Asia’s landscape of in-house associations has changed. As world trade and multinationalism have moved more aggressively across borders, so once inwardly looking associations have broadened their horizons, while larger organizations look to swell their ranks and target expansion. John Church reports

There was a time when the humble corporate counsel associations within Asian jurisdictions were perhaps a little quaint and Rumpolean, like an in-house lawyer’s colonial private club. Joining cost a nominal fee and for that one could attend a couple of seminars during the year, as well as some members-only functions providing a chance to polish up the personal network, as long as one was back home indoors at a reasonable hour.

But as time has progressed, so has the role of the corporate counsel association, at least in most parts of the region. In particular, knowledge that transcends jurisdictional borders is sought after as legal boundaries wither under the onslaught of technology and the globalization of trade. Members are more demanding of information that is tailored to them, and among the myriad of forum and function invitations, those without real merit are simply not attended.

Enter the Association of Corporate Counsel, with a global membership of more than 42,000 employed by more than 10,000 organizations in 85 countries.

It was officially born as the American Corporate Counsel Association (ACCA) on 11 March 1982. In 2003, ACCA became ACC, the Association of Corporate Counsel, reflecting the increasingly global interests of its membership, which by then had covered more than 50 countries.

Today, ACC has established networks in more than 60 locations worldwide, including chapters covering multiple jurisdictions such as ACC Europe and ACC Middle East.

Following its recent alliance with the Hong Kong Corporate Counsel Association (HKCCA – now ACC Hong Kong), ACC now has almost 6,000 members in the Asia-Pacific.

The Australian alliance

Prior to Hong Kong, the Australian Corporate Lawyers Association (ACLA) merged with ACC, on 1 July 2015, to give its members access to global resources and contacts. The group said at the time its decision had been informed by a 2013 ACLA member survey that found more than 70% of Australian in-house counsel operated across borders.

There are also smaller memberships in India and China, where the association has gained a toehold, but is yet to find enough traction to fully establish.

There’s probably not an in-house counsel who hasn’t heard of the ACC, or who has accessed some piece of useful information from it. Asia Business Law Journal has partnered with ACC on a regional and international level – as it has with most corporate counsel associations in Asia – working with their professionals to disseminate information relevant to in-house counsel in the region. Their website is as slick and professional as any top-tier law firm, and is loaded with resources, events, programmes, initiatives, press releases and publications.

But there are also other players that act as co-operatives or collectives for national corporate counsel bodies, giving them better access to regional programmes and events. The Asia Pacific Corporate Counsel Alliance (APCCA) was formed in 2009 at the Regional Corporate Counsel Conference in Singapore, organized by Singapore Corporate Counsel Association (SCCA). Signatories to the alliance were SCCA, Indonesia Corporate Counsel Association (ICCA), In house Counsel Forum – Korea (IHCF), and Association of Corporate Lawyers Sri Lanka (ACLSL).

There is also the In-house Counsel Worldwide (ICW) group, formed from an affiliation of in-house counsel associations from around the globe and formalized in June 2014 at the First In-house Counsel World Summit held in Singapore, also organized by SCCA. The purpose of ICW is: “Uniting the global in-house legal community, for the benefit of all in-house counsel, their organizations and the profession, through co-operation and collaboration.”

And there are others, but arguably no networks or alliances are better organized or more aggressive in their expansion plans than ACC.

On the radar

Deon Wong, senior director of ACC Asia-Pacific, says Asia is well on the radar in this regard. “As part of ACC’s global strategy, we will focus on implementing the alliance we have with our newest chapter, ACC Hong Kong, and growing our presence in Hong Kong,” he says. “We will also continue to deliver services to our members across the Asia-Pacific region, offering more targeted and region-specific content to our members, such as CPD [continuing professional development] events, research, publications, etc.

Deon-Wong,-Senior-director-of-ACC,-Asia-Pacific

“We will also look to increase our membership across the region with the goal of hosting a Pan-Asian conference in Asia in the next few years.”

