Nowadays, the General Counsel (GC) role looks significantly different. Leading an in-house legal team is about so much more than guiding a business through their legal requirements and the relevant regulatory frameworks. Over the past five years, this role has evolved to arguably one of the most important in the business as General Counsel's not only deliver much-needed legal expertise but also advise on business transformation, efficiencies and ultimately, value.
Despite high expectations, research has found that legal resourcing allocation has not increased. Ernst & Young (EY) recently revealed that 4 out of 5 companies are planning to cut their legal spend over the next two years.
In Singapore and across the Asia Pacific region, any budget reduction for legal teams is felt strongly as these lawyers are often based in Singapore but looking after the whole of Asia. This requires them to keep abreast of changing laws across multiple jurisdictions and these laws are changing rapidly. New risks such as cyberattacks and data breaches mean many countries’ laws are adapting and evolving to ensure they are effective in these areas. Additionally, many countries across the Asia Pacific region are looking at bringing in changes to employment law over the next year.
For example, Singapore is still adapting to the employment law changes which came into force earlier this year. These changes to the Employment Act mean that employees who previously were not protected by the Act (those who earn more than $4,500) are now entitled to new benefits such as paid sick leave entitlement.
Similarly, in Singapore, data laws regarding identity cards are changing this September and added to this, the Minister for Law recently confirmed changes could be afoot regarding arbitration, with the government considering an amendment to the International Arbitration Act which would allow for appeals on errors of law on an opt-in basis.
This is just a small snapshot of the legal changes which many GCs have to deal with.
Alongside shrinking budgets and an ever-developing legal landscape across Asia, many in-house legal teams also have to deal with recruitment and retention issues – the EY survey revealed 59% reported difficulty attracting and retaining appropriately skilled lawyers.
I have painted a fairly bleak picture here – so, what can be done? Firstly, we have noticed a trend in Singapore and across Asia of in-house teams embracing flexible legal resource to scale-up and prepare for their natural peaks and troughs. For example, covering maternity leave, when extra lawyers are needed for a regulatory compliance project or backfilling a role when a GC is needed on a major strategic project such as M&A. The approach of many legal departments in the UK - and Singapore is also starting to realise these benefits – is to utilise legal consultants. This means a GC doesn’t have to increase headcount permanently (which would mean employment liability and a management headache), but using a legal consultants backed by a top law firm brand means GCs can feel secure about the quality of lawyer provided and save a significant amount of time in finding someone.
Embracing technology should also be top of the list for in-house teams. As legal departments become more integral to every business it is important their innovation keeps up with the entire company. As mentioned, surveys show that businesses feel their legal departments don’t perform as needed or expected, and whilst that’s down to the challenges I’ve mentioned, embracing technology can help improve efficiency massively. Artificial intelligence for instance can mean that lawyers are doing less of the routine compliance and low value tasks themselves – tasks which the EY survey found many in-house lawyers were spending ‘considerable time on’.
The GC role is likely to continue to evolve and change – and in-house lawyers, especially those in Singapore, need to make sure they are in the best possible position to deal with these changes. Thankfully there are options available – such as a legal consultant and technology innovations, to help ensure this increasingly difficult job is more manageable.
The views expressed in this column are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect this publication's view, and this article is not edited by Singapore Business Review. The author was not remunerated for this article.
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Kirsty Dougan is Managing Director of Asia for Vario at Pinsent Masons. Kirsty joined Vario in March 2019, and led the Hong Kong launch. Kirsty is responsible for Vario’s operations across Asia and the growth of the business in the region. Vario has become the leading law firm led provider of flexible legal solutions, representing over 500 lawyers across numerous jurisdictions. Kirsty possesses significant experience in this field and is a pioneer of alternative legal services in Asia as co-founder of an international ALSP business in the region and was the Managing Director there for over 8 years.