Man in a video conference with a woman. Using a tablet to make a video call.
Strong knowledge of clients’ businesses will help weather the crisis © Dreamstime

Lawyers who go beyond the call of duty for clients can become trusted advisers and problem-solvers in times of extreme need. But what happens when this is tested on an unforeseeable scale? While Covid-19 has put great pressure on law firms and clients, some innovative lawyers are using new models of engagement to prove their value.

Lockdowns, supply chain disruption, business closures and duty of care for staff and customers all create liabilities and legal headaches for companies. Lawyers have had to act quickly and understand clients’ needs in depth — all while face-to-face meetings are often severely impractical, if not impossible.

Martin Desautels, managing partner at law firm DFDL, based in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) region, says that when Covid-19 hit, business development and networking initially posed a challenge — particularly with travel restrictions around the region. The firm operates in Bangladesh, Indonesia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Laos, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.

“The relevance of maintaining and growing client relationships was heightened,” says Mr Desautels, based in Vietnam. Within weeks, DFDL’s 400 staff from 12 different offices were working from home with “almost no disruption in the workflow and responsiveness”.

The firm’s lawyers wrote personal emails to key clients, offered reassurance via video calls, and provided free advice on how to deal with Covid-related problems. DFDL also launched a new practice area for restructuring and insolvency business. The goal was to continue providing clients with legal advice, while building trust and confidence by showing that the firm understood their business and strategic needs.

“When you’re more than just a guy who writes a contract and who tells clients what not to do . . .  then you become a trusted adviser to whom they will go for advice on many things beyond just the law,” says Mr Desautels.

Law firms with strong knowledge of their clients’ businesses are better placed to weather the crisis and react quickly.

“The pandemic and the various responses to it have required rapid legal advice in an uncertain environment,” says Sam Nickless, a partner and chief operating officer at law firm Gilbert + Tobin in Sydney.

Before the pandemic, G+T helped Australian telco operator Telstra — a longstanding client — complete a wholesale change management project. The initiative strengthened ties between the law firm and Telstra, which has proved invaluable in the current crisis.

As part of the project, Telstra’s in-house legal team reorganised its operating structure, but it was unclear how this would affect its dealings with external lawyers. The team felt an outside law firm could advise them on governance structures and business rules.

“We realised we needed to have some structure and inside knowledge about how law firms operated, so that we could engage with them efficiently and productively,” says Denise Doyle, a change management expert hired by Telstra to lead the transformation.

G+T helped determine operating procedures for the legal team, including how to better engage with outside counsel, and price and brief law firms. A legal project management expert from G+T was seconded to Telstra’s in-house team to stress test new operational models.

“I came with all the change management methodologies, tools and templates, but the G+T expert — who had also previously worked as a lawyer — was able to translate them into ‘lawyer speak’ and provide an insider’s understanding of what various business strategies would mean for our engagement with law firms,” says Ms Doyle.

For John Flood, professor of law and society at Griffith University in Brisbane, Australia, the renewed closeness with clients is a return to the past.

“Relationships between lawyers and clients were a lot closer until around the 1990s, when they suddenly became a lot more transactional in nature,” he says. “Law firms now find themselves in a position where clients are expecting more from them — more value and a better understanding of their businesses and needs.”

Prof Flood says this is partly because clients are becoming more sophisticated in how they purchase services — once only the corporate law department would engage law firms but now, for instance, a company’s procurement or finance team might hire a firm directly.

The need for closer relationships is also a sign of the times, he adds. “Wider societal changes — Black Lives Matter, the #MeToo movement, responses to the global pandemic — are all issues that force law firms to respond with hands-on approaches, often outside their comfort zone.”

Law firm partners have always been reluctant to change procedures for fear it will affect their profits or payouts, says Prof Flood, but the pandemic is making them rethink client relationships: “There may come a time when they find they have no choice but to change.”

