What are some of the qualities that companies seek in their in-house counsel? Haky Moon asks recruiters and heads of legal across Asia 

As they expand their in-house legal teams, multinationals across the Asia Pacific region are looking for lawyers with not only specific qualifications but, perhaps more importantly, soft skills that allow them to think in terms of the business and allow them to take risks – soft skills that outside counsel don’t always have.

Rather than specialize in one particular area, in-house counsel often need to wear different hats and swim in the uncertain waters of unfamiliar jurisdictions, says Monisha Kamdar, the Singapore-based head of legal at Raiffeisen Bank (RB) International. For her, the ability to take risks is both a key quality and one that is hard to come by.

“We need someone who is willing to take on new challenges, someone who is comfortable outside of the comfort zone. This is a real issue. When you’re a general counsel, you are the client. You need to be able to shoulder some risk and see the bigger picture,” said Kamdar. In searching for candidates, Kamdar zeroes in on one quality that is hard to come by: an ability to take risks.

“For private practice lawyers, their training ensures that an unwillingness to take risks is ingrained in them. But sometimes, the answer is not black and white when you’re an in-house counsel,” she says.

Being comfortable with certain accept-able levels of risk is particularly important for compliance officers, which have some of the highest turnover rates of any group in the legal industry.

“In-house counsel shouldn’t have a risk-averse mindset, indeed, quite the opposite. In Asia you have to be comfortable embracing risk,” says Cathy Heely, chief counsel for the Asia-Pacific at Mondelez International. “I say that because as an external counsel, you try to eliminate or avoid risk as much as possible. As in-house counsel, we cannot do that. External counsel start with what can be done to eliminate the risk, but for in-house counsel we start working from the other end.”

That attribute also goes hand in hand with adaptability, another important quality. In-house counsel have to be able to change their focus and goals just as fast as the business that they work in.

These rapid changes of direction are common in the private sector but could take legal professionals who move from private practice by surprise. Kamdar recalls an incident when she first hired a transactional lawyer who was placed in a difficult position right out of the gate.

“It so happened that right after he joined, unfortunately, the bank announced it was shutting down certain parts of the business. It was going to concentrate more on the restructuring side, which requires a different skillset. As he was a junior lawyer, I had a difficult time training him to think that this would be the way things would done permanently,” says Kamdar.

These qualities – adaptability and a willingness to take risks – are particularly sought after in the Asia Pacific, which is seeing multiple regulatory and legal changes.

At the same time, in-house counsel have to be quick learners to make up for a frequent lack of specific knowledge in every single market in which their companies operate. The fact that there is plenty of information out there that is readily accessible puts particular expertise in certain areas “lower down in the scale of importance,” says Heely. What’s more important is being able to rally and get things moving.

“We live in a world where anyone can become an expert in any jurisdiction. As an in-house counsel you need to know how to get the ball rolling,” says Heely of Mondelez.

This leads to a third important quality for in-house counsel that multinational companies (MNCs) increasingly look for in their in-house counsel: A sense of entrepreneurship. This is also important as it relates directly to the requirement that in- house counsel wear multiple hats and are comfortable reporting to multiple stakeholders who may have different agendas and priorities. 

“Over the past few years, we have seen a good increase in first-time regional counsel within APAC, particularly in Hong Kong and Singapore,” says Vijesh Patel, head of the in-house practice group for South Asia at legal search consultants Major, Lindsey & Africa. “As MNCs are becoming more invested and committed to the region, they now find they need to actually start creating their own in-house departments.”

But not any lawyer will do. Beyond the ability to take risks, adaptability and entrepreneurship, in-house counsel also have to be comfortable dealing with multiple stakeholders. “We need someone who comes from a matrix reporting background. In any MNC, be it European or American, there won’t be just one boss; instead, there will be several. Clients need someone who is familiar and comfortable with working in a highly matrixed organization,” says Patel.

Matrix reporting is where one person reports to two or more different people with each boss having authority over a different area of responsibility.

When put together, all these soft skills and attributes add up to plenty of demand for a very specific type of lawyer to fill in-house roles to both support the growth of companies and help them deal with the evolving legal systems across APAC.

“GCs in particular seek lawyers with both technical expertise and strategic commercial acumen- to meet the increasing need for corporates to both comply with increasingly complex regulatory hurdles- but also to meet the needs of increasingly complex commercial markets were multinationals need strategic thinkers,” says Robin Doenicke, president at Zensho Consulting Group, a specialist recruitment firm based in Tokyo. 

For Doenicke, “an ideal candidate will have a high degree of technical expertise and work ethic coupled with a can-do team-oriented approach.”

There is something of a dichotomoy at play, however. While technical expertise is key for local lawyers, it is also important to consider that “more and more legal work is international in nature, so the ability to work with multi-cultural and multilingual teams will make any candidate a standout for rapid advancement”.

The areas of expertise that are most sought after in Asia are related to foreign investment facilitation, compliance, energy and infrastructure development, says Doenicke with key industries being construction, finance, energy, telecom-munications and IT.

For Gladys Chun, general counsel for Lazada Group, an e-commerce company headquartered in Singapore, candidates should be “prepared to get their hands dirty and understand all the processes”.

In-house legal teams populated by lawyers that are adaptable, comfortable reporting to multiple stakeholder and willing to take risks can generate a number of benefits for companies. Kamdar, however, rings tone of caution when she says that bigger is not always better. Quite the contrary, lawyers that fit those qualifications can help companies and their in-house legal teams do more with less.

Her own legal team doubled in size over seven years but also found ways to become more efficient and manage budgets better to deal with the constant price pressures of companies.

“There’s only that much you can build in-house. I wouldn’t go for a huge team just because we are spread out across the region. It’s difficult to get in-house counsel qualified in Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam, so there are limits to what we can expect.” 


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