© Efi Chalikopoulou

As businesses in Asia-Pacific navigate an increasingly uncertain business world, their legal teams are expected to advise on ever more complex developments — from geopolitics to generative AI.

How to respond is top of mind for Chee Kin Lam, chief legal and compliance officer at DBS, Singapore’s biggest bank. “In-house legal teams need to get up to speed on areas such as artificial intelligence, blockchain, the metaverse and ESG. But we couldn’t possibly train over 700 of our legal and compliance professionals in the bank all at once.”

The speed of change has pushed legal teams to look at new ways to learn, share expertise and allocate resources. In doing so, a growing number of in-house legal teams are drawing on so-called “Agile” management techniques for getting things done. The Agile method first emerged among software developers some 20 years ago, as a way of achieving goals faster. It has its own manifesto and set of principles, which include: delivering for customers; being collaborative; responding quickly to change; and working in multidisciplinary teams.

One of the first big legal teams, globally, to reorganise into an Agile working model — creating a new structure, and changing reporting lines — was Australian telecoms company Telstra, which tops this year’s FT Innovative Lawyers in-house legal teams ranking for the second time. Beyond this, other legal teams have adopted Agile working approaches in a more informal way over the years, to be able to adapt more quickly to industry or economic shocks.

Top 10 innovative in-house legal teams (Asia-Pacific 2023)

Winner: Telstra*

  • Asian Development Bank

  • BHP

  • DBS Bank

  • Johnson & Johnson

  • Lazada

  • Qantas

  • SoftBank

  • UBS

  • Westpac

* “Winner” of the FT Innovative Lawyers award for “Innovative in-house legal team in Asia-Pacific”
Other organisations are listed alphabetically

“Lawyers tend to be in more demand than there is available supply, and the challenge that creates is one of imbalance and unsustainable pace,” explains Craig Emery, head of legal and chief compliance officer at Telstra.

Prompted by growing demand for its services, Telstra’s 130-strong legal team adopted a new structure in 2022, organising members into groups dubbed “missions”. Each person belongs to at least one of around 15 missions through which they do their day-to-day work. These groups support specific projects, transactions or parts of the Telstra business.

More on FT.com: Best practice case studies

Read the FT Innovative Lawyers Asia-Pacific ‘Best practice case studies’, which showcase the standout innovations made for and by people working in the legal sector:

Practice of law
Business of law

The groupings are temporary and quarterly reviews result in new missions emerging, others being wound down, and team members moving between them as priorities change. “We can be much more flexible to the demands of the business,” says Emery. For example, last year a mission was formed to support the corporate restructure of Telstra. After nine months, the group was disbanded and its members redeployed.

At DBS Bank, Lam needs a faster, more flexible legal team to address specialist subject areas the bank has to deal with. “We’ve taken very smart lawyers from all over the organisation and formed a group of about 10 to 12 people whose job is to become deep experts in these emergent areas,” he says. They will share and transfer knowledge to their colleagues. “So, over time, I will get an upskilling effect on 700 people.”

At consultancy Boston Consulting Group, the legal team has created “focus squads”, whose task similarly is to learn quickly about new trends and events. Next, other squads focus on sharing these niche areas of expertise across the legal team, or on improving how the legal team works. Topics range from sustainability, to new Chinese data laws, to work-life balance.

General counsel Ulrike Schwarz-Runer says: “If you develop a new framework for responsible AI, of course you do it in an agile way. You don’t let your team just run with it for a year. You have to constantly adjust and learn.”

The squads allow lawyers to develop deep expertise in specialist subjects combined with broad knowledge of other areas that are important to BCG’s business. The model encourages collaboration within new groups, along with learning and building new relationships. Prior training on continually developing new skills and aptitudes also helped to prepare BCG’s legal team to adapt.

However, this way of working brings some challenges. “It can feel unsettling for people,” Schwarz-Runer acknowledges. “There is maybe less predictability, especially as you change team constellations and move lawyers around according to expertise and experience needs.”

Flexible teams are common in consulting businesses, where consultants join a new grouping of colleagues and new leaders when they move to their next client project — while reporting to the same manager on career issues. This is less the case in other businesses.

In Telstra’s legal team, a staff member’s manager is responsible for their career development, remuneration and wellbeing, but the leader of their current mission is now responsible for their work. This separation has been well received, says Emery: “It creates a dedicated space to talk about career and performance, health and wellbeing.”

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