafting solutions, or the more complex aspect of legal work,” says Guyala.

However, she also warns of potential risks arising when applying AI tools to legal work. “As for the rising market volatility and geopolitical complexity, in-house legal teams should take a more proactive stance in risk assessment and mitigation and crisis management,” adds Guyala.

Indeed, general counsel are entrusted to identify and protect businesses from risks in the environment in which they operate, including unknown risks associated with the use of AI.

 

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Dong-A ST

 

“The escalating volume of sensitive data being transferred and processed necessitates stringent safety protocols. Especially in today's interconnected world, companies increasingly engage in global partnerships, resulting in the cross-border exchange of data.”

- Dong-A ST legal team

 

“AI achieves better outcomes and elevates the quality of work. Predictive analytics powered by AI can even forecast litigation outcome, a streamlined due diligence process and identify potential risk in mergers & acquisition transactions,” says Hemant Kumar, group legal advisor at Larsen & Toubro, an industrial technology conglomerate based in Mumbai. “However, general counsels must navigate these advancements thoughtfully to mitigate potential drawbacks and ensure the ethical use of this technology.”

The Dong-A ST team, which includes legal counsel Jinri Kim and Soon Ji Jung, highlights data security as one of the novel challenges brought by AI use confronting in-house legal teams today.

“The escalating volume of sensitive data being transferred and processed necessitates stringent safety protocols. Especially in today's interconnected world, companies increasingly engage in global partnerships, resulting in the cross-border exchange of data,” the team notes.

“Given the uncertainties surrounding data privacy, it is imperative for general counsel to proactively monitor evolving regulatory landscapes governing technology in the legal sector and institute robust safety protocols accordingly,” they add. 

For example, the Dong-A ST team propose to establish a standard operating procedure (SOP) in the event of a data breach, which will enable in-house legal teams to provide preliminary risk management strategies, thereby mitigating legal and regulatory exposure.

COMMERCIAL STRATEGISTS 

Hiromitsu Kato, general counsel at Japanese oil giant INPEX Corporation, is convinced that in-house legal team can work together with their external counsel on implementing AI tech in work such as contract reviews and disputes to streamline in-house workload.

Indeed, technology, with its promises of higher efficiencies and lower costs, has prompted corporate legal teams to re-evaluate their working relationships with their private law firm partners.

According to a recent Thomson Reuters report, with AI adoption on the rise and the pressure to reduce spending on external advisory services continued, more than half (56 per cent) of the respondents surveyed believed that in-house departments themselves will carry out a greater proportion of legal work in the next 18 months.

For one, Kumar of Larsen & Toubro believes that engagement with external counsel should be minimal and issue-based. “We see the current business landscape as an opportunity to transform an area of business and to extract more value for the company. Changing regulations and globalisation create a compelling reason for legal departments to change their operating model, achieve greater efficiencies and increase the value they deliver back to the business,” he says.

The Thomson Reuters report also showed that the introduction of AI has increased the appetite among in-house legal professionals for value-based or alternative pricing models from law firms, posing a fundamental challenge to the lucrative fixed-fee pricing model serving as the bedrock of private practices. Specifically, a vast majority of professionals surveyed (86 per cent) believed there will be a rise in new pricing models over the next five years.

Facing a technology-driven shake-up to the synergies with their external counsel, corporate legal teams are prompted to redefine their roles. General counsel believe that the recipe for their team’s success is to go beyond the practice of law and to become strategic business partners with the rest of the enterprise.  

 

 

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Bank of Singapore

 

“I see the general counsel role evolving to be increasingly key to an organisation’s success and the general counsel will need to be a proactive and strategic advisor to the CEO and the board of directors on issues beyond legal matters to help the organisation gain a competitive advantage.”

- Samuel Huen, Bank of Singapore

 

“The legal function of the future will be highly specialised with lawyers embedded in the business working alongside their respective stakeholders to structure deals and proactively address legal and business risks,” says Huen of the Bank of Singapore.

“I see the general counsel role evolving to be increasingly key to an organisation’s success, and the general counsel will need to be a proactive and strategic advisor to the CEO and the board of directors on issues beyond legal matters to help the organisation gain a competitive advantage,” adds Huen.

Guyala of Nestle Philippines considers it highly necessary for in-house lawyers to be immersed and well-versed in the business and operations in order to render legal solutions effectively.

 

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Nestle Philippines

 

“In Nestle, lawyers act as legal business partners to the different departments, exposing them to operations reviews, which, in turn, contributes significantly to their knowledge of the business. This enables them to render pragmatic legal advice that is attuned to business realities and not just legal concepts.”

- Krisma Guyala, Nestle Philippines

 

“In Nestle, lawyers act as legal business partners to the different departments, exposing them to operations reviews, which, in turn, contributes significantly to their knowledge of the business. This enables them to render pragmatic legal advice that is attuned to business realities and not just legal concepts,” says Guyala.

