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From lawyers to 'Swiss Army knives'

From lawyers to 'Swiss Army knives'

Source: Business Times
Article Date: 28 Jan 2020
Author: Jeffery Tan

In a fast-evolving legal landscape, lawyers need to upgrade and expand their arsenal to stay relevant.

The role of lawyers continues to evolve. The requirement to be highly skilled legal practitioners is only the entry level. To be successful, lawyers are now expected to be financially literate, business savvy and strategic.

At the recent opening of the new legal year, Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon shared that the Ministry of Law is studying the possibility of regulating alternative legal service providers (ALSPs). This highlights the intensely competitive landscape that lawyers face, one in which the competition is coming from outside the traditional legal industry.

To meet these new challenges, there is an urgent need for lawyers to transform. In this regard, lawyers can possibly take a leaf from their general counsel (GC) counterparts who work in corporations and face many similar challenges.

KNOWING THE BUSINESS AND ITS PRESSURE POINTS

The days when lawyers only knew about and advised on the law are long over. The current and, more importantly, future GC needs to have an intimate knowledge of the business they represent and partner with and the environment that the business operates in.

As the business is the fundamental platform for a GC's day-to-day existence, successful ones quickly learn the ropes of the business to understand its various intricacies.

This can be a daunting and intimidating experience. Most GCs will have accumulated a fair degree of seniority - a strength that can also act as a barrier that inhibits learning. One can easily fall into the mistaken belief that asking questions on how a business works or the challenges it faces may appear to be far too basic for a senior lawyer who ought to know the answers, and thus give the impression of being "uninitiated" and possibly even "stupid".

This barrier of fear is, more often than not, merely an illusion. In today's environment of life-long learning, GCs need to develop a thirst for knowledge and learning new things (including technology) about the businesses they represent and support, even as the businesses themselves transform and get disrupted. Businesses that used to last the span of one's career now often undergo two or three iterations of metamorphosis in the same career period.

Enlightened GCs will do well in getting help from business partners and developing allies across different sectors and industries, be they accountants, IT technologists, or sustainability advocates. Coupled with a curious spirit and an inquiring mind, this will set GCs on the right path to understanding the business landscape their partners operate in.

In this pursuit of knowledge and understanding of a business, it is important that lawyers reach out to all levels of the business to get a well-rounded view from different perspectives. Often, the contacts and colleagues at the working level have much wisdom and insight to share from their daily operational experience. This is where the real business takes place, or, as they say, "where the rubber meets the road".

GCs are increasingly tasked to be responsible for things beyond purely legal matters. This can include matters like compliance and investor relations, to less obvious areas such as corporate communications and a corporation's sustainability obligations.

Such additional responsibilities should be welcomed and openly embraced by GCs, although they may be outside the realms of traditional legal advice. Not only do they provide opportunities to learn new skills beyond the law, they also act to increase the GC's sphere of influence and interaction with more individuals from different disciplines, and thereby enhance their value to the internal clients they counsel.

RISK-TAKING LEADERSHIP

In our rapidly evolving world, GCs, as leaders, need to be bold and willing to take some risk as a means of moving forward. This runs counter to the established culture that lawyers have typically subscribed to - one of tradition, time-honoured practices and entrenched ways of doing things. The pace of change that lawyers are used to is more evolution than disruption.

Unless there is a willingness to embrace and anticipate changes ahead, lawyers can quickly see their roles overtaken by new elements that emerge in the fast-changing external environment, like the ALSPs.

It can be difficult to let go of the well-established, tried-and-tested models of legal service delivery, even though we know that these may not last much longer. Artificial intelligence and apps software are clear examples. The sooner lawyers figure how these can impact their livelihood, the sooner they are able to determine how best to leverage and use these innovations to their advantage.

To succeed, GCs need to overcome the inherent difficulty of escaping the "gravity" of the status quo. Lawyers can learn from leading corporations with advisory groups who brainstorm and challenge them and, in so doing, paint a picture of the possibilities that a brave new future may hold. This is often most successful when the group includes outsiders. In this regard, besides inviting other lawyers to be on their advisory groups, GCs should also invite outsiders - such as their business partners and possibly ALSPs - to examine how they see legal services being provided in the future.

It is better to hear differing viewpoints firsthand and have the time to reflect and respond appropriately, than to be on the back foot reacting when the status quo is suddenly disrupted and radically changed.

One example is how leading law firms have embraced the use of technology, first in litigation discovery and now in corporate due diligence exercises, instead of relying on hordes of junior lawyers, as has been the norm for decades.

In the face of competition from ALSPs, one of the key aspects to succeeding in the role of the GC (and of the lawyer) is to win the trust and confidence of clients while remaining relevant. This requires a spirit of partnership, a sense of adventure and a willingness to roll up one's sleeves and jump into the deep end to understand the business requirements and demands of the clients. It also requires one to make quick personal connections that demonstrate legal expertise, business savvy and a willingness to protect and further the client's interests.

All this must be done in a shrewd, sagacious and practical way that shows good judgment and an in-depth understanding of critical issues, both business and interpersonal.

Many of the above skill sets can be learnt, practised and developed. But perhaps the one key skill set that lawyers should always have is the ability to evolve, learn and apply the learnings.

Just as the humble pocket knife has only a single blade, the successful lawyer needs to quickly recognise what other new functionalities are needed to enable their evolution into a composite Swiss Army knife with multiple capabilities, while still retaining a sharp blade for a legal mind.

  • The writer is group general counsel of conglomerate Jardine Cycle & Carriage Ltd and CEO of Mindset Care Ltd, a charity of the Jardine Matheson Group

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

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