Legal Week Corporate Counsel Forum: Pro Bono and Community Service for In-house Counsel

by Annie Tang in Pro Bono

DatePosted on July 06, 2016 at 09:30 PM
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Star Anise Recruitment is delighted to have sponsored the Legal Week’s annual Corporate Counsel Forum at the Renaissance Harbourview Hotel in Wanchai in Hong Kong ever since its inaugural event in 2011. 

At this year’s event on 23 June 2016, I moderated a panel of General Counsel speakers for the second year in a row. Both of these panels were very well received on the basis of relevancy of content and speaker quality.

This Year’s Topic

For many in-house counsels, one of the key reasons they pursued a career in law was to ‘help' people. As an extension of helping people, lawyers are considering pro bono or community service opportunities, however, they may be deterred from offering pro bono assistance due to perceived challenges. In Star Anise Recruitment’s panel discussion, the speakers shared some ‘real-life stories’ on how they overcame these challenges and how they are utilising their legal skills outside of their day-time careers whilst further enriching their own lives in the process.

This Year’s Speakers

The panel that I moderated consisted of the following speakers (image below):

The Pro Bono In-house Lawyer's panellists, moderated by Annie Tang of Star Anise Legal (centre).  (L-R) Tse-Wei Ng, Astor Chan, Annie Tang, Vanina de Verneuil, Douglas Silin

Star Anise Recruitment involved in first Pro Bono Legal Topic in Hong Kong

Stephen Man, APAC General Counsel of Uber was the Chairman of the day’s event and noted that of all the many conferences he has attended over the years in Hong Kong, this was the first time he had ever attended one on the topic of pro bono and community service and he commended Star Anise Recruitment on our originality and innovation in bringing this lively topic to the conference.

A Little More about the Speakers

Vanina de Verneuil

When she was in private practice, Vanina was selected by her law firm, Shearman and Sterling, to provide pro bono legal assistance to the United Nations in relation to the Rwanda Genocide (Tanzania).  She was selected 3 times to assist the prosecution team where the media was on trial for inciting hatred to create genocide.  Since then, she has been involved in other United Nations work and is also currently speaking with NGOs such as Liberty Asia to provide legal assistance.

Tze-wei Ng

Tze-wei started off her legal career as a corporate lawyer.  Tze-wei is now championing pro bono work amongst the in-house community by matchmaking pro bono lawyers with organizations requiring such assistance. 

Douglas Silin

Throughout his legal career, Doug has long been involved in providing pro bono assistance to individuals in need. Apart from being an in-house Counsel for Western Union, he is also a Director of The Mekong Club, a non-profit association of private sector companies developing solutions to eradicate slavery from their business. He also provides input from a legal perspective to residents of his building and teaches yoga to Indonesian domestic helpers.

Astor Chan

Astor is passionate about helping the elderly and is an active member of her Church which provides schools and other education facilities to the underprivileged.  She is able to contribute her legal skills to assisting the 20+ strong legal committee of the Church.  She gave up her senior in-house counsel role at Ralph Lauren and set up her own consultancy called Asteria Consultancy so that she could dedicate quality time to helping the elderly.

Perceived Challenges to Providing Pro Bono or Community Service

Below is a summary of the perceived challenges raised by the in-house counsels during the Panel discussion:

Juggling Time

As everyone knows, in Hong Kong, there is always something going on; whether it is related to work (long hours/all nighters or weekend work), family or friends, social or otherwise.  It may therefore seem inconceivable to find or make time to provide meaningful pro bono or community service.  However, the speakers spoke about how important it is to make time to carry out such service and where appropriate, even included their families and friends in the activities.  Time management as well as project management skills are key attributes to being successful on all fronts.

Languages

Although one of the speakers, Doug, didn’t have relevant languages, he was able to play a key part in his Cantonese speaking building committee/management disputes as well as to deliver yoga teaching to Indonesian domestic helpers. Hence, languages should not be seen as a barrier to the ability to providing community service. 