G+T’s Mr Nickless knew that in helping his client’s in-house lawyers become more efficient and productive, his team’s recommendations might run counter to the law firm’s short-term interests. “But we were confident that in the long term, the trust we were building would lead to a closer relationship — and probably pay off on the legal side of the business down the track,” he says. “And that’s how it worked out.”

New contacts: Investment matchmaking at DFDL

Smiling diverse female colleagues wearing protective face masks greeting bumping elbows at workplace, women coworkers in facial covers protect from COVID-19 coronavirus in office, healthcare concept
It’s a deal: lawyers facilitate connections © Dreamstime

Connecting clients with professionals in his network is a way for Martin Desautels, managing partner at Asean law firm DFDL, to add value beyond the transactional.

Drawing on decades of experience shepherding M&A deals in the region, the firm has created a system to match investors with opportunities.

“In this region of many countries, languages and cultures, the right information on deal flow is critical,” says Mr Desautels.

Launched internally a year ago, the Connector Unit is a deal flow database and app, which staff can use to track investment opportunities and connect with potential investors, primarily among the firm’s existing client base.

The system has so far identified 175 projects seeking investment and has made about 75 connections.

While private equity deal flow services and clubs are not necessarily a new proposition in Asia, Mr Desautels says the system’s strength comes from the firm’s regional network of relationships, its regulatory, legal and tax strengths and experience, and the knowledge of its 400 employees.

“The intention is to use the Connector Unit — which now has its own staff — to channel legal and tax work though transactions that materialise from successful connections,” he says. “It’s what we’ve been doing for decades, just now we do it in a systematic and professional manner.”

Aside from building closer connections with current clients, the unit has also led to conversations with new contacts, Mr Desautels says.

The tables below rank law firms for the FT Innovative Lawyers Asia-Pacific awards

