New Zealand Law Society - Global trends for the in-house legal profession

Global trends for the in-house legal profession

In LawTalk 931, August 2019 our Executive Manager, Gabrielle O’Brien, highlighted some of the key themes that came through in the Deloitte/ILANZ in-house trends survey (“In-house legal – A force to be reckoned with”). Curious to understand whether there were any parallels with our in-house counterparts in other jurisdictions, we reached out to some of our colleagues around the globe to see what was on their minds and asked them to share their thoughts.

What quickly became apparent was that wherever you practise as an in-house lawyer, there are both similar opportunities and challenges.

Growth in influence within varying regulatory frameworks

The growth, in numbers and in influence, was commented on in several jurisdictions. Eric Amar, Legal Director of the Bollore Logistics and a governance member of the Association Française des Juristes d’Entreprise (AJFE) – the French Association of Company Lawyers, notes there has been a tremendous change in the influence of in-house lawyers in France over the last 10 years while also highlighting a paradox. “Being influential puts us in the middle of the business and less of an ‘arbitrator’ than before.”

While noting that there are more opportunities to be associated with big projects and strategy, Mr Amar emphasises the skills required from in-house lawyers to navigate these opportunities whilst managing compliance and ethical considerations.

Stéphanie Fougou, Honorary President of AFJE, and Company Secretary of Accor Hotels, also notes the increasing influence of in-house counsel although is also aware that: “there’s still lots of work to convince that the law is not just execution or litigation but of value to strategy”.

For both Eric Amar and Stéphanie Fougou, a key consideration in France is the omission of legal privilege for in-house lawyers and the need to address this for the members of their association.

It is easy for in-house lawyers in New Zealand to forget how fortunate we are to operate on the same basis as our counterparts in other areas of the law. This is certainly not something to be taken for granted though. A case currently before the Auckland High Court – NZ Iron Sands Holdings Ltd v Toward Industries Ltd [2019] NZHC 1416 highlights that privilege for in-house lawyers will always be subject to scrutiny and many in-house lawyers will be following the next steps in this case closely.

Thavakumar (Kumar) Kandiahpillai, the President of the Malaysian Corporate Counsel Association and Group Head, Legal and General Counsel of Sapura Kencana Petroleum, also comments on the acceptance of in-house lawyers as an integral part of management planning, strategy and decision-making rather than distant or ad hoc advisers as well as the rapid growth in in-house counsel. “I reckon the numbers have grown tenfold in the last 15 years,” he says.

In the context of an unregulated environment though, Mr Kandiahpillai expresses some concern. “The profession is unregulated and there are no objective standards, unlike practising lawyers. While the tremendous growth provides huge opportunities, the risks too increase, perhaps exponentially.”

Several of our international counterparts commented on the more complex environment that in-house lawyers are operating in with the expansion of regulation, compliance and data protection requirements. Again, a strong echo with the themes that came through in the New Zealand trends survey.

Angeline Lee, President Emeritus of the Singapore Corporate Counsel Association and Vice President of the legal secretariat at Singapore Press Holdings, notes that new legislation regarding AML/CFT and anti-bribery and corruption compliance all reflect this in her local jurisdiction.

Globalisation and the digital future

For Mr Kandiahpillai, globalisation presents huge opportunity. “Globalisation and technology makes physical locations less and less relevant. Legal hubs and in-house lawyers can be located anywhere,” he says.

There was general agreement that technology should be viewed as an opportunity more than a threat with a consensus that the future was more about understanding and upskilling to better realise the benefits. This is coupled with the recognition that for the organisations we represent digital programmes are commonly a key strategic programme.

In Singapore, Angeline Lee cites the example of the Ministry of Law, Law Society of Singapore, Enterprise Singapore and the Infocomm Media Development Authority launching a SIN$3.7m funding scheme that allocates funding of up to $130,000 annually for each Singapore law practice. “Technology is transforming the landscape for lawyering in house and in private practice,” she says.

People, progression and protecting wellbeing

Career progression and opportunities for in-house lawyers is on the mind of our counterparts in Scotland, France and Singapore. Beth Anderson, Head of Member Engagement for in-house lawyers at the Law Society of Scotland notes:

“A lot of in-house teams have a relatively flat structure. In order to retain good people, managers of in-house teams increasingly need to find innovative ways to ensure bright young lawyers have access to sufficient development opportunities to ensure their career ambitions aren’t restricted.”

Stéphanie Fougou notes that in France the move toward a more strategic role and positioning of the legal team is driving a need for higher levels of soft skills for in-house lawyers.

Angeline Lee is conscious that there is an oversupply of legally trained people in Singapore and this presents a different set of challenges with no permanent roles for some and more varied work arrangements. Growth in the technology, banking and real estate industries provide opportunities though.

“Lawyers in-house must be brave and forward looking… we should always be a step forward to lift our corporate business to a better risk managed and sustainable future,” she says.

While optimistic for the future of the in-house profession and excited by the growing influence of this part of the profession, there is also an acknowledgement that a legal career is rewarding but can be challenging whatever part of the profession you work in.

Beth Anderson notes “We need to continue to champion best practice in connection with emotional wellbeing and challenge the stigma around mental health, to help ensure that people can maintain good health and access support if they need it.”

Paying attention to work environments and seeking to create optimal working conditions that recognise we are human first and employees second, is not just something we aspire to here in New Zealand.

Sharing experiences and lessons

While the regulatory environments may differ and there may be challenges that we don’t have in common, it seems that there are many issues that we share with our international counterparts. Further, the trends or developments that develop in other jurisdictions make their way here.

It has been useful over the years to share ideas on initiatives to support in-house lawyers through our alliance with In-house Counsel Worldwide (ICW) – an “association of associations” for in-house lawyers. We have learnt much to better serve the needs of our in-house profession and ultimately the organisations we represent.

Next year we will have the opportunity for members to also hear more from in-house lawyers working in other parts of the world when ICW representatives, all practising in-house lawyers, join us in Wellington on 20-22 May for the combined 33rd ILANZ conference and ICW World Summit. Look out for information updates on the conference at ilanz.org

Jeremy Valentine is a member of the ILANZ Committee and is General Manager – Risk, Legal and Governance at the Co-operative Bank. Jeremy is also Vice President of ICW.

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