General counsel at PwC Thailand and the Mekong Region, Sahachai Wibuloutai has distinguished himself as M&A and legal department transformation specialist over the course of his meteoric career. In this interview with Asia Law Portal, he explains how he get inspiration to establish The THAI Corporate Counsel Association (THAI-CCA) as the first formal corporate counsel association in Thailand. And how the legal transformation could transform the business and legal community for the better.
You are Founder and Co-President of the THAI Corporate Counsel Association. Tell us more about the organization.
Unlike many other jurisdictions where corporate counsel communities are long-establish and advancingly develop. There was no formal corporate counsel association in Thailand that brought in-house lawyers together. The first question that came to my mind: why don’t we have one?
Found on 23 February 2023 with a group of general counsels with similar minds. And in-house lawyers from various industries, the THAI Corporate Counsel Association (THAI-CCA) is the country’s first formal corporate counsel organization. And use as a public forum for sharing knowledge, practical experiences, legal innovations, best practices, career and professional development opportunities. As well as legal industry trends and market development.
According to our initial operating plan as a non-profit professional organization, The THAI-CCA activities will be into three categories. (i) The Academy – to upskill in-house lawyers’ capabilities by organizing educational, thought-leadership led and professional development seminars. (ii) The Network – to bring all in-house lawyers based in Thailand together. And connect them with a wider network of in-house lawyers from the ASEAN countries. And to promote friendly and supportive relationships both at personal and organizational levels. (iii) The Community – to promote professional quality and ethical standards, to share career opportunities. And develop the next generation of in-house lawyers. And to build a collaborative in-house legal community.
During the set-up phase, Dr. Tanit Follett and myself will be acting as Co-Presidents. He will manage the THAI-CCA under the supervision of the Advisory Board. So far, the THAI-CCA establishment responding positively by our legal community. With immense support from leading law firms as sponsors and knowledge partners. They are Chandler MHM, Herbert Smith Freehills, Kudun & Partners and Tilleke & Gibbins. We also appreciate the warm welcome by corporate counsel alliances in the region. It includes The Singapore Corporate Counsel Association (SCCA) and The Association of Corporate Counsel (ACC). They will guide us through the journey of community formalization and participation in the regional and global corporate counsel alliances.
Whilst many tasks required for setting-up The THAI-CCA are still a work-in-progress, we plan to organize a few major events this year to bring Thai in-house lawyers together. It will promote awareness among other legal communities and keep up with the regional and global trends.
Our first event will happen in June 2023, the inaugural GC Powerlist Thailand. It is in collaboration with The Legal 500 as the official launch of The THAI CCA. This internationally renowned accolade will recognize the importance of the Thai legal market. Along with the nation’s most influential and innovative corporate counsels who drive the legal business forward. In collaboration with law firms, knowledge partners and law schools in Thailand, we also plan to organize an annual law conference, seminars. And soft-skill training for in-house lawyers. Some activities will also be extended to law students and recent graduates. Who wish to pursue a career in the corporate counsel profession.
A message to all in-house lawyers based in Thailand: I’d like to invite you to register your membership today to get free access to our member-only activities. The THAI-CCA does not plan to collect any membership fee for the time being. At least for the next few years. As we’re studying operating models, membership benefits and what would work best for the Thai corporate counsels. We should have everything in place when the THAI-CCA is ready to fully operate as an incorporated professional organization.
You are also Regional General Counsel, Mekong Region, for PwC. Tell us more about this role:
In 2018, I joined PwC as a senior manager in the Mekong Office of General Counsel (Mekong OGC). I was covering the territories of Thailand, Cambodia and Laos. We collaborate closely with PwC Malaysia and PwC Vietnam as Southeast Asia Peninsula (SEAPEN) region. A year later, I get promotion as Director and General Counsel of Mekong OGC. I was assuming the role of my predecessor who retired from the firm. Generally speaking, my role is to solve the firm’s important problems. It includes managing strategic transactions; legal and compliance; government affairs. Along with technology, information security and privacy risk management as well as resolving disputes and troublesome practice matters. In 2020, I was assigned to take an additional role as an interim Data Protection Officer. I need to set up the firm’s DPO function, and structuring. And implementing the firm’s PDPA compliance program for the Mekong firms.
In addition to my GC role, I also support the Asia Pacific NewLaw practice in building and promoting the firm’s NewLaw service capabilities in Thailand. This is quite an exciting role as legal innovation and legal technology are relatively new to the Thai in-house community. And the adoption rate of legal tech solutions by Thai corporate legal departments is quite low. I hope that by promoting the awareness of legal innovation and the urgent need for legal transformation globally, the Thai legal departments in Thailand will be more efficient and productive. Comparable to those in more advanced jurisdictions like Australia, Hong Kong and Singapore.
What unique challenges and opportunities do corporate counsel face in Thailand?
