The evolving role of the Malaysian corporate counsel


BC July 1

The impression that in-house lawyers or counsels play second fiddle to practicing lawyers no longer holds true.

By Shahjanaz Datuk Kamaruddin

Five members of the Malaysian Corporate Counsel Association (MCCA) accepted invitations to attend the In-house Counsel World Summit held in Singapore recently. The Summit attracted more than 400 delegates from over 20 countries across the globe, and this number is believed to be the largest gathering of leaders of national corporate counsel associations ever assembled.

The topics discussed had a particular focus on the Asia Pacific region, emphasising its emergence as a key player in driving growth in the development of the global economy. It is estimated that about 60 per cent of the world’s population reside in Asian economies. Based on current trends, the number of Asians in middle class households is projected to grow to 2 billion by 2021. No doubt such factors influenced the decision to hold the Summit in Singapore, a major financial gateway into Asia.

For the MCCA, the Summit presented a myriad of opportunities to gain insights on the latest trends, both regionally and globally, as well as to network with experts and peers across a wide range of industries under one roof. As an association set up in 2006, the MCCA is relatively young with a smaller number of members compared to its overseas counterparts, so there was also the opportunity to learn from their experiences especially in terms of their successes and administrative make-up.

The Singapore Corporate Counsel Association was set up in 2002 and represents about 400 in-house lawyers in Singapore. The Australian Corporate Lawyers Association represents over 3,700 members and was established in 1991, whilst the equivalent in the UK, the Commerce & Industry Group (C&I Group) traces its history as far back as the 1960s and now represents about 6,000 in-house lawyers in England and Wales.

The impression that in-house lawyers or counsels play second fiddle to practicing lawyers no longer holds true. General Counsels are often relied upon by the CEO and the board on a multitude of issues, not just on law but on issues of ethics, public policy, corporate citizenship, and even on country and geopolitical risks. This trend holds true for General Counsels in Malaysia as they are increasingly regarded as an integral part of the senior management of any corporation. Their role has evolved in response to growing complexities of doing business across borders and in the face of intensifying competition at home and abroad.

Corporations demand the best return on their investments and this would include ensuring their in-house counsels have the capacity to add value to the organisations.  Aside from keeping updated on changing trends in the laws and regulations, in-house counsels are expected to develop a detailed understanding of the corporation’s business strategies and risk appetite. In this context they should be capable of procuring external legal services (from law firms) best suited to the needs of the corporation.

In-house counsels, being embedded within the organisations in which they serve, would naturally know the kind of professional development required for them to excel in their careers. For this reason training of in-house counsels should be developed and designed by in-house counsels themselves. This is one of the primary goals of any corporate counsel association, including the MCCA which has made some progress in this direction.

As a professional body, the potential gains from networking within or through the MCCA cannot be underestimated, as members represent varying levels of seniority across a wide spectrum of industries. Common issues of concern can be discussed and debated within an intellectual environment, such as anti-competition, personal data protection and anti-bribery/corruption.  Whilst it can be argued that law firms are capable of providing advice on such issues, it is the in-house counsels who can best interpret them and decide on their practical application within the organization. This innate skill is developed through years of practical experience within an in-house corporate setting.

This innate skill is also critical in situations where corporations face potential disputes in court. The General Counsel is relied upon to influence and shape the course of litigation mindful of considerations such as costs, market reputation and risk assessment.

As the sole association representing some of the best legal professionals in Malaysia (who are not in legal practice), the MCCA strives to emulate the successes of its overseas counterparts by advancing the causes and profile of the legal in-house community in various ways. These include:

  1. Driving up membership numbers.
  2. Designing training programs and a knowledge management system to meet market demands, including a mentoring program.
  3. Participating in dialogues to shape legislation that impact the industries they represent.
  4. Sharing views on the development of legal education in Malaysia to ensure industry needs are addressed over the long term.
  5. Interacting with other corporate counsel associations on the international stage as business becomes increasingly globalised and complex.

The MCCA provides a voice for in-house lawyers in Malaysia, and is potentially a vital one for the furthering and advancement of the profession for all the reasons explained above. Currently the association is largely volunteer driven and an assessment is being made to introduce changes that would accelerate growth. For more information and to apply for membership, refer to its website.

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