Role of in-house lawyers must evolve, says judge

General counsel will have to give strategic business advice as well as legal advice

Nearly one in five general counsel in Singapore harbours ambitions of becoming a chief executive or chief operating officer, a new study has found. But many in the profession may have to reinvent themselves to rise further.

Judge of Appeal Steven Chong yesterday gave in-house counsel pointers on what they need to do in their evolving role, while not losing sight of certain core issues.

Only 18 per cent of general counsel say they are doing work that has "greatest strategic value to their business", although 52 per cent expect to be doing such work within five years.

To meet boardroom expectations, a mindset shift is needed, Justice Chong said at an event unveiling a study of local general counsel by the Singapore Corporate Counsel Association and global law firm CMS. The study involved 40 of 200 general counsel or heads of legal departments.

Among other things, in-house counsel must be prepared to evolve beyond their traditional role of providing just legal advice to giving strategic business advice as well, noted Justice Chong, who heads the Singapore Academy of Law's professional affairs committee.

With businesses becoming more sophisticated and regulations growing in complexity, corporations find themselves operating in an "uncertain space where acceptable and unacceptable corporate behaviour seem to shade into one another".

  • 18%

    Of general counsel surveyed said they are doing work that has "greatest strategic value to their business".

    60%

    Felt their influence in the boardroom was strong, and 18 per cent very strong, compared with 5 per cent who considered it to be weak.

    9%

    Of local small and medium law firms use technologically enabled tools, according to a Ministry of Law note. Judge of Appeal Steven Chong said this was a concern.

"This has driven corporations to involve their in-house lawyers more directly in the implementation of business decisions so that risks are properly identified and managed," he said.

Further, general counsel's role is not only to influence management, but also to determine the direction, values, and culture of the business.

The study found that some 60 per cent of those surveyed felt their influence in the boardroom was strong, and 18 per cent very strong, compared with 5 per cent who considered it to be weak.

"Measuring lawyers' contribution is still an issue with management. They struggle to grade us," said Ms Rose Kong, head of legal for Royal Golden Eagle Group.

While in-house lawyers continue to shoulder more responsibilities, including managing litigation regulation, compliance and contracts, they must "never compromise on their core identity as keeper of the corporate conscience", Justice Chong said.

In-house counsel must always be mindful of the tension inherent in their role as gatekeeper and strategic adviser to the company. And whenever the two roles are "in seeming conflict, the former must prevail", he added.

It is also critical for in-house lawyers to develop knowledge of different national laws as the region undergoes economic integration through proposed trade agreements that could lead to even more multinational companies setting up regional bases in Singapore.

Justice Chong stressed that "technological competence is not merely an optional extra but a vital component in a lawyer's make up".

He cited a Ministry of Law note that found that only 9 per cent of local small and medium law firms interviewed as part of a consultancy study use technologically enabled tools.

"In other words, an astounding 91 per cent do not! These numbers are certainly a source of great concern," he added.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 19, 2018, with the headline 'Role of in-house lawyers must evolve, says judge'. Print Edition | Subscribe