The chief legal and compliance officer for Manulife in Hong Kong discusses the changing role of in-house counsel and the challenges of working in a highly regulated sector.
Can you describe your professional background and your current role?
I was trained up as a litigation lawyer after I left my comfort zone as a pharmacist at a young age. I then qualified in three different jurisdictions to advise on the law, joined a few financial institutions as an in-house lawyer before becoming head of legal and compliance officer for Manulife in Hong Kong.
How big is the team you manage and how is it structured?
I have a team of 38, comprising legal professionals and seasoned compliance officers who are divided according to function. Simply put, our legal team has a headcount of 10 people and the rest of the compliance leads are sub-divided to support different lines of business in Manulife.
What are the biggest challenges you face in this role?
The changes in the legislative and regulatory landscape have been nothing less than rapid in recent years. The most challenging part is not to manage the change with Manulife, but how to influence the regulator to create a doctrine that strives for a balance between regulation and practicality — so far I think we have made a great leap forward on this. For instance, I have proactively invited our regulator to sit down with our legal and compliance team on a periodic basis to discuss regulatory issues and more often than not this full and frank communication contributed to transparency on both sides. Based on this experience, we have also successfully persuaded our business partners within Manulife to provide candid feedback whenever our regulator asks, say, during consultation exercise before a new guideline is issued, resulting in more predictability when a new requirement arrives. I am glad that our regulator is an open-minded one.
What are the most important qualities of a good general counsel?
In the past, I would have said knowledge about the subject matter, but I think that has become a basic requirement nowadays. The power to think big and the passion to drive change necessary for the business, as well as the ability to create value, seem to be the most important qualities of a good general counsel.
Has the in-house legal function changed significantly during your career?
It must be a yes, no doubt at all. In the “good” old days, in-house counsel could survive by merely providing textbook advice. No longer. The new business world is expecting not only a lawyer but a genuine partner in the business. Counsel has to provide legally sound and commercially viable options to the business to cope with the ever-changing market needs.
What do you look for in external counsel?
External counsel bring in a lot of invaluable insight to us as in-house counsel. For instance, they are able to instil their experience with different clients and in return provide a meaningful comparative analysis to enrich our understanding of the issues and to cover our blind spots.
What type of work do you outsource to external firms?
Mostly advice on new legislative changes and the proposed interpretation of the same. Also, it is not infrequent to seek advice from external lawyers who are qualified to advise foreign law, such as the EU, mainland China and other jurisdictions in Asia Pacific.
How is technology changing the way you work?
It brings us speed when we need instant communication; of course, it also means you are reachable by your business partners even in the wee hours of the day. I think the advancement of AI will reduce repetitive work we do on daily basis and will enhance our efficiency too.
Looking forward, what changes do you foresee in the way that legal services will be provided in the future?
With the aid of technological advancement, sharing of information and knowledge has become barrier-free and advice on legal issues will almost become instantaneous. Also, the insights we gain from big data may help us to customise our advice to individuals, thus creating a truly unsurpassed experience to our client.
What advice can you give to young lawyers starting out in their careers today?
Be bold and creative, even when you are asked to give legal advice (but make sure the law is right). Think you are part of a bigger team and embed yourself with a higher goal. Join my team!
What are your interests outside of the legal profession?
Maybe I should have been a vet, I love puppies.