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Brent Irvin, at 41 years of age, is young for his role as general counsel at Tencent. But his experience is an example of the opportunity many international lawyers can find in the Asia Pacific region when working in-house.

Previously an associate at Wilson Sonsini, a Palo Alto law firm, Mr Irvin joined Tencent in 2010 to build a legal team that now has 128 lawyers on its strength. The company, China’s largest internet portal, has grown from its incorporation in Shenzhen in 1998 to a $9.9bn revenue giant. Mr Irvin has been a crucial part of that growth.

The story of lawyers helping to accelerate growth and facilitate Asian businesses is a theme running through the inaugural FT in-house ranking in the Asia-Pacific region. Besides being catalysts for change within their own organisations, some of the most innovative occupy leadership roles, helping to change legislation, regulation and the business environment.

Where Mr Irvin has been fighting for better intellectual property laws and protections in China, William Hay, the general counsel at Baring Private Equity, has been helping to raise standards in emerging markets through participation in World Bank forums.

Other legal teams such as those at Morgan Stanley and Telstra have been championing diversity within their organisations, the region and in their legal service suppliers.

The ability of innovative general counsel to influence and lead the companies in which they work transcends the narrow interpretation of what it means to be a lawyer – someone more comfortable with advising on the law than using their analytical legal skills to give commercial advice.

Mr Irvin has made sure that Tencent has never lost an intellectual property protection case in China and, in turn, has been adept at educating the courts and regulators about the importance of protecting intellectual property. He established in 2012 the Tencent Cyber Law Research Centre, which has become an important forum in China to share best practices. Mr Irvin also promoted modern legal functions orientated around both product and legal practice areas – a structure that is relatively unusual for businesses indigenous to the region. When faced with a dearth of technology suitable for his law department, Mr Irvin used engineers in Tencent to write bespoke software for the team to share legal knowledge.

Internet companies do appear to foster legal departments more inclined to innovation than more traditional businesses. For example, Alibaba, the Chinese e-commerce group, also features in the ranking for its world-class legal unit. And the FT’s US in-house ranking of 2013 puts Google in the top position.

However, the Asia-Pacific ranking does feature other types of business. Being able to get in on ground level has enabled many incoming lawyers in the region to craft their own legal functions without constraint and carve out broader and more interesting roles than many of their peers working in Europe.

Amanda Yu, general counsel at AS Watson, is a case in point. Since joining the health and beauty retail company as its first retail lawyer in 1994, she has built the team to 40 lawyers working across 33 markets. “Working in-house here has been a thrilling way of being involved in the growth of the business over the past 20 years,” she says. Ms Yu has managed to create her own legal footprint within the company. Part of her remit is corporate development, where she plays a leading role in acquisitions and negotiating deals. She also has direct business responsibilities in running the company’s specialist retail wine business, Watson Wine.

While many teams in the FT ranking struggled to put a numeric value on their contributions (similar to western jurisdictions, the measurement of value is a thorny issue for in-house counsel) their commercial referees were unequivocal about the advantage a superior in-house function can deliver, particularly in emerging markets.

Sophia P K Yap joined CBRE, the global real estate company, in 2008. Since then, she has built a legal and compliance function that covers 16 countries and more than 9,000 employees. As CBRE operates in many high-risk jurisdictions, Ms Yap’s brief was to ensure a best-in-class compliance function. However, she has avoided a silo-approach to corporate governance and used risk-mitigation approaches to complement the company’s growth. Through recruiting legal and compliance professionals she calls “change agents”, the legal department sees itself as much more than a cost-centre.

One of its innovations has been to use “six-sigma” methodologies to create tools that simplify risk assessments in the deal process. Using these methodologies has been resisted by lawyers worldwide who say the law cannot be streamlined into a process. However, the few that have used six-sigma methods have done so to great effect. Ms Yap sees the change as fundamental: “We have changed the traditional view of legal and compliance from deal-blockers to being viewed as deal enablers.”

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved.

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