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Adam Au is general counsel at Toys"R"Us Asia. He has more than 15 years of experience across in-house and law firm roles as well as a variety of industries and has previously held legal department leadership roles at Hong Kong-listed UMP Healthcare and at Great Wall WL Ross, a joint venture global private equity fund. Earlier in his career, Au spent time at law firms like Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton and Linklaters, focusing on corporate finance, IPOs, mergers and acquisitions, and regulatory compliance in the Greater China region. In his current role, he oversees all legal, compliance, board administrations and company secretarial functions across the Asia-Pacific region.

 

EDITOR'S NOTE: If you're a general counsel based in Asia who'd like to be featured in this series, please email ranajit.dam@tr.com.

 

ALB: What has been the most rewarding aspect of your time as a general counsel?

AU: Though becoming a general counsel wasn't intentional, I'm so glad fate led me here. I get to apply my training in novel ways while also shaping company-wide direction. I have found the general counsel role to be much more challenging yet rewarding than I initially imagined.

Unlike a partner where the role is clearly defined, a GC position requires a diverse skillset to succeed: business acumen, leadership capabilities, communication skills and strategic mindset, in addition to legal competencies. No one will tell you exactly what to do - you have to be self-directed and innovative.

Yet that volition is what makes the job so engaging. A good in-house counsel can fashion the role in ways specific to the company. You have the facility to anchor your expertise while making your influence relevant. As GC, your role increasingly greys into business leadership. Dare I say, this role offers a uniquely unparalleled vantage point across the entire organizational anatomy, while also shaping enterprise-wide strategy.

The intellectual challenge of neutralizing exposure while enabling growth keeps me motivated. Being at the vanguard of the business provides a level of fervour lacking in the linearity of the law firm partnership tracks.  

ALB: How do you balance legal risk management with enabling business growth and innovation within your organization?

AU: There is an intangible art to this role beyond one-size-fits-all tropes. The secret is to conduct all aspects of the job as if playing the role of the keen yet detached observer. Personable, pragmatic, and firm—all rolled into one. And your feel for risks, combined with an eye for people and ear for intel, can turn you from a good lawyer to a very good one.

To identify any promising proposition, first get a bead on the core pain points. And by working shoulder-to-shoulder with the rest of the team, new understandings can emerge that guide your judgment. These would all enable you to pressure-test strategies.

Having a fingertip feel for the nuances of our business is critical, as the advice needs to be practical and enable the business to move forward swiftly. Clear communication is key, as is building relationships of trust. I also set great store by compliance and integrity, never losing sight of the importance of acting ethically and legally.

ALB: How do you approach building and managing an effective legal team within your organization?

AU: Disruption is opportunity wearing a disguise. I spur our adoption of emerging technology and flexible resourcing, so we stay attuned to industry transformation.

We continually assess how to best structure the team amid an increasingly peripatetic workforce and seek ways to leverage flexible talent models. Adapting talent strategies is key to supporting business continuity in a complex, rapidly changing environment.  

The old legal orthodoxies no longer hold up in today’s fast-changing world. I prize original thinking and willingness to revamp how we operate. The team must remain nimble and adaptable. This dexterity – in both mindset and talent strategies – is what I believe can empower us to continue dispensing counsel despite increased workforce pressure.

ALB: How do you stay up to date with emerging legal trends, technologies, and best practices in your field?

AU: Read voraciously! Staying current with legal trends and developments is a top priority. Our legal training means we should be capable of consuming large amounts of knowledge rapidly. There is no excuse not to stay informed. I don't mean for this to come across as a homily, but reading is the easiest way to keep your knowledge current and finger on the pulse of the field.

Read - legal publications, books, blogs, regulatory updates - and encourage my team to share emerging developments proactively. With the proliferation of the internet, there is an abundance of up-to-date information at one's fingertips.

I make it a priority to regularly go to legal conferences and connect closely with fellow practitioners to trade insights on new laws, court calls, enforcement trends - anything that could really shake things up for our business. With the legal scene changing so fast, it's crucial to carve out time to stay on top of new developments. As a 21st century counsel, one must get plugged in regarding any hot new legal technology or creative new models.

On the Internet, you can easily find nooks and crannies that focus on your special interests or cater to your corporate outlook. What you should try to do, as with all things, is what you were being taught to do since law school: be resourceful. By being inquisitive, you can expose yourself to topics that expand your interests rather than narrow them and hit you with ideas and opinions that challenge your prejudices rather than merely reinforce them.

