Published in Asian-mena Counsel: Legal Innovation & Technology Special Report 2019
What’s your background and how did you end up in Asia?
My career started at the University of Strathclyde, where I was a lecturer teaching European law, international law and IP. However, an opportunity arose to relocate to China and that’s where I joined Diageo as regional counsel. Following a move to Hong Kong, I spotted an opportunity in the market and founded my own business called Asia Counsel providing legal consultants to clients. I later sold this business to Axiom and led the business through an exceptional period of growth over eight years. It was an exciting time and one which has left me with many friends and happy memories, but after eight years I felt ready for a new challenge. Vario seemed like the obvious next step for me — to be able to build a legal consultancy business with the support of an international law firm was highly compelling.
What are your plans for developing Vario in the region?
We are seeing a huge amount of demand for services such as Vario at this time in the region. This applies both for clients and also for legal professionals working in Asia. As a result, it is the right moment to capitalise on this. I naturally have big plans for us in Asia! A lot of work has already been completed, we have built a high-quality bench of legal professionals who are seeking a new way of working and I have been rapidly appointing a team able to lead this business as we grow.
There is much to do though. We will continue to grow the Vario bench and I will continue to build my team. Vario is busy sponsoring various conferences and meanwhile our Varios are being invited to a range of events such as mindfulness and a sleeposium. Vario is quickly becoming a global brand and that means offering the same high-quality service regardless of the location. Finally, I am reaching out to clients across the region who I hope will be attracted to working with me again and this high-quality, flexible and cost-effective business I am building at Vario.
How is the role of the modern GC changing, and how can legal consultants address these challenges?
Having worked as a GC myself, it’s really interesting to see the changes taking place and to reflect on how they differ nowadays. The global financial crisis changed the world of business for everyone, including GCs. We are still seeing the effects of those changes 10 years on. Business now expects more for less from everyone and the legal department isn’t immune. A GC is expected to manage an increasing workload and produce ever greater results, although often there is no corresponding budgetary increase to manage this workload.
Another shift is the way that legal is now so closely intertwined with every part of the business. “Be careful what you wish for,” they say — and this is very true! GCs for years have been talking about how they want to be closer to business and it’s happened. More than ever, businesses now want their legal teams to be involved in projects, to offer advice and to be a part of the team. GCs often find themselves dealing with the CFO and CEO on a daily basis. Their expertise as a legal professional is still valued, but alongside that their business acumen and reflections are sought.
GCs are also managing a more complex workforce than ever. A GC’s team would once have comprised a number of people in the office on permanent employed contracts working five days per week. Now they will lead a disparate team of people working remotely across numerous locations. Some will work full-time, others part-time. Some will be secondees, others legal consultants from a provider such as Vario. They will be instructing their law firm on a matter, whilst pulling in resource. Alongside this, there is a change in attitudes very much present nowadays. More junior employees don’t have the same aspirations as those from earlier generations and the GC is managing all of this!
As the legal consulting business has matured, have you noticed a change in the attitudes of legal professionals who want to work in the sector?
Without a shadow of a doubt. This ties into my earlier point. More junior generations have shaken up the way that the market operates. They want to work hard and complete challenging work, whilst they also want to progress and develop. But this isn’t enough. They want to do all of this whilst still exploring the world, having a personal life, following their dreams and living their best life! More senior generations have seen this and thought: “Hold on a second, I want some of that too.” And why not! So, what started as something of an anomaly, to work as a legal consultant, is becoming a mainstream career choice.
I’m sure that there used to be a stigma attached to work as a legal consultant, the attitude might have been: “Oh, they couldn’t cut it, so they’re a legal consultant these days.” That’s gone now. Working as a legal consultant is a career choice, not a fall-back. I look at people such as a Vario called Jenny and see someone who is completing an incredibly demanding piece of work, whilst she is completing psychotherapy qualifications, coaching people and building a reputation as a jazz singer! Or Nicola, someone who lives in Mexico, but works as a Vario remotely and when not working as a Vario, she’s a freelance illustrator. I spoke to a trainee a couple of months ago, who said how much she was looking forward to qualifying and applying to work as a legal consultant. There are still many who want to work their way up to Partner in a law firm and that’s a career choice which suits lots of people. However, a wave of inspired lawyers now have more choice than ever before, they see a whole range of options opening up before them and can choose whether to take a more traditional path, or whether to tread a more untested track through life.
How does Vario’s connection to Pinsent Masons affect the services you can offer?
Vario is proudly part of Pinsent Masons. It provides us such a significant advantage to be part of this great international law firm. Our legal consultants here in Hong Kong and Singapore can access the same support as those sitting in London or Sydney. That’s the unique advantage of a large law firm backing you. Pinsent Masons can offer the Varios knowledge systems, professional support lawyers, professional indemnity cover, high-quality work, internal assignments back in the law firm, Partner access, use of the research teams and many other advantages. This means two things: one, that we can attract the best; two, that we can back them in a way like no other. In turn, this means that our clients can use the best legal consultants in the industry, people who are motivated and supported to offer our clients the very best service but they have the comfort of an international law firm behind them and having met hundreds of lawyers in Asia over the years, that backing is important to clients and consultants alike.
Kirsty Dougan is responsible for strategy, all operations and business development in Asia. She has overseen significant growth in her time at Vario and established the Hong Kong office in early 2019. She possesses a wealth of experience in this sector, having pioneered alternative legal services in Asia. Prior to this, she served as senior counsel to Diageo, where she built the company’s first legal function for the Greater China region.