In-house lawyers in Asia-Pacific companies are taking on new roles to help businesses expand and invest overseas, while those at global companies are developing solutions to navigate the unique challenges of managing legal functions across the region.

Chinese businesses are becoming influential global players at an increasing pace. Their legal departments have become driving forces behind rapid international expansion. With essential technical expertise and international experience, in-house lawyers have been propelled from the back-office to the frontline of strategic decision-making and complex deals.

None exemplify the trend as well as this year’s winning legal team from Chinese internet company Alibaba. In September 2014, Alibaba’s $25bn initial public offering on the New York Stock Exchange was the largest ever IPO globally. Led by general counsel Tim Steinert, the legal team created a unique management structure to allow the company to retain its entrepreneurial and founder-led culture after it went public. The model gives a group of partners elected from the company’s senior management ranks the exclusive right to nominate a majority of the board of directors and maintain a degree of control.

Mr Steinert says his focus has equally been on “the development of an international-class legal department, whose size and specialisation is unique in China”. Many of the team’s innovations support moving Alibaba’s commercial and legal processes online. It is at the forefront of a global shift towards collecting large data sets to undertake more scientific analyses of trends in areas such as product and contractual disputes.

In a similar fashion, the legal team at fellow Chinese media and internet company Tencent topped the ranking last year and continues to innovate. With economists and policy advisers, it is driving research to guide governments and cities as they embrace “mobile life” in China. The team plays an active role driving debate on internet censorship and development.

In many cases, the international experience of lawyers working in growing Asian companies makes them the best equipped to bridge traditional management and business cultures. Lawyers have become pivotal communicators and translators between their companies and overseas investors, regulators and partners.

Illustration by Martin O’Neill for the Asia-Pacific Innovative Lawyers 2015 special report

Fosun, the Chinese investment company, created an international legal team in the past year to support its growing acquisitions. The team comprises 12 lawyers, each with mainland Chinese and international qualifications and experience. Co-general counsel Yao Xu heads the team. He says: “Chinese companies usually hire intermediaries to work with local counsel [but] we don’t need to do that. Our lawyers have the international skills and background to deal with local counsel and the target companies directly.”

Masako Nomoto leads the transactions management team at Mitsubishi UFJ Morgan Stanley Securities, a joint venture between the leading Japanese and US-headquartered banks.

She describes the most important aspect of her role as “being a communicator, translating between business and legal, and between international and domestic Japanese business expectations and culture”.

Her team has enabled some of the highest-profile and most complex transactions out of Japan in recent years including brewery group Suntory Holdings’ inaugural international bond offering and subsequent acquisition of US spirits company Beam, and Mitsubishi Motors’ global equity offering in 2014.

Within multinational businesses, a regional general counsel faces particular challenges managing a variety of functions in high-risk legal environments. Thierry Lintermans, associate general counsel for contracting in Asia-Pacific with Accenture, the global consultancy, says: “My team covers a diversity of languages, cultures and time zones in Asia-Pacific that you don’t have elsewhere, so it is more complex.”

Mr Lintermans’ team created the Accenture Legal Opportunity Tracker, a knowledge management platform that allows the team to monitor and report on projects, resources and clients regionally. Accenture is now considering further uses of the tool outside Asia.

At Honeywell, the legal team has supported expansion into high-growth and developing economies by providing a broad analysis of technological, commercial and legal risks. “Our role is to do a risk analysis rather than just a legal analysis,” says Gerard Willis, Asia-Pacific general counsel. “In the US you would just get a legally valid and binding opinion and you’d be done. But in jurisdictions without fully developed legal protections you just can’t do that.”

The remit of in-house Asia-Pacific lawyers is unusually broad. The most important role may be that of business leader, such as general counsel Edith Shih at investment company Hutchison Whampoa. She joined the Hong-Kong-based conglomerate in 1993 as its sole legal counsel and built a legal team of 280 to support the business as it has grown into a Fortune 500 company operating in 52 countries. She has been described as one of the key driving forces behind the company’s success — an enviable accolade for a company lawyer.

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