The Hong Kong merger is still only a few months old, and Deon Wong says ACC is continuing to work closely with the ACC Hong Kong executive committee “to ensure that this alliance meets the needs of our Hong Kong members, and that our members are well informed about the changes and benefits the alliance brings”.

“Our ACC Asia-Pacific office will also continue to make regular contact with members here in Hong Kong to address any questions or concerns they may have, and conduct demonstrations on the extensive resources they now have access to following this alliance,” he adds.

The new alliance brings with it a two-tiered membership structure for previous HKCCA members, who have the option of renewing at the old standard membership rate or upgrading to the new full membership rate for access to additional benefits. New members joining ACC Hong Kong will be eligible to join only at the full membership rate.

“Standard members also have access to a free three-month trial of the full membership so they can explore the extensive resources ACC has available,” says Deon Wong.

Hong Kong’s transition

Lin Shi is president of ACC Hong Kong’s executive committee and has overseen the transition as president also of the former HKCCA. She says the transition has gone better than expected.

“Full credit to three amazing teams,” she says. “The ACC HK team has been in close contact with the ACC Australia and US teams. This was especially important leading up to the launch, as we were revamping our website and making sure that members could sign up under the new membership tiers.

Lin-Shi,-President,-ACC-Hong-Kong

“Operationally, we are figuring some things out as we go. We have an alliance with ACC that gives us high autonomy, so naturally lots of details were not in the agreement. However, there is a lot of goodwill between the two organizations and what’s good for ACC HK is also good for ACC. Both sides have been quite flexible in our approach to resolving issues and we’ve enjoyed a good working relationship.”

Shi says that, as the alliance coincided with the new membership year, her team has been focused on a membership drive. “We are happy to report … we have almost 900 members, which is almost 100 more members than the same period last year. We hope to break 900 by the end of the year, but will certainly reach that goal in 2018. ACC has staff dedicated to membership and we have been working together to proactively reach out to new members to demonstrate the additional online resources.”

While focused on Hong Kong in the short term, Deon Wong says the next phase of expansion in the region has already been set. “In the longer term we will focus our attention on India,” he says. “Many of our existing members are based in India, and of our more than 42,000 members around the globe, a large number have also indicated their desire for ACC to have a larger presence there.”

He backs up regional objectives with the ACC’s own data. “Many of our members work for organizations that have a significant global presence, particularly in the APAC region,” he says. “With the rise of the ‘Asian century’, our members have indicated to us the importance of being able to engage with their peers in the APAC region. In our ACC Australia Trends Survey 2016, over half of our members in Australia indicated that their organizations operate in the APAC region.

“Furthermore, 20% reported having a legal team or legal support staff based in the region, including Singapore, Hong Kong and India. Almost a third also report that they are planning to extend operations in the region in the next five years.”

However, in some jurisdictions integration with national associations is more difficult than others.

President of Singapore Corporate Counsel Association (SCCA), Wong Taur-jiun, says his organization was approached by the ACC when his association was still in its infancy.

The SCCA says its mission is to promote professional standards and provide developmental opportunities to help in-house lawyers in Singapore be better counsel, in the belief that “better counsel make better corporations, and, in turn, better corporations make better communities”. The association lists among its services:

  • learning events to ensure that in-house counsel keep up to date with developments in law;
  • networking opportunities that enable in-house counsel to stay connected with their industry; and
  • legal reform, including the codification of in-house privilege, a law that directly benefits an organization that bases its legal department in Singapore.

Singapore’s rejection

“The subject [of an alliance] was broached in the earliest days of the formation of SCCA,” says Wong Taur-jiun. “It was suggested that instead of an independent organization, SCCA should be a chapter of what was then the American Corporate Counsel Association. SCCA decided to stay independent.”

In considering the advantages or disadvantages of that decision, Wong Taur-Jiun says SCCA “is the national association for all in-house counsel based in Singapore, regardless of nationality”.