Technical Skills

Project management skills and the ability to learn quickly are recognized as key attributes of an in-house lawyer.  These were seen as more key than technical skills. For example, Vanina was a corporate M&A/IPO lawyer, yet, she was able to play a key role in providing pro bono advice in a criminal prosecution even though it could not be any more different from her day job.  Tze-wei was also a corporate lawyer prior to joining PILnet.

Emotional Attachment

The speakers are sometimes involved in pro bono work where the subject matter is highly emotionally charged (for example, matters relating to genocide, violence, abuse and slavery).  They emphasized that the suffering of others didn’t deter them from helping others but that in order to stay focused (and just as lawyers are trained to do), it was best to emotionally detach yourself from any horror in order to do your best to help the suffering parties. 

Professional Indemnity Insurance/Risk

As the speakers were passionate about the causes, they provided pro bono and community service without being concerned about protecting themselves against liability until I asked if this was a concern.  For the speakers, they got involved from the “heart” and were not considering what risks they would be incurring.   However, they did acknowledge that if there was a large scale matter, they could pair up with a law firm in Hong Kong which could cover their professional liability if necessary.  Doug mentioned that in most cases you would be helping the most vulnerable and poor members of society and they would not have the resources to take out a legal suit for professional negligence. And even if they did take legal action against you, you probably deserved to be sued! 

Regulatory Matters

Vanina mentioned that whilst speaking with NGOs, they mentioned that the Law Society of Hong Kong objected to in-house lawyers (who didn’t hold local practicing certificates) providing pro bono advice.  However, there are ongoing discussions between NGOs and the Law Society about how this can be resolved.  Indeed, the Law Society has set up a pro bono committee presumably to consider this matter further.

Which Charities/NGOs?

Given that there is a minefield of charities/NGO’s and time restrictions, I asked the speakers how in-house lawyers could decide which ones to focus on giving pro bono/community service.  The speakers emphasised that this is where it is crucial to devote time to a cause that you are passionate about helping.

Uber Apac General Counsel Stephen Man noted this was the first time he'd seen pro bono discussed at an in-house legal conference

Professional Benefits of being Active in Pro Bono Matters

The speakers were clearly passionate about the causes they supported/provided advice to and did not set out to do it for their professional advancement.  Indeed, in giving back to society, they felt that they advanced themselves on a personal level. However, even if unintentional, they increased their network as they were able to meet senior professionals and management of other organizations and professional profile. Vanina mentioned that she had seen in a recent published poll that the top 5 General Counsels in the USA had all been credited with being highly active in pro bono matters on their resumés.

Star Anise Recruitment’s Own Pro Bono and Community Service Experience

  • I have personally undertaken a few community service initiatives with my family and friends. I have also previously volunteered and sat on the Law Society’s organizing committee in an annual Family Fun Day event.  
  • Chris Tang has written articles highlighting the pro bono work of law firm solicitors for Justice Centre Hong Kong. 
  • Star Anise Recruitment also advertised a job for an NGO on a pro bono basis from which the NGO was able to hire a lawyer. 
  • Star Anise Recruitment annually supports the annual Box of Hope initiative (http://boxofhope.org/home/main/en/). 
  • Star Anise Recruitment has also implemented its own paper and plastic recycling program.
  • Star Anise Recruitment has sponsored this important topic at Legal Week’s Corporate Counsel Forum 2016.

If you would like to know more about pro bono law or community service initiatives, please do not hesitate to contact me (annie.tang@staranise.com.hk) and I can connect you with relevant contacts or organisations.

We'd love to hear your stories of participation in pro bono matters and community service, feel free to share in the comments section below your experiences and any challenges you have personally faced. 

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About the Author

Annie Tang

Annie is a co-Managing Director of Star Anise and a former practising Hong Kong lawyer.  

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