In conversation: Stanley Park, head of legal – Asia Pacific region, Scotiabank Global Banking and Markets

Park applies his perspective as a veteran of the APAC financial sector to trends seen by general counsel
in Singapore and beyond.

GC: Can you tell me a little bit about your background, and how you came to be working in-house, in the banking sector in Singapore?

Stanley Park (SP): : I went to school in the US, and then spent a couple of years after graduating in the federal courts as a law clerk – a year in New York at the trial court and a year in Providence, Long Island at the appeal court level.

Then I spent about nine years working in two law firms in New York City. I was at Cleary Gottlieb for four years and five years at Coudert Brothers, doing mostly corporate and corporate finance.

In 2001, I moved to Tokyo to join Salomon Smith Barney, which is now part of Citigroup.

I spent about six and a half years in Tokyo – three at Solomon and about three and a half at UBS, and after that I went to Hong Kong to work as chief compliance officer for a hedge fund. But that was 2008, the year of the Lehman crisis, so the hedge fund didn’t last very long. So I went back to Tokyo, to join Barclays Global Investors, and I was general counsel until they were acquired by BlackRock. That happened shortly after I arrived there, so my tenure there was not very long either.

Then I came to Singapore, to join Daiwa Capital Markets, a Japanese broker-dealer. I stayed for three years, and then had the opportunity to join Scotia about four and a half years ago.

GC: Was it always a desire of yours to do so much travelling?

SP: My father is Korean and my mother Japanese, and I was born in the US. I had grown up living in different parts of the world – I lived in the US until I was 12, then I moved to Germany for a year, then we moved to Beirut, Lebanon. I didn’t like it very much, so after a year I went to Japan to work as a waiter – I just quit high school and went to work as a waiter in my uncle’s Greek restaurant. After a year, I came back to Beirut to continue with high school, then went back to Germany for my junior year, and then my family moved from Beirut to Vienna, so I re-joined them in Vienna for my last year of high school, before coming back to the US for university. So it is natural to live in different countries.

GC: What are the main challenges of operating in the banking sector in Singapore?

SP: Singapore is a large financial centre, but it’s still not one of the largest financial centres, so I think the challenge for Singapore is to establish itself as one of the leading financial centres in the world. Most people would admit it’s not quite in the same league as New York or London, and so that is its aspiration – to rise to the level of the true financial centres.

A lot of what gives London and New York their financial heft is the strength or the size of the economies that support them. So it’s the US economy that supports New York as a financial centre, and it’s the European economy, the EU, that really supports London as a financial centre. The economic strength of South East Asia, although considerable, is still somewhat less than North America, or the US and the EU. But it’s catching up.

GC: What is the regulatory environment like in Singapore for the financial sector?

SP: I think it’s solid, which is one of the reasons why Singapore has been as successful as it has. That’s down to a couple of things: one, the reputation of the financial regulators here in Singapore, and two, their reasonableness in dealing with financial institutions and financial problems. I think they’ve been good at maintaining a good balance in their approach to all of the major issues and problems that the financial industry faces.

GC: Has there been much regulatory change in recent years?

SP: There’s been a lot of change, I think especially after the Lehman crisis. The financial regulatory landscape has changed considerably from the G20 Summit in 2009 until the present day. Regulators have been increasingly seen to maintain good control over the financial industry, and so the regulatory framework has become stricter in various ways. Dodd-Frank, MiFID and other similar laws or regulations are some examples of the increased scrutiny that has been placed on the financial industry.

GC: Practically and culturally, what are the main challenges or oppotunities for you as a GC in Singapore?

SP: I think Singapore provides GCs with a good opportunity to gain international exposure and experience, and provides a good environment to develop their skillset and competence. That’s for various reasons: the solid regulatory framework, the international energy that comes together in the city, the respect that Singapore commands in the region and even globally, the reliability of the Singapore courts and law, the integrity of the court system and the institutions. All of this makes a good environment for GCs to thrive.

GC: Thinking about your own career, are there any highlights or achievements that you’re most proud of, over the years?

SP: I’m glad that I had substantial exposure in four major financial centres – New York, Tokyo, Hong Kong and Singapore. I also I think I’m lucky to have had the opportunity to work in different types of financial institutions – investment banks, a commercial bank, a hedge fund and an asset manager. I’ve also worked in different roles on the legal side – I’ve been a compliance officer, I’ve been in-house counsel as well as a law firm lawyer. So I’m really grateful for the opportunity to have had these different experiences and perspectives within the finance industry. That has made me a more well-rounded in-house counsel.

GC: What does your legal team look like?

SP: We currently have a lean, but highly effective legal department. Currently we have three lawyers – one who is responsible for corporate legal and secretarial, another responsible for government relations, and another for litigation respectively.

GC: On the flip side, how about challenges? Have there been any particular challenging times in your in-house career?

SP: I think that my years at law firms in New York, although they were very fruitful and helpful in developing some of the basic skills of lawyering, were very demanding. I’m glad to have made it. But you know what they say – what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. It didn’t kill me, and made me stronger!

The financial crisis, the Lehman shock, was a particularly turbulent and challenging time in my career. I have moved around quite a bit due, in large part, to some of the adjustments that had to be made as a result of the financial crisis – moving from Hong Kong back to Tokyo, and then from Tokyo to Singapore, a lot of that really had roots in the financial crisis.

GC: What did it feel like, in the midst of the financial crisis? Was there real anxiety among the people around you at that time?

