We speak to the general counsel, chief compliance officer and company secretary of Sun Life Malaysia about her role and the changing nature of the in-house legal function.
ASIAN-MENA COUNSEL: Can you describe your professional background and your current role?
Hema Latha Sinnakaundan: I am a qualified lawyer — an Advocate & Solicitor of the High Court of Malaya since 2000 and a Solicitor of the Senior Courts of England and Wales since 2005. I was in private practice for seven years before I decided to move in-house within the insurance industry.
Apart from being the general counsel, I am also the chief compliance officer and the company secretary of Sun Life Malaysia.
AMC: How big is the team you manage and how is it structured?
HLS: In my legal department, I have two other qualified lawyers — one is a senior legal counsel with 15 years of experience while the other is a junior legal counsel with eight years of experience. Apart from the lawyers, I manage 9 compliance officers and 2 company secretarial officers.
AMC: What are the biggest challenges you face in this role?
HLS: Getting all stakeholders to feel comfortable that I’m a business partner and not the show stopper.
AMC: What are the most important qualities of a good general counsel?
HLS: The most important quality of a general counsel is to be a partner of the business. To be able to do this, they should understand the business and the business strategies of the company. It is essential that a general counsel understands the big picture of the business and the industry specifically.
Another important quality is to have excellent stakeholder management. A general counsel should always be humble and grounded, and try to understand the needs of the stakeholders and manage them accordingly — but, at the same time, should never compromise on legal risks, no matter what.
Needless to say, a general counsel must always demonstrate good judgment. There may be times when you would have to make the most unpopular decision, yet the best one for the business. In events of this nature, put your influencing skills to good use in convincing the stakeholders of your stand.
Finally, a general counsel should try to avoid using legal jargon and complex language when advising the business; and should aim to provide advice in a simple and comprehensible manner.
AMC: How is technology changing the way you work?
HLS: It makes everything faster. Conducting legal research is no longer a laborious event. Everything is now at the tip of the fingers.
AMC: How has the in-house legal function changed during your career?
HLS: We have gone from a legal adviser role to a business partner role.
AMC: What about the way you work with external firms and other providers of legal services — have you seen significant changes there?
HLS: Yes, in-house counsels are no longer regarded as the postmen between management and external firms. We are able to provide appropriate legal advice as we have the insights of the business, which external firms may not be privileged
AMC: Looking forward, what changes do you foresee in the way that legal services will be provided in the future?
HLS: They will be e-based and instantaneous.
AMC: What skills should young lawyers today aim to acquire?
HLS: Stakeholder management and being open to discussions. Be humble and approachable. It is always easier to convince people of your stand when you’ve always been professional and cordial.
AMC: What is you hinterland — what are your interests outside of the legal profession?
HLS: Travelling and reading.