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Raising the bar for in-house counsel

Straits Times
20 Dec 2017
Grace Leong

New competency framework to lift standards and professional capabilities

A new competency framework to be launched today will gauge the skills of in-house lawyers and provide a path for them to improve their professional capabilities. The aim is to raise the standards of corporate or in-house counsel, whose ranks number around 2,000 here.

It was first mooted in 2016 and developed to give corporate counsel "a roadmap for personal development and career advancement", said Mr Wong Taur-Jiun, president of the Singapore Corporate Counsel Association (SCCA), which spearheaded the initiative.

Corporate counsel advise firms on regulatory compliance, prepare contracts and help with mergers and acquisitions. They have not been regulated under the Legal Profession Act, which means they were not required to meet industry standards or adhere to a code of conduct. There was also no mandatory requirement for them to undertake any form of continuing professional education to upgrade their skills.

Mr Wong told The Straits Times yesterday: "Singapore ought to have a system to ensure the professional and ethical standards of in-house lawyers. Standards offer a benchmark for skills and behaviour, help employers with their hiring. Standards also protect employees when they are asked to do something less than right."

The framework also included a beefed-up code of conduct for in-house counsel. The framework prescribes the various technical, business and future-ready skills required at three levels of seniority - junior, mid-level and top-level. This will tell professionals what competencies they need at their current level, and what they need to acquire to advance to the next stage.

The SCCA will curate and accredit courses in line with the framework. Corporate counsel who are SCCA members and have attended the requisite number of courses relevant to their level of seniority will get certification.

"In-house counsel can (then) go to their human resource or legal manager and suggest that this counts towards their performance appraisal," Mr Wong said.

"We've worked with associations in more than 10 countries to ensure that the desired behaviour is consistent with international standards.

"The competency... will be updated annually, as the requirement for skills will change over time."

Senior Minister of State for Law Indranee Rajah said in March that the Ministry of Law will explore if the framework should be made mandatory.

Responding to The Straits Times' queries yesterday, the ministry said: "Many companies set up their global or regional headquarters in Singapore and site their in-house legal teams here. SCCA's new competency framework is a good industry-led initiative to raise professional standards and better serve the needs of businesses. We will monitor its adoption."

Mr James Wong, founder of Singapore law firm Lex Advocatus, noted that the in-house legal function can become an integral part within small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) if the framework is recognised by the Ministry of Law.

"Such recognition of legal counsels is already evident in American corporations, which promote their general counsels to senior executives," he noted.

"Unlike private practice where the lawyer's productivity is measured by billable hours, the contribution of the in-house counsel is often easy to overlook and may be difficult to quantify.

"The framework would enable the in-house counsel to progress within the organisation, becoming a business or functional leader."


Boost to Profession

CODE OF CONDUCT

Key clauses

Integrity: In-house counsel's conduct should reflect positively on the legal profession, inspire confidence, respect and trust of its employer and other stakeholders, and avoid actions that could bring the profession into disrepute.

Competence: In-house counsel must perform all legal services undertaken on an employer/client's behalf to the standard of a competent in-house counsel.

Confidentiality: In-house counsel must not use or disclose an employer and client's or former employer and client's confidential information without their consent.

Duty to avoid conflict of interest: In-house counsel must not act or continue to act where there is conflict of interest. Professional standards: In-house counsel must execute job functions with professionalism, good attitude and values, due care and diligence, adhere to acceptable practices and high quality standards, continuously improve one's skills and mentor new entrants in one's field of expertise.

COMPETENCY FRAMEWORK

Level 1 applies to entry-level corporate counsel.

They should have baseline legal knowledge to advise in areas including contracts, transaction management, disputes. They should start to define their own leadership style and develop awareness of issues in international legal systems and emerging economies.

Level 2 applies to mid-level head of local department or business units earmarked for senior roles in future. They should be able to align team effort to a corporate strategy, and have future-ready skills, including the ability to customise legal software to their employer's needs.

Level 3 applies to general counsel, or heads of regional or global offices.

They should have advanced knowledge in areas such as corporate governance, mergers and acquisitions, fundraising/listing rules. They should be able to identify important changes for the future, define a vision and chart the process to attain that vision. They should be able to articulate their employer's approach to digital trends, and the impact on the wider legal industry.


EMPLOYERS AND EMPLOYEES BENEFIT

Singapore ought to have a system to ensure the professional and ethical standards of in-house lawyers.

Standards offer a benchmark for skills and behaviour, help employers with their hiring. Standards also protect employees when he or she is asked to do something less than right.

MR WONG TAUR-JIUN, president of the Singapore Corporate Counsel Association (SCCA)

Source: Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Ltd. Permission required for reproduction.