From Legal to Business: How To Turn A Setback Into An Opportunity
Looking for a strategic career switch? Are you at risk of being ‘re-structured’ out? In this exclusive interview, hear first-hand from Diana The, Director of Business Operations and Strategy at Aon on how she unexpected landed the role after 10+ years in legal practice. Find out how she leveraged a company restructuring to her advantage, how to be an influence beyond your job-scope, and why it’s so important to keep learning!
- Could you share with us your career trajectory in a nutshell?
My legal career started out quite typically: going into private practice after getting called to the bar in the UK and then in Singapore. While I wanted to start my career stint in a corporate department within a law firm, unfortunately, at the time I came out into the workforce, it was right smack in the middle of the Asian Financial Crisis in 1997. Companies were prioritising recovering their debts, rather than establishing new operations. As such, I started out my legal career as a litigation lawyer and stuck with it for the next 5.5 years.
Subsequently, I moved to a mid-size law firm and made a switch to corporate and funds work for the next 5 years.
After working in private practice for 10.5 years, I landed my first in-house role as a general counsel with a Private Equity firm, Harmony Capital, back in 2007. It was one of the most memorable work experiences that I had, especially when it also involved going through a Global Financial Crisis in 2008. We had to conduct a very complicated restructuring exercise involving the funds that we were managing to avoid any panicked sell-off of our underlying investments which were still valuable. I was dealing with investor communications at the time, whilst working with external lawyers to restructure our funds.
In 2010, I was headhunted to be the Head of Legal and Company Secretary at Eastspring Investments (Singapore) Limited, the Asia asset management arm of Prudential PLC, where I was responsible for establishing the legal department during my 3.5 years at Eastspring. This further broadened my legal experience from alternative investments to traditional fund management as well.
From January 2014 onwards, I then joined Aon as Chief Counsel to cover the Asia-Pacific, Middle East & Africa regions. Together with my team of lawyers based in Sydney and Shanghai, I oversaw legal services in support of Aon’s Retirement Solutions across 12 countries in APAC. I also became part of the specialised legal team to support Aon Securities globally – their investment banking arm providing insurance clients with investment advisory services.
Finally, I did an interesting career switch earlier this year – pivoting from the legal side to Director of Business Operations and Strategy for Asia, a newly created role for their Retirement and Health Solutions.
- Share with us a memorable time as a private practice lawyer before moving in-house!
There are so many memorable moments – both good and bad – built in my career as a private practitioner across the 10.5 years I’ve been there.
Perhaps some highlights include my time as a litigator when I found that I was in my element – there was, in fact, one year where I did not lose a single hearing! There is that sense of achievement and instant gratification the moment you step out of court knowing you have won a case!
In contrast, as a corporate lawyer in a law firm – working on IPOs and setting up of funds – feeling that one gets after completing a project is more a sense of relief! That’s because it is more of a marathon – you would have spent a long time and much energy on a project, going through each nitty-gritty detail to ensure it is completed without any incident.
However, as a result of spending long hours with my clients (especially the board and management), and investment bankers, there are some real friendships forged! Despite having left private practice in 2007, I am still in touch with most of those contacts that I had established, and we meet up occasionally for a meal or a drink.
- How has moving in-house changed your perspective on your role as a Legal Counsel? (e.g any myths debunked?)
I think a big myth that needs to be debunked is that the working hours are more manageable.
It really depends on the working environment that you are in and the kind of projects that you are working on as an in-house lawyer.
I have worked on cross-border projects which required me to stay up late on conference calls and to turn legal documentation around at very short notice. Your time can be dictated by the strategic nature of the projects that you are working on. Whilst one might think that an in-house lawyer gets the “benefit” of being covered by external lawyers, they will only be highlighting to you the pros and cons relating to various risks while the ultimate decision lies with you as the in-house lawyer.
To be an effective in-house lawyer, you should be proactive in recommending to your internal stakeholders the course of direction to take, having balanced the risks against the commercial merits upon a thorough analysis of the interests of the organisation that you work with. There is no point simply parroting what your external legal advisers have set out in a legal opinion to you.
- What advice would you give to someone who is aspiring to move from private practice to in-house?
Previously, I was disappointed that I could not land a role in the corporate department within a law firm and instead having to start my legal career as a litigation lawyer. However, on hindsight, I believe my litigation experience gave me the necessary skills to deal with any sort of crisis and risks which was needed in my in-house roles. If you have never worked for a few years in private practice, going straight to an in-house role could be rather daunting, as you would not have the experience to handle and deal with a variety of business scenarios.
Of course, if you are lucky to be part of a large in-house legal team with other experienced seniors to guide you, that would be a great starting point.
Nonetheless, in the first two in-house roles that I landed in, I count myself fortunate to have been the first lawyer that the organisation has hired to help establish their legal and compliance functions – it was indeed invaluable experience!
I believe that as an in-house lawyer, especially one in a senior position, it is no longer sufficient to operate in your own silo, hiding in a corner poring through legal documents or just simply being “the lawyer” of the company. With your wealth of working experience, you have so much to contribute to the organisation, such as being a mentor to your younger colleagues, being visible beyond into your network, and to promote what you personally value most in terms of principles and beliefs.
- How did you make the switch from Deputy Global Counsel to now the Director of Business Operations and Strategy in Aon?
How I made the switch actually came about from an unexpected turn of events within the legal department in Asia, when a decision was made to consolidate the legal department into a shared service model. As such, my role as Chief Counsel was effectively made redundant.
While it appeared to be a setback, I took it as a welcome change, as during my 5 years as Chief Counsel, I had always been looking for opportunities to take on fresh challenges and learn new areas of business. From my vantage point as Chief Counsel, I could already see many potential synergies between the businesses that Aon covered. As a result, even before my switch, I had already started acting as the connector and business enabler whilst simultaneously managing legal risks across the different lines of business for Asia.
I believe it was my ability to network and connect which led to the Global CEOs and APAC colleagues to recognise and support my shift to a more strategic role within the business.
As such, within 10 days of my role as Chief Counsel being made redundant, I was confirmed and appointed into my current role as Director of Business Operations and Strategy for Asia to supporting two solution lines for Aon.
- Finally, any advice you give to professionals whom are looking to make a career switch?
Based on my personal experience, it was about having the right perspective and treating every closed door as a strategic re-direction! I converted what one would regard as an unlucky turn of events (the role redundancy) into an opportunity to make that career switch, which I would never have dreamt of in my 20 over years of legal career!
Due to the fast-changing nature of the economy, you need to be adaptable and willing to take risks to make that switch.
It is so vital to keep learning and not stay stagnant! For professionals, in particular the lawyers, if you think you can continue doing what you do for the rest of your legal career, you will be taken over by digital technology in this rapidly-evolving world. If you think you can spew out legal principles at your business colleagues without tailoring the legal advice to suit the organisation’s business needs, you are certainly not adding any value!
What you really should view your role as is to be a trusted business partner, not merely a support function to the business.
While it has been a great honour to be listed twice by Legal 500 as being one of the top general counsels in South East Asia, I believe it is an even greater achievement to be recognised by top business leaders and to have played a strategic role in an established global organisation! While I am happy to have been recognised for my professional capacity, being able to impact others beyond it has been very fulfilling.
This is not to say that you completely throw away the knowledge and experience that you have gained in your current profession. Such knowledge will remain your core strength, but it should not be a limitation – instead, it should be your differentiating factor, even as you move into a new capacity.