By Tim Gilkison
Peangpanor Boonklum is one of the most prominent corporate lawyers in Thailand, having advised many of the biggest clients in the country during her more than 25 years in private practice. She has now taken her experience in-house to lead the legal team at the state-owned energy company PTT, which reported record earnings of more than US$4 billion for 2017.
Boonklum recently sat down with Tim Gilkison, In-House Community Managing Director to talk about her new role and the development of the legal profession in Thailand.
Asian-mena Counsel: Have you found running an in-house team to be very different from your previous role in private practice?
Peangpanor Boonklum: It is, though PTT itself has almost 60 in-house lawyers and I oversee over 100 in-house counsel across our whole group of companies, so it’s like running a law firm in some ways.
AMC: What have been your biggest challenges managing an in-house team?
PB: Team building is very important. I’ve set up a Compliance Club and an In-House Club at PTT Group to help in that regard and to encourage collaboration. The key thing is to create an environment that allows good people to do their jobs at their best.
I’m also focused on changing the role of the legal department from simply advising on regulatory or end-process matters to being solution providers for the business. Another big area of focus for companies such as ours in Thailand currently is complying with and educating the business units on anti-corruption as well as anti-trust measures and legislation.
The group’s structure is quite unique. PTT acts as a holding-operating company and is listed on the stock exchange, but within the group our flagship companies — with businesses ranging from exploration to power generation — are all listed on the stock exchange too.
AMC: What challenges is the wider business facing, and how are they affecting your role?
PB: There is an ongoing industry-wide move away from fossil fuels to renewables and other types of energy provision and storage, like batteries. In addition, PTT and its subsidiaries are increasingly involved in the bio, chemical and pharmaceutical space, as well as different infrastructure from what we do now.
AMC: Having been an external counsel to PTT previously, what do you look for now in a law firm as an in-house counsel?
PB: Well, firstly, fees should not be the deciding factor when choosing external counsel. Exceptions may be for commodities, which are rare for our group in any event. It certainly helps us that competition is fierce — many firms wish to provide counsel to PTT Group, seeing us as strategic — and we are using the services of five to 10 law firms at any given time.
I look at how firms approach the work we do. If they are capable, I want to know if I am comfortable working with them, and are they comfortable with me. As I expect from my team, I want to work with counsel who are solution providers. Can they be part of the team? They certainly should have an office in the region.
Given the increasing challenges we face as a state enterprise, industry and business challenges, governance and compliance, and tightening laws that are applicable to our company, we look for firms with strong litigation and arbitration practices. On some projects, I handle the pre-litigation preparation myself.
Finally, we need to know the people in the firm who will be committed to the work, not just the partner who oversees the project but is not on top of it, or those who act as pure relationship managers.
AMC: What aspects of going in-house do you most enjoy?
PB: I enjoy the role more than I could have imagined. Working for a major player in the industry, we get to work with the relevant government departments to convey our views on legislation. I also get to be involved in activities across the business, not just in legal.
I’m perhaps busier now, but in a different way. I don’t need to work overnight anymore, and my weekends are more free, which I certainly appreciate, but I wouldn’t be able to find a more challenging job!
AMC: Is technology changing the way you work?
PB: Definitely! PTT itself is a very technology-focused business and is exploring many new ideas. Indeed, it has invested, or will, in some private equity and venture capital funds to develop potential opportunities. Working in such a big and sophisticated business, the legal team also needs to find tools to respond to those needs. For example, I’m currently studying the possibility of using AI [artificial intelligence] for certain types of work.
AMC: Looking forward, what changes do you foresee in the way that legal services will be provided in the future?
PB: An interesting question and definitely a challenging one. Probably no one knows. New disruptors are being disrupted by newer ones. There are so many trends — technology is allowing services to be provided in a more informal way to respond to the speed that clients require; data is everywhere and whether you can capitalise on it better than others will be a key differentiator; big companies no longer own assets or operations directly — and how lawyers adapt to these changes will be key to their success.
AMC: What advice would you give to young lawyers starting out in their careers today?
PB: Put your heart into it!
AMC: What is your hinterland?
PB: I enjoy reading, getting away to the spa or out of the city, and that’s something I can do more easily now. Going forward, I am also keen to meet more with my fellow in-house counsel.
Peangpanor Boonklum will be speaking in the opening discussion at the 15th annual Bangkok In-House Community Congress in June (click here for more).