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In early February, DBS bank in Singapore learnt that a staff member had become one of the first recorded cases of coronavirus in the city-state. DBS shut down a floor of one of the towers at its Marina Bay business district headquarters and sent 300 staff home.
This was two months before Singapore officially enacted its so-called circuit breaker, closing schools and non-essential workplaces.
Company lawyers have played important roles since the pandemic took hold, by helping to ensure their businesses continue to operate through lockdowns and the global health crisis. At DBS, lawyers joined teams managing cyber security and staff wellbeing when working from home kicked in. But while the most immediate challenges related to setting up the bank’s own staff for homeworking, lawyers’ attention quickly turned to how they could help their customers.
In-house lawyers often refer to the business and individual colleagues they support as their “internal client”. However, thoughtful legal teams increasingly look ahead to address the needs of the business’s customers and clients.
For the DBS legal team, one of the most pressing challenges was to figure out how the bank could offer payment moratoriums and new loans to its small-business customers, many of which faced a cash flow crisis.
Chee Kin Lam, the bank’s general counsel, says problems included the fact that customers could not visit bank branches in person. They also “had trouble with things like board meetings to pass resolutions, or sealing instruments as deeds”, he says. “Our legal team had to work through all these process points and find solutions.”
That meant analysing every step of the customer process and figuring out legal and practical ways to make it work, including use of digital signatures and ensuring anti-fraud protections were in place.
DBS Bank’s legal team tops the FT Innovative Lawyers Asia-Pacific in-house ranking, see below, for its thought leadership and social responsibility projects and for expanding a staff development programme, Project Moonshot, that ensures legal and compliance staff acquire digital skills and hands-on tech training.
Next on the in-house list is Anglo-Australian mining group Rio Tinto, thanks to innovations led by its commercial legal team in Singapore. They have become far more than an internal support function, and are helping to change how customers experience and engage with the company.
For instance, interviews by Rio lawyers with current and prospective customers in China about how they would like to do business led to the development of an app on WeChat, the mobile phone ecommerce and chat platform popular in China. This allows customers to negotiate prices and buy bulk quantities of iron ore quickly and simply from their phones.
Legal teams are also investing at speed in new tools and skills to support a more client-focused way of working. For example, a pipeline tool at Telstra, the Australian telecoms company, helps the legal team track what various business units are doing and monitor new projects in order to prepare to support them.
“Lawyers can now be more proactive in managing resources to help them, as opposed to reactive,” says Denise Doyle, legal transformation lead for Telstra.
At Australian bank Westpac, the legal and secretariat team created a digital boot camp and data capability training programme. More than a standard financial or spreadsheet course, the aim is that lawyers learn how to work with data to engage in root cause and trend analyses.
For a generation of senior lawyers who practised law mainly using Microsoft Word, the ability to conduct sophisticated data analysis and present the result using data visualisation can transform how they manage their work and teams, as well as how they communicate with other business colleagues.
Those schemes were already under way when the pandemic struck businesses globally. Now in-house teams report they are honing their digital skills faster, with a lasting impact on how law is practised in business. “Covid-19 has caused enormous harm around the world. But it has driven more significant change including rapid digital adoption, which we and our customers will now utilise and benefit from,” says Petra Stirling, head of knowledge and development for Westpac’s legal team.
Looking beyond the short-term disruption, Mr Lam at DBS says the way business and society think about the fundamentals of work is likely to change. For one thing, the lawyers will have a role in considering the trade-offs in longer-term remote versus office working.
“At a technical level, there is a necessary balance with security risks and unavoidable differences between office and non-office infrastructure,” says Mr Lam. “At a human level, there is a necessary balance with collaboration, social interaction and creativity.”
The disruption caused by coronavirus is also renewing boards’ focus on business sustainability, providing opportunities for general counsel to shine as strategic and ethical leaders in their organisations. The wider legal team are also being tasked with addressing concerns that stretch far beyond the business when providing day-to-day legal advice.
As Christy Ditchburn, legal business partner at Telstra, puts it: “The business is asking us about the expectation of our community and customers and overall place in society.”
Total score is for all ranked entries across the Innovative Lawyers Asia-Pacific 2020 report
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