In-house legal teams driving tech innovation in Asia-Pacific

In-house legal teams driving tech innovation in...A growing number of businesses across the Asia-Pacific region are leveraging technology to optimise their in-house legal departments, leaving traditional law firms trailing in the race towards innovation.


Asian organisations are already placing increasing importance on their in-house functions, with a recent Thompson Reuters study showing 93 per cent of businesses expect to grow or maintain their current legal staffing levels.


Meanwhile, 44 per cent claimed their in-house teams were ‘highly internal’, meaning they were well developed and relied little on external resources.


The primary reasons for in-house development are regulatory concerns (54 per cent) and ethics and compliance (42 per cent). Many businesses are also attempting to drive down costs by reducing fees paid to traditional legal service providers.


“A law firm can give you guidance and advice around the changing regulatory landscape. But for day-to-day monitoring and enforcement, there is typically a heavy reliance on your in-house team,” said Jil Leong, Hong Kong-based assistant general counsel at Thomson Reuters.

In-house tech revolution

This trend of focusing more on in-house operations has created a notable shift in innovation across the legal industry.


The most recent Financial Times (FT) Asia-Pacific Innovative Lawyers report showed that while traditional law firms are making plans to transform processes using technology, in-house departments are already well on their way to doing so.


Rebecca Lim, general counsel at Australian banking giant Westpac, told the FT: “Our customers are changing, and the whole business is changing, so legal also needs to change.”


As such, Westpac is looking to expand its legal, compliance and secretariat teams to 300 people in 2017. Ms Lim claimed candidates from non-traditional legal backgrounds could benefit, as the organisation is looking to find people who can combine law and technology to modernise departments.


In-house staff with experience in FinTech and RegTech – financial technology and regulatory technology, respectively – are likely to be highly sought after. Westpac is researching artificial intelligence (AI) solutions and other automation techniques to optimise in-house legal processes.


AI is also proving popular at DBS Bank in Singapore, where general counsel Chee Kin Lam said the business is introducing a new tool to automate negotiations for certain legal documents. The move is expected to reduce the time spent on these activities by as much as 50 per cent.


However, Mr Kin Lam was keen to point out that the bank isn’t using AI “for the sake of AI”.


“All AI projects must start with process simplification and must be about changing customer and client lives,” he added.

The journey ahead

Despite obvious progress, many in-house departments still have some way to go when it comes to technology innovation, according to the Thompson Reuters survey.


The figures, compiled last year, showed 32 per cent of respondents weren’t using any tools to manage caseloads – a further 25 per cent relied on Excel spreadsheets.


However, 43 per cent were keen to streamline case management through either a custom-developed third-party application or software built in-house, indicating businesses are becoming more tech-savvy across legal teams.


Rein Graat, Asia-Pacific general counsel for ING, said technologies such as AI and other automation tools will revolutionise not only legal practices but also the training, motivation and structure of in-house teams.


“If lawyers are not prepared for what lies ahead, we will struggle to remain relevant,” he concluded.


Looking for talented in-house staff to drive your Asia-Pacific operations? Or are you a candidate hoping to take the next exciting step in your career?


Please contact a consultant at Barclay Simpson to discuss your needs.


Our Market Reports combine our review of the prevailing conditions in the in-house legal recruitment market together with the results of our latest employer survey.


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