Managing client relationships
RankLaw firmOriginalityLeadershipImpactTOTAL
STANDOUTDFDL — Connected the firm's clients with new business or investment opportunities via its Connector Unit, which includes a technology platform and a support team of business and finance professionals. The firm has linked several investors with energy projects in south-east Asia. More than 75 opportunities have passed through the unit since September 2019, and some have resulted in new deals.88824
STANDOUTGilbert + Tobin — Assisted Australian telecoms company Telstra on the transformation of its legal team, helping to develop a new strategy, structure and new roles. The work drew on a range of non-legal skills and resources within the firm including operations, design, project management and pricing expertise.69823
HIGHLY COMMENDEDCorrs Chambers Westgarth — Through its shared-values client programme, the firm is championing social action in its communities. Projects include collaborations with clients such as Google and eBay on diversity initiatives. They have helped to develop broader relationships with parts of the clients’ businesses beyond the legal team.67821
HIGHLY COMMENDEDFreshfields Bruckhaus Deringer — To support Anheuser-Busch InBev on the complex, multi-jurisdictional spin-off and listing of Budweiser in Hong Kong, the firm mapped its resources and approach to the client's internal reporting lines, culture and processes. Freshfields lawyers “marked” individual members of the client's team allowing them to detect and resolve issues quickly.68721
HIGHLY COMMENDEDHerbert Smith Freehills — A secondment programme gives clients access to professionals with specialist skills to help them develop new projects and tools. Examples include sending legal process design, marketing and legal operations experts to work with the client's legal team. This has helped to deepen relationships with clients.68721
HIGHLY COMMENDEDNishimura & Asahi — The firm's Global Client Service Delivery Platform provides clients with an integrated service from a network of domestic law firms around the world. It ensures the law firms better co-ordinate how they communicate with the client, price work and manage matters.67821
COMMENDEDBaker McKenzie — The firm developed a communication tool that allows Unilever Japan to clear potential new brand and product names in a matter of days rather than weeks. It removes the need for email correspondences and allows the firm to offer the service on a flat-fee basis.77620
COMMENDEDClayton Utz — Created Remi (Regulatory Engagement Management Interface), a dashboard combining technology tools to help clients track and manage their engagement with multiple regulators relating to Australia's Royal Commission inquiry into misconduct in the banking and finance industry.67720
COMMENDEDKing & Wood Mallesons — Designed a virtual legal assistant for Australian telecoms company Telstra's in-house team to answer legal questions asked by their business colleagues and a contract automation tool to generate government contracts. The tools free up Telstra's legal team to do more high-value legal work.67720
COMMENDEDMinterEllison — Completed a management consulting project for AMP, an Australian wealth manager, delivering leadership training to 35 leaders in its legal and governance team to help develop greater resilience and skills to manage change.67720
COMMENDEDPinsent Masons — In partnership with Dow Jones, the index provider, the firm designed and delivered an online training programme for the entire global in-house legal team of HSBC, the banking group. The scheme builds digital skills and increases knowledge of how technology is transforming financial services.67720
Innovative teams
RankLaw firm and descriptionOriginalityLeadershipImpactTOTAL
STANDOUTGilbert + Tobin — The Australian firm created a department called GTdocs that optimises document review processes through the use of technology and dedicated onshore and offshore teams, established in partnership with law company Elevate Services. This has added significant value following Australia's Royal Commission inquiry into financial misconduct, which has led to increased demand among financial institutions for legal services.88824
STANDOUTAllen & Overy — The firm's Asia-Pacific restructuring and recovery group is a dedicated team of experts on litigation, banking and restructuring, whose multidisciplinary offering enables them to optimise efficiency and build familiarity with clients and business partners.78823
HIGHLY COMMENDEDHerbert Smith Freehills — The alternative legal services team has developed a technology platform to offer a round-the-clock electronic discovery, or ediscovery, service to organise and process electronic information. This enables teams around the world to access the same data set without movement or duplication.77822
HIGHLY COMMENDEDEY Law — The Oceania employment law compliance team is a multidisciplinary team of lawyers and data analysts that use technology and data to give clients a more accurate understanding of their risk exposure.78722
COMMENDEDHerbert Smith Freehills — The digital law group is a team that assists clients in implementing smart contracts or commercial uses for blockchain in their business. The team takes on lawyers from different practice areas on secondment in order to train them in these emerging technologies.88521
Operational management
RankIn-house legal teamsOriginalityLeadershipImpactTotal
STANDOUTGLP — Lawyers have worked closely with their IT colleagues to introduce new technologies. These include tools to automate contracts and systems that provide detailed data from the business to inform how lawyers negotiate and price new agreements. The legal team's tech-led approach has not only saved money but, more importantly, allows the business to agree contracts with new customers faster and collect more data to improve its services. This has helped the logistics company expand, including into new sectors such as financial services, funds and asset management.78924
HIGHLY COMMENDEDTelstra — The Australian telecoms company's legal team combined technologies to create an integrated matter management system that covers new matter intake, triage, workflow automation, and contract management. It ensures work is allocated more efficiently and is expected to save A$500,000 in its first year.78823
HIGHLY COMMENDEDWestpac — The Australian bank's legal and secretariat team implemented a triage and workflow system, including digital forms, automated approval processes and an automated triaging process, to ensure requests go to the right staff. Lawyers were trained to code the digital forms themselves.78823
COMMENDEDOzMinerals — The Australian miner worked with Lawyers On Demand, a flexible lawyering service, to implement a self-service platform that tells business colleagues if they need a contract in place and guides them through creating it. As a result, 70 per cent of work no longer requires a lawyer, saving A$1.4m a year.67922
COMMENDEDPfizer Australia — The legal team replaced a long policy document for internal contracting with an interactive flowchart that has been rolled out globally as part of an initiative to represent legal processes visually. Developing a chatbot has also freed up the legal team to take on more high value work.77620
COMMENDEDTata Communications — The legal team has implemented a range of new tools as part of a digital strategy to focus on automation, analytics and AI. Technologies to manage contract, litigation, compliance and due diligence processes have saved money and are enabling the busy team to handle more requests.56718
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