The Dong-A ST legal team also emphasises the fusion of legal acumen and commercial precision and urges in-house lawyers to prioritise their professional development by deepening their understanding of the business sectors they operate in. They also believe it is crucial to foster close collaboration between in-house lawyers and colleagues from other departments such as finance, operations, marketing, and human resources. 

“This collaborative approach facilitates a comprehensive grasp of the company's objectives, challenges, and opportunities, fostering a culture of teamwork. Through cross-functional collaboration, lawyers can offer businesses more strategic and value-added advice, thereby positioning themselves for success in today's dynamic and competitive business landscape,” explains the Dong-A ST team.

“Our mission is to help our commercial colleagues solve their legal issues with a commercial mindset,” says Kato of INPEX Corporation. “We are not deal blockers. However, our primary role is to help protect the legal interests of the company.”

AGILE AND SOPHISTICATED

To guide companies in navigating Asia’s diverse and nuanced business landscape, in-house legal departments need to be more agile in what they do and sophisticated in the advice they provide.

At the Bank of Singapore, Huen is convinced that the era of in-house lawyers being generalists is gone, as he expects corporate legal professionals to be much more sophisticated by, for example, harnessing the power of technology to complete tasks better.

“Today's general counsel would need to help create a culture where lawyers unlearn certain practices and adapt to new styles of working with a focus on high-end and complex work. Providing upskilling opportunities to better understand the business will be equally important as well,” says Huen.

In-house lawyers also need to be “horizon scanners” in times of heightened geopolitical risks and market turbulence, he says.

“What this means is the need to be knowledgeable in many key areas such as sustainability issues, geopolitics, technology advancements, social issues and regulatory trends,” says Huen. “A lot of issues would also require understanding of laws, risks, and business practices beyond the jurisdiction of one's workplace as businesses become increasingly globalised. Therefore, our advice must take into consideration a wider spectrum of factors, including cross-border issues.”

 

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Larsen & Toubro

 

“Adaptability and agility are essential attributes of a resilient legal department. These qualities ensure that the department can swiftly respond to changing legal landscapes and organisational demands, effectively managing risks and seizing opportunities.”

 - Hemant Kumar, Larsen & Toubro

 

Strategic thinking and adaptability, meanwhile, are prized by the Dong-A ST team. This entails adeptly navigating regulatory hurdles, embracing novel approaches, and comprehensively grasping the company's business strategies and priorities to deliver legal support that enhances value and aligns with business objectives.

In addition to heightened sophistication, Guyala of Nestle Philippines believes in-house legal teams also need to be agile in order to be effective. Kumar at Larsen & Toubro agrees. “Adaptability and agility are essential attributes of a resilient legal department. These qualities ensure that the department can swiftly respond to changing legal landscapes and organisational demands, effectively managing risks and seizing opportunities,” he says.

“By embracing flexibility in their strategies and operations, legal teams can adjust their approaches as necessary, navigating complex regulatory environments and aligning with shifting business goals. This adaptability not only mitigates disruptions but also positions the legal department as a proactive, strategic partner within the organisation,” he adds.

To add an interpersonal touch to business dealings, Kato of INPEX underscores the importance of a deep understanding of the industry regulatory framework and having strong working relationships with regulators.

“A genuine appreciation for cultural differences and mutual respect for each other’s cultures and business styles, which is demonstrated through our communications and actions, is fundamental,” says Kato.

 

 

 

ALB ASIA TOP 15 IN HOUSE TEAMS 2024

Asian Development Bank
India, Indonesia, Philippines, Thailand, Vietnam

Avanade Asia
Singapore

Bank of Singapore
Hong Kong, Malaysia Singapore

Dong-A ST
South Korea

GlaxoSmithKline
Japan

GoTo
Indonesia, Singapore, Thailand Vietnam

Hanmi Pharmaceutical
South Korea

INPEX Corporation
Japan

Larsen & Toubro (L&T)
India

Lazada Group
Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam

Link Asset Management
Hong Kong

Nestle Philippines
Philippines

PingAn OneConnect Bank (Hong Kong)
Hong Kong

Thai Asia Pacific Brewery
Thailand

Zomato
India

 

METHODOLOGY

  • In-house teams’ majorsignificant achievement in aspects of:
    • Legal expertise
    • Efficiency/creativity
    • Team depth and strength
    • Breadth of jurisdiction/practice areas/industries
    • Use of technology
    • Support for the overall business goals and strategies
    • Impact and significance
  • Lawyers and law firms that have represented the team and feedback
  • Market recognition

 

 

BREAKDOWN OF SUBMISSION

Jurisdiction

Submission

Winner

Multiple

9

4

Hong Kong

3

2

India

3

2

Japan

2

2

Malaysia

1

1

Philippines

2

1

Singapore

2

1

South Korea

2

2

Total

24

15

 

TO CONTACT EDITORIAL TEAM, PLEASE EMAIL ALBEDITOR@THOMSONREUTERS.COM

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