Interview with Jiang Wenlu, general manager, legal department of Sinochem International

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The interview is in Chinese

Managing a legal team is a test of a general counsel’s wisdom, especially in the midst of an unprecedented pandemic crisis such as the one the world faces. Jiang Wenlu, General Manager, Legal Department of Sinochem International shared his insight with us on team management

“Ihave always felt that there are many similarities with the work of lawyers and doctors. Both require a strong level of professionalism, and both are divided into many segments. For example, doctors are divided into internists and surgeons, who can be further divided into cardiologists, cardiac surgeons, neurologists, neurosurgeons, etc.

Lawyers can also be broadly divided into litigation and non-litigation lawyers, who can be further divided into lawyers of corporate affairs, capital markets, intellectual property, maritime business, etc.

There is also a commonality between the two: Not all doctors specialize in one area, as there are so-called general practitioners among them, which is the same as with lawyers.

Our company has undergone several changes in the management of in-house counsel work. Initially, we referred to the model of law firms and divided our staff into lawyers of investment and M&A, compliance, intellectual property and dispute resolution, based on their professions, and who worked on specific tasks and projects.

Over time, we found some limitations to this model. A salient issue is that the demand for legal services of the company is uneven, with demand for certain areas being high most of the time, such as corporate matters, compliance review and intellectual property, while the demand for other areas, such as investment M&A and dispute resolution, is often in a state of random flux, which is quite different from the situation faced by law firms.

Besides, this model is not conducive to the growth of in-house counsel themselves. In general, to become a specialist, it is necessary to accumulate more than 10,000 hours of effective working time in a particular field, which may not be difficult to achieve in law firms, but for a company, it is difficult to imagine that its corporate counsel focus on a certain type of legal work for a long time, which would undoubtedly be a waste of resources. It is even more difficult to imagine a company creating a specialized legal team at all costs to recruit specialists in various areas. There may be exceptions in this regard, but it is certainly not universal.

After continuous experimentation and reflection, we decided to reorganize the department with reference to the family doctor model, so that each team member will be assigned to a business unit, and become the “family doctor” who knows best and is best at serving that business unit.

Family doctors usually serve only one community, know the community well, and can resolve more than 80% of common illnesses, and if they come across illnesses they can’t handle, they will usually write a letter referring the patient to a specialist, which is a model that can be useful to the work of in-house counsel.

We require our legal staff to be able to resolve more than 80% of the legal issues in their business units and, in the event of particularly difficult legal issues, to turn to relevant outside counsel. To this end, a pool of external legal experts has been established, and is maintained and regularly updated.

At the same time, we encourage our team members to develop into versatile individuals who specialize in one area, but are also able to perform multiple roles. We provide them with resources and support for in-depth research in a particular area of expertise, combining the company’s needs with their personal interests.

This has proven to be a new way that can achieve a “win-win” situation, which enables companies to obtain tailor-made legal services, improve efficiency and save costs. It also gives legal staff with an opportunity to fully practice, and offers a broader scope for career development.

The COVID-19 pandemic has led to many restrictions, and even a stagnation of social and economic activities. The flow of people, logistics, etc., is not as smooth as usual. This poses an unprecedented challenge to the work of corporate counsel, which is highly dependent on communication and co-operation.

To overcome a series of difficulties caused by the pandemic, we are actively exploring the mode of the shared legal service centre, integrating all internal and external resources that can be mobilized throughout the group, allocating and utilizing them more rationally, and exploiting the convenience brought by new technologies such as artificial intelligence and big data, to improve the efficiency and quality of legal services.”

This interview was conducted during the CBLJ Forum at Grand Hyatt Hotel, Shanghai, on 12 November, with the theme “Seizing Cross-Border Opportunities – Managing Global Risks”. For more information about the conference and videos of the forum sessions, please visit our CBLJ Forum 2019 webpage here.