Japanese investment group SoftBank is betting big on artificial intelligence. Late last year, its chief executive Masayoshi Son predicted the next decade would see rapid advances in the power of AI to complete a wide range of cognitive tasks.

“Saying ‘don’t use AI’ is like saying, ‘don’t drive a car or use electricity’,” said Son, as he exhorted an audience of Japanese corporate clients to “take advantage of it — or be left behind”.

Already, the scale of the ambition and the speed at which generative AI is developing is raising the stakes for many in-house lawyers.

“The general counsel now has to be the one that says yes or no to potentially massive amounts of risk around whatever it is that the AI and generative AI has produced,” says Tim Mackey, SoftBank’s chief legal officer.

“It’s evolving so fast that you need to have at least a rudimentary understanding of the tech to be able to explain to people why they can’t use it, or why we shouldn’t invest,” he explains. “Now, I have to be an AI expert.”

Generative AI in the form of large language models is proving particularly suitable for legal work, given there is so much transacting on words and language. As a result, it is starting to affect the way legal teams work in each innovation category covered in the 2024 Financial Times Innovative Lawyers Asia-Pacific report. For example, it is changing how DBS Bank tracks suspected money laundering and fraud. And excitement over its potential was an important factor in the successful flotation of SoftBank’s chip designer, Arm, as an “AI stock” last September.

Legal teams are now investing further in AI training and experimenting with new tools to improve efficiency.

Concerns over the potential dangers of the new technology also have implications for responsible business practices, an important and growing part of many legal teams’ remit in business. SoftBank’s Mackey says: “The legal team is now working on due diligence questions to guide future AI investments.”

In-house legal teams at banking and financial services groups make up five of the top 10 in this year’s list, including this year’s winner, at DBS Bank. Those banking and financial services lawyers are also experimenting with, or piloting, the use of generative AI.

DBS is currently customising an AI tool to write reports on tracking suspicious transactions, as part of its anti-money laundering efforts.

The bank’s head of legal and compliance, Chee Kin Lam, says initial results suggest this could save 30 per cent of the time and resources spent on this task.

Top 10 innovative in-house legal teams Asia-Pacific 2024

Winner* DBS Bank

Asian Development Bank
Boston Consulting Group
Hong Kong Exchanges and Clearing
SoftBank Group

* “Winner” of the FT Innovative Lawyers award for “Innovative in-house legal team in Asia-Pacific”. Other organisations are listed alphabetically

However, he adds an important caveat: “Clearly, these estimates will be impacted because we will always have a human in the loop, given this [use] has so much risk.”

For many legal teams, the focus is not yet on delivering greater efficiency and savings today, but on preparing the groundwork for adopting AI in the near future. 

Susan Sayers, regional general counsel at HSBC, says the legal team is focused on experimentation and getting used to the technology. “We’re trying to bring about a culture change,” she says. “A lot of what we’re doing now — digitising the provision of the legal service — is standing us in good stead and preparing us well for ultimately adopting [generative] AI.”

Lam describes today’s generative AI as akin to having “an infinite supply of 15-year-old students, who also happen to be really good writers”. But he adds: “Tomorrow, it’s going to be an infinite supply of 19-year-old undergraduates. And, after that, it’s going to be an infinite supply of first-year lawyers, postgraduates, then five-year [post-qualification] lawyers.”

Views differ on how fast the technology can be practically developed and applied, but many in-house legal teams are keen to adapt and keep pace with the rest of the business. South-east Asian ecommerce site Lazada, a subsidiary of Alibaba, last year rolled out a series of AI-enabled tools to customers and sellers. The legal team also used generative AI — for example, to speed up contract reviews and to identify common risks.

Gladys Chun, general counsel at Lazada, says that, for her team to prepare for the future, “there are new skills and capabilities that we need to confront and be honest about and start building”. She adds that some organisations dedicated to AI “have job descriptions I’ve never heard before”.

HSBC, DBS Bank and Boston Consulting Group feature in these pages for their efforts to build new digital skills within their in-house legal teams.

But the rush to embrace the latest in AI is matched by growing fears among lawyers and other professionals that their own roles are under threat.

DBS’s legal and compliance team is addressing the fear of job losses head-on. “We want everybody to experiment with it — and you won’t participate if you think that your job’s on the line,” argues Lam.

“We’ll find a way to get the organisational efficiency, but the best human results are unlikely to come from a threat of large-scale retrenchments.”

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2024. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window) CommentsJump to comments section

Follow the topics in this article