Based on the number of nearly 100,000 lawyers (excluding non-licensed legal professionals and foreign-admitted lawyers), I was quite surprised to know that Thailand is home to the third largest legal community in the Asia Pacific region (ranked after India and China). Over the past decade, the Thai legal community kept growing significantly in size and impact. It is due to the rapidly changing business environment and the increasing demand of legal services. From my observation, the size of Thailand’s in-house community does really matter as it suggests significant market opportunities for local and international law firms, ALSPs, alternative dispute resolution platforms and legal technology vendors.
According to ACC’s 2023 CLO Survey, investment in legal operations remains the top strategic priority for legal departments. And contract management remains the top tech area in which CLOs plan to invest. Similarly, it has also become an obvious trend in Thailand that many leading companies in all industry sectors are willing to invest more in improving the technical capability and efficiency of their internal legal functions by hiring senior lawyers from top law firms as their full-time GCs.
However, many companies are still uncertain about “how” to improve the legal operations efficiency. I found from the past decade of my in-house experience that the majority of Thai corporate legal departments are still unfamiliar with the term “legal operations”. As well as legal innovation and legal technology available in the global market. As far as I know, no legal department in Thailand has hired a legal operation professional and the Contract Lifecycle Management (CLM) tools have not been adopted or implemented by any legal departments in Thailand. Despite the fact that legal operations and CLM are strategic areas in which corporate legal departments plan to invest.
That’s why I came up with the idea that Thailand needed an in-house community forum. Where we can regularly share legal industry trends, constantly promote the awareness and importance of legal operations. And timely bring legal innovations to the organizations to improve the way we deliver internal legal services to the business.
You previously served in corporate counsel roles within the commercial aviation sector. Tell us about these roles.
Thanks to Mark Hanley at BOC Aviation (as a client of Clifford Chance Thailand in 2014), he referred me to discuss my first GC role with Nok Air, the second largest LCC in Thailand at the time. I was fortunate to work closely with Boeing, aircraft lessors, partner airlines and aviation law firms across the Asia Pacific region. During my time at Nok Air, I worked on a significant transaction in the airline industry where eight low-cost carriers (i.e., Nok Air, Scoot, NokScoot, Cebu Pacific, Vanilla Air, Tiger Air Singapore, Tiger Air Australia and Jeju Air) established the “Value Alliance” as the world’s first officially established LCC alliance.
A year later, I was invited to assume a GC role at Thai AirAsia where my team proactively managed and successfully closed the Japanese Operating Lease with Call Option (JOLCO) financing, which marked the first JOLCO transaction in Thailand. This transaction made Thai AirAsia legal team as one of the most influential and innovative legal teams in Southeast Asia!
You are a law instructor and have spoken and written a great deal about corporate legal practice. Tell us more about this.
In 2016, Thammasat University Law School invited me to be a part of the panel speakers comprising representatives from the judiciary, public prosecution, private practice and in-house counsel to share the story of our careers with first-year law students. Unlike the former generations of law students, the new generation seemed to pay special attention to career opportunities at law firms and corporations and they were not afraid to ask a question or meet the instructor after class. After my first story-telling session, I got positive feedback from many students and I did not expect that the session would inspire many law students to pursue their career in the private practice and corporate counseling. Ever since, I’ve been invited as an adjunct instructor and guest speaker for several other law classes and seminars, including Legal Practice Course, Legal Methodology, Presentation Skills for Lawyers.
During my time as a senior corporate M&A associate at Clifford Chance Thailand, I was an author and editor of Clifford Chance’s international publications including M&A Guide 2012-2013 and Cross-Border Acquisitions Guide 2012-2013, and some industry-specific client briefing e.g., Telecommunications Update: NBTC’s Foreign Dominance Regulations (October 2012); Anti-Money Laundering Law Update: ‘Response to FATF’ (February 2013) and ‘From Dark Grey to Grey’ (February 2013); and Essential Tips for Successful Investment (February 2014).
I was inactive during the pandemic but I do hope to speak and write more about legal innovation and legal transformation. Please follow our THAI-CCA page on LinkedIn for more updates.
What are your hopes for the future of the THAI Corporate Counsel Association?
I’m hoping in the next few years, we can bring all active GCs and corporate counsels based in Thailand together. And we’ll have a complete register of all members. I’m sure many people are curious to know how many Thai and foreign corporate counsels are based in Thailand. Law firms and law event organizers can simply collaborate with us in organizing knowledge-sharing or networking events. This will make our legal community more connected and active.
The THAI-CCA will not only be a voice of our in-house legal profession but also be an ear to actively listen to our fellow corporate counsels, to unload problems we’re facing, and to solve those problems together (you’re not alone!). As the role of corporate counsel is evolving, The THAI-CCA is hoping to be a formal community of solvers where members are coming together in innovative ways to solve important problems for the business and the society. As of today, The THAI-CCA is only a few months old so let’s see where we are in the next few years.