“SCCA is concerned, first, with the professional standards of all in-house counsel who practise in Singapore, and second, with the professional advancement of all its members,” he says. “It is an association whose patron has been, and is, the attorney general of Singapore. Therefore, SCCA remains mindful of its role within the legal ecosystem of Singapore, a role that cannot be fulfilled if it were not independent.”

Wong-Taur-jiun,-President,-Singapore-Corporate-Counsel-Association

Wong Taur-jiun says SCCA has never canvassed its members on their perceptions of organizations like the ACC, but he adds that his association is already part of ICW.

“All members of the ICW retain their right of self-determination, so they are free to act according to the mandate given under their constitution, including being flexible in responding to the different needs of their members,” he says. “We believe those needs to be different across different jurisdictions. We envisage a long-term relationship with the ICW, and already see the fruits of our successful collaboration, including two ICW world summits that took place in Singapore and Paris over 2014 and 2016, respectively.”

ACC maintains a Singapore chapter and, as Deon Wong says, India is in the association’s cross-hairs as a destination for expansion, where, as with most jurisdictions, there is entrenched already a body representative of corporate counsel.

The Indian Corporate Counsel Association (ICCA) has an impressive list of its objectives:

  • providing a common platform for members to exchange views, share experiences and knowledge;
  • disseminating information about important developments in the fields of legislation, regulation and judicial pronouncements relating to the corporate sector;
  • providing feedback to governmental and regulatory authorities to assist in reforms in legal, administrative and corporate governance matters;
  • encouraging interaction between law officers of organizations in public and private sectors to share concerns and discuss best practices;
  • helping placements, networking and exchange of experience amongst members; and
  • creating a database of members interested in acting as guest faculty in various law colleges, conferences and seminars organized by various chambers of commerce and other organizations.

India’s path

ICCA’s president, Ashok Sharma, says the association has not been approached or discussed any alliances, and nor would it consider one. “Veta [Richardson, president and CEO of the ACC] was in India recently, and there were some messages that they would like to meet,” Sharma says. “But we have no intention of approaching the ACC or anybody for any alliance. We are happy doing what we are doing, and we have other things to do in India, so really we are not looking for any alliance.”

Ashok-Sharma,-President,-India-Corporate-Counsel-Association

Sharma feels the association would sacrifice its freedom to choose its own agenda should it align itself with a larger organization. “I think the biggest disadvantage is we would lose our independence to decide on programmes and what we want to do for our members,” he says. “If you are part of a large set-up, then we would have to put forward proposals [for programmes] and it would go through so many committees, and whatever.

“Like last year, we decide to publish a coffee table book on in-house counsel, and it was kind of a decision on the spur of the moment, and we implemented it within 15 days. If we were part of a group like ACC, it would not [happen] so fast.”

As far as the advantages of the ACC’s strong information database for members, Sharma says the association is “working on the same things also, and we also propose to develop our resources for our members. [With] our programmes, the Department of Commerce and the Department of Legal Affairs have been supporting us, and we have been involved in opening the legal sector also, so that kind of credibility we enjoy. In my mind there is no reason why we should align ourselves with the ACC.”

Himavat Chaudhuri is chief legal and regulatory affairs officer at Tata Sky, and a member of Asia Business Law Journal’s editorial board. He attends ICCA events, but is not a signed-up member, and says such associations provide an opportunity to access talent across the in-house community, and finally to keep abreast of recent developments in the world of law. “However, their activities in India need serious stepping up to go beyond events,” he adds.

“I wish the CCAs [corporate counsel associations] would have a robust system of information dissemination for the in-house community,” says Chaudhuri. “The problem is that, at least in India, it seems to be directed towards holding events and networking or sharing knowledge only around physical events, which can be expanded to so many other areas.”

With respect to the smaller national CCAs versus larger networks, is there room for both? “I am unfortunately not aware of all the CCAs, but there is scope for everyone to act in the space,” he says. “Each of us has different needs and each of the CCAs, provided they work efficiently, can serve different needs at different points in time.”