SP: Sure. The anxiety was mostly as a result of uncertainty. During the very peak of the crisis, we would leave work on a Friday afternoon not knowing what the financial industry would look like the following Monday. It was no exaggeration. Major changes occurred over the weekend – for example, Merrill Lynch disappeared over the weekend and was merged with Bank of America, Bear Stearns disappeared over the weekend and was purchased by JPMorgan. Lehman disappeared over the weekend as well. Every weekend, we’d wonder what sort of backroom deals were being done at the Federal Reserve, and who would buy whom, or who would be left, or who would fall apart Monday morning. Literally, changes had occurred on two or three weekends that just rocked and shook the entire industry. It was really quite a fearful time.

There was a time when Citibank was trading at less than a dollar per share. People were wondering whether we would go broke. No one could imagine a bank like Citibank going bankrupt, at least in New York 10 years ago, but in the end, the government decided to step in and save them. But over that weekend, we didn’t know if they would. They didn’t step in and save Leman, and the way they saved Merrills was to have Bank of America buy them. Who knew what would happen next? So it was really a frantic time, mostly due to the anxiety.

GC: What are your day-to-day challenges?

SP: One of the biggest is prioritisation. A general counsel needs to prioritise the limited resources he or she has in terms of time, in terms of effort or energy, and in terms of team members, especially in this era of cost-consciousness. The amount of work or tasks at hand will always outstrip the amount of resource available, so one of the biggest and most important challenges as a GC is to prioritise among different tasks, or among different businesses, among different countries, and among different matters.

Second, a GC has to make good judgements. More than anything else, a GC has to exercise good judgement in matters small and large. Every day, every hour, we are making judgements about all sorts of things we are involved in. It could be about things as small as who to include in an email or invite to a meeting, to things as large as whether or not your bank or your company should actually start a law suit, approve a particular product, or close down an office, close down a new business or start a new business – and everything in between.

A third challenge is personal relationships. A lot of our success really depends, if not entirely then in large part, on the quality of the relationships that we have with the people we work with, both within the company that we’re working in or outside the company. We have all sorts of relationships and, at the GC level, our effectiveness depends not so much on how smart we are or how brilliant we are at writing a contract or spotting issues, it depends more on the quality of the relationships that we have. How much they trust us, how well we communicate with them, how well they communicate with us. How well we relate to outside counsel and other vendors and service providers from outside. And how effective we are at engaging with them, negotiating with them, and working with them – getting them to cooperate with us.

And then the fourth important challenge is management: managing the team, managing the businesses, managing the senior management, managing expectations, managing outside counsel.

GC: What challenges are coming over the horizon for GCs over the next year or two?

SP: I think one challenge that almost every GC faces, is how to do more with less. Increasingly, GCs are being asked to cut their budgets, to reduce their headcount or at least not to grow their headcount, but yet take time to take on a greater and greater role within their companies. The challenge is how to take on greater responsibility, perform at a higher level, and contribute more to the company with fewer resources, or at least with resources that are limited. I think part of that may be achieved through technology, but otherwise it’s left to the creativity or ingenuity of the GCs themselves to figure out how to do more with less.

The second challenge coming over the horizon is how to adapt to, and use for our own benefit and advantage, new technology. Sometimes it’s called RegTech, sometimes people refer to AI, sometimes people refer to big data. However you want refer to it, technological development is coming in and nothing is going to stop it, so the challenge for GCs is to, first, learn and understand about technology and be comfortable with it and second, to really integrate technology meaningfully into their own practices.

GC: Are you able to give any examples of how technology can help GCs?

SP: I honestly haven’t seen many clear examples of practical application of advanced technology. I’ve heard a lot of talk about it – nearly every conference I go to, every roundtable, discussion or seminar broaches, in some shape or form, RegTech, or tech, or AI, or big data.

What I’m looking for in the future is applications that will help me deal on two fronts. First, is an understanding of the black letter law in each relevant jurisdiction. I have started seeing some law firms produce websites or digital libraries of relevant legal guidance in particular subject matters. For example, aosphere (Allen & Overy) has a website that outlines all of the antecedent advice for many countries in the world, including those of APAC, with respect to cross-border data transfers. All sorts of questions. You can go online and research them. I would hope that would increase even more. That’s one way in which technology can be helpful: in providing a practically useful compendium of relevant legal guidance across different subjects, and to index it and make it user friendly.

The second would be useful help in drafting and negotiating legal documentation. I hear talk about it, especially for simpler agreements like NDAs, but I haven’t seen a whole lot yet.

People throw questions at me all the time and so I want to have some repository, some database – whether you want to call it AI or big data or whatever – that I can go to, and even ask the question orally, like Siri. ‘Please tell me whether or not I need client consent to disclose client confidential information in Hong Kong’, and it will fill out the answer. We’re definitely not there yet, but that would be in the future.

GC: Would that place law firms at the centre of that as opposed to legal tech companies?

SP: Yes.

GC: Are there any upcoming developments in the financial sector or the banking world that you’re looking out for?

SP: I think how to combine prudent risk management and risk assessment imperatives with the increasingly competitive landscape for financial institutions in Asia as well as globally, is going to be the key to success for any financial institution. The financial institution that can integrate commercial imperatives with risk management imperatives is going to be the institution that succeeds. How to define each of those imperatives is going to be important, as well as how to reconcile the imperatives, so those are the two key ingredients of successful integration. One is a clear definition of what your commercial imperatives and your risk management imperatives are, and then reasonable and creative thinking about how the two can be reconciled. It’s much easier said than done, and much easier to speak conceptually about it rather than practically but, at least conceptually, that is what needs to be done.