The rise of AI has spawned many neologisms and new technical domain. I dedicate focused time to monitor new developments, grok the potential implications, and frequently brief both my team and company leadership.

As the philosopher Heraclitus stated, 'The only constant is change.' To adeptly adjust to the shape-shifting legal landscape, we must make learning our anchor.

ALB: How do you navigate and approach complex legal issues?

AU: In my career, I've steered through hairy situations with contradictory pressures from various parties. There may be times when I need to evaluate matters and plan a response in silo, without the luxury of backup or direction from others. Being an in-house counsel can be a lonely job!

When some unexpected legal firestorm hits, I have got to act quick - size things up, figure out the risks, who's involved, and map out a game plan stat. That might mean getting outside lawyers on board, containment plan locked down, leadership briefed - all on the down low.  And even in crises, I must maintain sangfroid.

Every time I must keep my emotions in check and observe situations from afar, weighing the expected value of each decision with detachment. I must give little weight to personal feelings in those calculi.

Making tough calls comes with the territory of being any lawyer. Though unravelling knotty out-of-kilter puzzles can be gruelling, doing so serves to steel our faculties of critical analysis and dynamic leadership.

ALB: What advice would you give to aspiring lawyers or law students interested in pursuing a senior in-house role?

AU: In short, be a specialized generalist. Shape your career like a "T" - develop deep legal specialization in a few key areas (the vertical stroke), but also gain broad experience across diverse legal roles, cross-disciplines and non-legal functions (the horizontal stroke). This T-shaped career builds both technical expertise and business acumen.

Transitioning in-house requires taking greater ownership of your learning and development. Unlike at a law firm, you won't have training handed to you on a silver platter. Be proactive in identifying knowledge gaps and carving out time to fill them through independent reading, research, and tapping into available resources. While partners and the firm's prestige may facilitate professional development within a law practice, transitioning in-house requires self-directed learning. Be proactive by designing your own curriculum for advancement, seeking mentors, utilizing networks, and consistently broadening your knowledge base. Continuous enrichment driven by personal initiative is something I believe in exploiting to the hilt.

Strive to be a business partner first, using law as a means to an end. Continually expand your legal skills and knowledge base horizontally as your career progresses. Speak the language of business stakeholders by developing strong commercial sense - this is just as crucial as technical legal competence.

The timeless adage that true wisdom lies in acknowledging one's ignorance remains relevant. In other words, recognize where your expertise ends - specialization has its limits. But also cultivate broad business acumen beyond your niche. Having T-shaped capabilities, with both depth and breadth, allows one to admit, 'I know nothing - except on this, this, and that!' That humility and versatility will enable sound counsel on an array of issues.

Lastly, as you progress in your in-house career, be prepared for increasing levels of responsibility and stress commensurate with your seniority. The further up you rise, the more your decisions and actions have significant consequences for the company. A GC wears many hats - not just legal advisor, but business strategist, compliance overseer, and risk manager.

The buck stops with you on key issues that impact organizational direction. With elevated authority comes more accountability. But it is a great honour to be entrusted with such leadership role that shapes the company's future. Operating at that level requires fortitude, integrity, and the courage to make tough calls when necessary. If you are someone who takes pride in responsibility, this role can be extremely rewarding.

ALB: Looking ahead, what do you see as the biggest legal challenges or opportunities facing your industry in the next 5-10 years?

AU: Looking down the road, I see artificial intelligence bringing some huge curveballs and chances. With AI shaking things up across industries, we must grasp the risks and ethical knots that come with it. AI can bake in biases and unfairness if we do not build and track the technology carefully.

As legal advisors, it is our metier to understand AI's risks and ensure ethical deployment for the greater good. Our legal hegemony has never been challenged this way. But we can find common ground.

Fundamental AI knowledge is crucial to adapt and provide effective counsel in this changing landscape. Despite this, those able and willing to evolve can still carve an impactful role guiding businesses into a new era fraught with both peril and possibility.

When slick new AI threatens jobs, it sure is jarring. The breakneck pace of technological advancement forebodes the potential obsolescence of traditional legal roles. But we lawyers, given our training, are resilient - we can harmonize with change through a growth mindset. While some tasks face automation, by upgrading capabilities with less ego, we can augment our counsel, not abandon it. With poise and open arms, we can master disruption and become even better lawyers. The key is using AI to enhance our skills and turn us into better legal advisors attuned to the times.

 

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