Japan is open

Although the ICCA wishes to run its own race, there are other groups happy to co-operate willingly with organizations like ACC. The Japan In-house Counsel Network (JICN) is an unincorporated professional association for in-house counsel working in Japan. It has an executive board that shares roles to support JICN activities, and it was first launched in 2005.

The JICN has more than 200 current members, and membership in the network is free. Membership is open to qualified lawyers working in-house and other corresponding in-house legal professionals regardless of their formal legal qualifications (i.e., those in a position to be responsible for providing legal advice to their employer organization).

Members come from both multinational and domestic corporations, and membership is not limited to those with an international affiliation or background. Most members are based in Japan, and the majority are in Tokyo.

The JICN offers:

  • free member-only roundtable discussion sessions;
  • free member-only law firm-supported seminars;
  • forums for information exchange between members through ad hoc communication amongst members, and a members-only section on its website with law firm comments and recommendations, legal updates and information exchange, social events among in-house counsel, and support for professional development and learning activities.

The network’s president, William Herbert, although confirming his group had not been approached by the ACC or anyone else about merging or otherwise forming alliances, says that, “[recently the ACC] did approach JICN about collaborating with the ACC to provide insight on the upcoming 2018 ACC Chief Legal Officers (CLO) Survey”.

“This year’s survey continues to collect key benchmarks and perspectives on the evolving role and priorities of the heads of legal departments,” says Herbert. “Relatively regularly, organizations will contact JICN to ask that we provide speakers at their events, and publicize the events to our membership. We often do this,” he says.

William-Herbert,-President,-Japan-In-house-Counsel-Network

China a tough nut to crack

A bigger testing ground is bound to be China. Under-represented in terms of independent corporate counsel associations, the environment is highly regulated and perhaps a tall order for an organization with American roots. China has its own groups vying for a huge in-house membership potential.

China Association of Corporate Counsel for Small and Medium Enterprises (CACC), was launched and officially sanctioned on 11 November 2016 by the China Association of Small and Medium Enterprises (CASME). The current chairman is Wang Qiang, the former vice president and legal adviser of Shandong Lushang Group. The vice chairmen are in-service, general in-house counsel with a number of listed companies.

CACC secretary-general, Fu Xiye, says in-house counsel and senior management of corporate legal affairs departments voluntarily formed this national non-profit social organization to contribute to running enterprises according to law. The CACC’s mission statement is to establish a team of legal advisers with strong abilities and political integrity, to provide well-organized functions and mutual assistance to enhance internal compliance levels and abilities with external risk prevention.

Fu sums up why there are so few associations representing in-house counsel. “Firstly, it’s hard to register,” he says. “And, compared with lawyers, in-house counsel are underemphasized. Legal affairs belong to a department of a company, not the same as a law firm specializing in legal business.

“Nor is there any single organization that separates the legal department from the enterprise, and that sets up a specialized association.” He adds that there are entrepreneur associations and business alliances for enterprises, but “the establishment of state agencies does not include the corporate legal department as an independent organization. For these reasons, in-house counsel are subject to internal control, but they also need to communicate and improve and develop, and that is why we wanted to set up this association.”

Fu says the CACC holds annual meetings including council member meetings, congresses and thematic meetings, providing assistance on various legal issues to in-house counsel. “For example, our forum entitled “One belt, one road – going out” was aimed at helping enterprises prevent risk. We have also exchanged visits with other associations of legal counsel in various provinces and cities, and discussed some common issues.

Fu-Xiye,-Secretary-General,-CACC

On top of his list for reaching out to was the ACC. “We exchanged visits with ACC at the end of March this year,” he says. “As the same type of association, we hope we can serve in-house counsel together. The ACC also introduced us to some of their current activities and charters, and we also learnt about the association’s characteristics.”

