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Penny Koo serves as the general counsel and company secretary for AIA Singapore, the local office of the largest independent publicly listed Pan-Asian insurance group. Her legal career began in private practice at firms like Linklaters, WongPartnership, and Harry Elias Partnership, where she focused on corporate/M&A work. During this time, she provided counsel on a diverse range of transactions, from offshore investments by Chinese state-owned enterprises to the acquisition of companies listed on the Singapore Exchange.

Koo moved in-house with AIA in 2012 and took on her current role in 2017. As general counsel, she is responsible for all legal and corporate secretarial matters and leads her team in providing strategic legal advice and commercial-minded, practical legal solutions for AIA Singapore and its subsidiaries. She was recently named a joint winner of the Woman Lawyer of the Year (In-House) award at the ALB SE Asia Law Awards 2024.

 

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: Tell us about your legal career so far, and what led you to taking up this role. 

Koo: I love my job — the intellectual challenge and rigour, co-creating business opportunities with my fellow management peers, and opportunity to coach and develop my team members. All immensely fulfilling. Being a general counsel calls for one to be both generalist and specialist. Beyond primary technical knowledge of our industry and organisational core activities, general counsel must be able to effectively spot issues across various law domains that can impact their organisations. As a member of the management team, we are also expected to don many hats — from robust leadership to project management, talent retention, financial discipline and more. 

ALB: What have been some of your highlights from your time in charge? And what are some leadership lessons you have learnt?

Koo: At the time of my appointment, I was not only AIA Singapore’s youngest Executive Committee member but had also inherited a team of senior lawyers who had more experience in Singapore insurance matters. I quickly understood that establishing trust and strong relationships with my team was a priority and thought a ‘peer leadership’ style — where everyone is encouraged to collaborate with and challenge each other — would work best. 

I firmly believe that individuals perform their best when they feel trusted, valued and heard. Guided by this principle, I make it a point to align my members’ passions with our team and company’s purpose.  

This approach has resonated well with my team, which has received internal recognition and consistently ensured a strong governance culture within AIA Singapore. Despite being a compact team of thirteen individuals, we have effectively supported over 1,000 AIA Singapore employees and have been conferred industry acknowledgments. For example, we have received Legal Team of the Year for the In-House Community Counsel of the Year Awards’ Insurance category for three consecutive years since 2021.

ALB: Apart from legal work, how do you participate in your company’s business?

Koo: Apart from bread-and-butter legal advice, I believe that my responsibilities as general counsel include being an advisor to the AIA Singapore management team and business. Providing counsel on the business’ overall strategic direction, risk culture and risk management framework, alongside being a moral compass for our CEO and company, guiding them through issues of ethics and codes of conduct. 

As a proponent for diversity, equity and inclusion, I co-created AIA’s first Women’s Network with likeminded female leaders within the company. To encourage empowered women, the network offers a safe space for female staff across all levels to connect, support and inspire each other, and share knowledge on how we can realise our professional aspirations whilst balancing commitments outside of work.

 

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ALB: How would you describe your strategy for the legal team?

Koo: Like building an army, a general counsel’s priority must be to ascertain the resources and type of talent required to win the “war,” i.e. robustly supporting their organisational needs. Other than rightsizing the team, I also look for counsels who demonstrate intellectual curiosity, humility, and commitment to co-creating practical business solutions, beyond technical strengths.  

Guided by Peter Connor’s “T-shaped Lawyer” concept, I leverage targeted training to ensure that my team members’ horizons are continuously expanded, to empower them to become well-versed in other domains beyond insurance, from bankruptcy to M&A. This enables them to better collaborate with other specialists from other disciplines and functions and contribute to facilitating business operations. 

Having a team with diverse talent is another strategy I espouse. Over the years, I have appreciated the benefits that come from AIA’s commitment to diversity. It is through having various types of brilliance that we are able to cultivate a purpose-led community dedicated to continuous improvement. 

ALB: What is the best piece of advice you have ever received?

Koo: Throughout my career, I have greatly benefitted from various mentors. They have all been generous with advice, but one that has stuck with me most is the value of effective communication. 

I once complained to my first boss at AIA — the AIA-Discovery JV CFO — that I struggled with getting my business colleagues to heed my legal advice. His reply — “no one wants to eat dry wholewheat toast — although everyone knows it’s good for them. But if you add a touch of honey or jam, you won’t be able to stop flies from swarming in.” Obviously, it was half in jest, to cheer me up! But it presented an epiphany moment for me — no matter how accurate or sound a piece of advice is, we have to make it concise and compelling. 

My life motto is “If I died tomorrow, would this still be the right decision for today?” As my days are filled with competing priorities, it is sometimes difficult to ascertain which task is a rock, pebble, or sand. To optimise how we fill up our life’s jar, we must prioritise the rocks, our most important to-dos, and then the pebbles and sand can follow. 

ALB: How do you perceive the integration of LegalTech, data analytics, and process optimisation in enhancing the overall value of your legal department?

Koo: I am an advocate for continuous innovation and optimisation. Technology integration empowers my team to focus on high-value work and contribute to overall business operations efficiencies. 

For example, technology has enabled us to elevate our service delivery to customers by streamlining claims handling processes, where legal matters are involved. During Covid-19, when we had to facilitate non-face-to-face insurance sales, we managed to introduce our digital in-house contract approval platform and organisation-wide electronic signature solution in just six months. Thankfully, these were already in the works before the pandemic struck.

My advice to those looking to integrate LegalTech is to first consider whether certain processes can be further simplified or removed. Larger corporations tend to have processes that may no longer be necessary or relevant at present time. It is important for legal teams to regularly review and update their governance processes. Stop or simplify those that are no longer relevant or necessary, depending on their enterprise risk appetite.  

Also remember that technology is only as useful as its rate of adoption. LegalTech solutions and platforms can be expensive and may not always be the magic bullet to many pain-points legal teams face. Exploring use cases with existing enterprise systems or software not only saves time and costs, but also has a significantly higher chance of business user adoption, and ultimately optimisation.

 

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