The legal and European business director for MTR Corporation talks about the challenges of providing legal advice in a constantly changing environment.
Can you describe your professional background and your current role?
My current role with MTR is legal and European business director and so I get to both utilise my legal background (I qualified as a solicitor many moons ago!) in my role as the leader of MTR’s legal, risk management and insurance functions and company secretary, and also to develop my commercial skills as the executive director responsible for overseeing and growing our European business. All I can say is thank goodness for time differences!
I first worked in public transport some 20 years ago and laughed at the time when someone told me that, once you got into railways, they were very difficult to get out of!
How big is the team you manage and how is it structured?
In Hong Kong, we have a team of around 20 lawyers and support staff and, in addition, we have lawyers in most of our mainland and international subsidiaries. In Hong Kong, I think of us in medical terms — we have the property and company secretarial specialists and then a large team of GPs who, while they have their own specialisms and areas of expertise, manage a broad range of work covering litigation and regulatory compliance, intellectual property, employment, construction and financial issues and provide support to our mainland and international businesses.
What are the biggest challenges you face in this role?
In Hong Kong at the moment, MTR’s challenges are very visible and our team is supporting the business in addressing these. More broadly for in-house counsel, I think the key challenge is to provide commercial legal advice in an environment where the business is constantly changing and (hopefully) growing, where the regulatory environment is changing (in all of the geographies in which you operate) and, most difficult of all, public sentiment is changing is terms of what is the “right thing” for companies to do — compliance with the law is often no longer good enough.
What are the most important qualities of a good general counsel?
You should probably ask my team, rather than me! Legal skills are obviously a given but, on top of this, I think good general counsel have to be able to successfully lead and develop their teams and also have to be able to contribute to the management or leadership team which they are a part of on both legal and non-legal issues.
In terms of personal qualities, a willingness to get stuck in and advise the business what they should do (while pointing out the associated risks) is key. In order to do this, general counsel need to be able to see the broader picture and provide advice in this context. Resilience is also incredibly important.
Has the in-house legal function changed significantly during your career?
I’m not sure that the function has changed, but I think that the recognition (both internally and externally) of the role that the in-house legal team can play has changed enormously, making the role more challenging but, at the same time, more rewarding.
What do you look for in external counsel?
Legal expertise, of course. Responsiveness. People that are easy — and fun — to work with and willing to act as an outsourced part of the in-house team, to understand what I need from them (which may differ from issue to issue) and to make it easy for me (and my executive team and CEO/chairman/board) to understand the issues and the advice. Oh, and cost efficiency.
What type of work do you outsource to external firms?
To be honest, it depends. We generally outsource either where we need the manpower or where we don’t have the expertise in-house. Also, it is sometimes easier for a message to be delivered by an external, rather than the in-house, team.
How is technology changing the way you work?
I am a healthy sceptic when it comes to technology! There are solutions that we are exploring, particularly in relation to areas such as contract management, but there are also developments (such as AI contract reviews) where I am not sure that the business case will stack up. Legal operations (including, but not limited to, technology) is something we are investing in though — as a team, we’re as sizeable as many small law firms and it can be challenging for lawyers in the team to find the time (and have the skills) to do the day job in terms of advising the business, but also to manage recruitment and people development, fee negotiations and law firm management, internal know-how, training etc etc.
Looking forward, what changes do you foresee in the way that legal services will be provided in the future?
Maybe I am naive, but I think there will still be a role for lawyers to play in the future. I do think that some of the more flexible approaches to the provision of legal support will gain traction.
What advice can you give to young lawyers starting out in their careers today?
Lawyers will always need strong legal and analytical skills, together with the ability to communicate well — in writing or verbally and to get on with people. However, on top of those skills, the best lawyers will need to be prepared to understand their clients’ (whether internal or external) businesses and to help them to decide what they should do. In their careers, younger lawyers should be prepared take calculated risks and then to jump in with two feet and make the best of the opportunities presented to them.
What are your interests outside of the legal profession?
I captain my hockey team and try and keep fit — whether through boot camp or yoga or hiking the many fabulous trails in Hong Kong. I also enjoy travelling — for work but, particularly, for pleasure. And I try and make the most of the cultural opportunities in Hong Kong — whether that be theatre, music, art or cinema.