CACC accepts as members in-house counsel and senior management of corporate legal affairs from enterprises, company board secretaries, and legal risk control compliance directors, regardless of nationality, gender, age or academic qualification. The association accepts in-house counsel and public lawyers, but not lawyers from private firms.

Another China player is Fa Lao Hui, a pinyin name meaning literally “Legal Guru Club”.

“The members are general counsel from big companies, especially from global Fortune 500 companies or top Chinese companies,” says Angel Wang Yingjun, the group’s founder and president. “We organize all kinds of programmes and events regularly. Each member is strictly selected: he or she has to be a GC from either Fortune 500 companies, or the top in their industries, with a [legal] team, and who likes to help their peers.”

Fa Lao Hui operates as a company, and is legally registered. But going further and forming a legitimate organization is a much more difficult step, explains Wang. “More and more in-house counsel have talked to me and they hope Legal Guru Club can play a role as an in-house counsel organization,” she says. “But it’s so hard to register an organization under the Ministry of Civil Affairs of the People’s Republic of China. It’s almost impossible.”

In the three years since its inception in 2014, Fa Lao Hui has more than 300 members, with roughly a third from state-owned companies, a third from multinational companies, and a third from private Chinese companies, says Wang. “Some in-house counsel are not GCs, so they are not our members, but they can still participate in some of our events or programmes,” she adds. “We also open some of our events to business executives and attorneys with law firms. In three years, over 2,000 people have attended our events.”

Angel-Wang-Yingjun,-Group-Founder-and-President,-Fa-Lao-Hui

Wang says some time ago she talked to ACC’s senior vice president, Robin Grossfeld, and discussed organizing a GC forum in 2015. “We did co-operate a little bit, but did not follow up after that. We also talked about helping ACC to develop in China.” But she adds: “ACC is probably too big and too slow. Any decision, even not about any budget, would take a very long time. So we probably forgot to follow up after that.”

Fa Lao Hui’s mission is to gather high-profile legal professionals and lead China’s legal industry to the next level. The group only operates an office in Beijing, but organizes events in Beijing, Shanghai and Shenzhen regularly, with its latest GC forum held on 3-4 November.

“We also organize programmes specifically for GCs, such as visiting companies,” says Wang. “In the past three years, we have successfully visited Baidu, Alibaba, JD.com, GE, Microsoft, Tencent and Geely Auto, and next March we will visit Lenovo.

“In visiting these famous companies, we learn about their development and their legal departments. We also help GCs to connect and learn from each other.”

Wang says fundamental problems remain regarding in-house counsel in China, where the roles and responsibility lag behind elsewhere, at least for the time being.

Solutions for counsel

For Deon Wong, solutions to alliances need not be complex or adversarial. “We believe the adopted models represent a ‘best of both worlds’ approach for members,” he says. “Members retain access to local events and resources, provided by their respective chapters; yet they also gain access to insights and perspectives across trends and best practice within the global in-house sector.

“From ACC’s alliances with the ACLA in 2015, and now with HKCCA, our members have benefited from the important perspectives on doing business across the Asia-Pacific region that the association can now provide.

“From a peer-to-peer perspective, our members also have access to peer connections globally and across Asia, and additional timely, topical resources and programming on legal and business issues across the Asia-Pacific region.

“ACC members are also able to tap into new training and professional development opportunities on issues such as anti-money laundering and anti-crime and corruption measures, and governance issues relating to the Asian region.”

As a global association focused on in-house counsel, ACC prides itself in “being at the forefront of providing resources, research and industry insight specifically for the in-house profession,” he says. “We work closely with our members and partners to ensure that the resources we provide to our members are up-to-date and relevant to in-house counsel.

“With more than 30 years’ experience, ACC has represented the interests of in-house counsel around the world so we have a thorough understanding of the needs of in-house lawyers. Furthermore, we are ‘by in-house counsel, for in-house counsel’ so we respond to the needs of our members to ensure that we are providing only services that are relevant to our members.”