Michael Tropea | AIA Australia
General counsel and company secretary, Australia and New Zealand

Michael Tropea

As a member of AIA’s executive committee in Australia and New Zealand – what unique attributes do lawyers bring to this level of management?

Historically, the role of general counsel was often seen as providing constructive challenge. He or she was expected to review all new ideas with a lawyer’s healthy scepticism. This is a critical function, as it ensures that an organisation and its leadership avoid group think, and conduct a thorough and analytical review of major initiatives.

However, more recently, a general counsel’s role is seen as much broader than this. Our role is not merely to critique other people’s ideas. We are expected to be equal contributors to the organisation’s strategy and success. Here, a lawyer’s skills can really come to the fore. Lawyers naturally turn an analytical mind to an organisation’s strategic challenges. As our role naturally cuts across the organisation, we can take a holistic view, considering impacts across the various business units and shared service functions, and take an enterprise view. As lawyers, we tend to excel at collating large amounts of complex information and considering multiple stakeholders viewpoints and making it simple and usable for the business. We can also use our communication skills – both written and oral – to assist the organisation in articulating its vision to customers, employees, regulators and the community. Our traditional role as trusted adviser also helps us evolve into true partners to the business.

Having a career history that saw you practice in Hong Kong for several years, would you encourage more of your peers to take roles outside of their home countries?

Absolutely. My time in Hong Kong remains a defining feature of my career. Working outside my home country allowed me to experience different approaches to problem solving and communication. Being an international financial centre, Hong Kong exposed me to the global world of finance and commerce. At a personal level, it also transformed my networks; I retain close friends and colleagues in Hong Kong, more than eight years after I left. I would strongly recommend an overseas stint to every lawyer fortunate enough to identify the right opportunity.

You have previously elaborated on your achievements in bringing the legal department closer to business colleagues, including recognition via internal surveys as the most engaged function within your organisation. What techniques or initiatives in particular have you used to achieve this?

I believe maintaining a close relationship to the business is critical to running a successful legal team. Our team therefore embraces opportunities to work more closely with the business not only as trusted advisers, but as true business partners.

The team embraces AIA’s philosophy of “Making a Difference”, by encouraging collaboration, innovation, and a relationship-focused strategy. This culture of collaboration, curiosity and innovation has led to a diverse range of achievements as set out above. As general counsel, I maintain an open door policy and there is a culture of frank discussion and constructive challenge so as to thoroughly consider issues, work in the most efficient manner and achieve results whilst always doing the right thing.

The structure of our team reflects that of the organisation as a whole. Our titles also align with those of our colleagues in other teams. The division of the team into members supporting the major distribution channels of the company ensures that the business receives dedicated support and allows team members to focus on and understand their respective areas of the business better and strengthen relationships. There are also dedicated members working towards the completion of the acquisition of CBA’s insurance business. As the acquisition impacts all areas of the business, including but not limited to products, distribution, brand, human resources, information technology and investments, these dedicated team members work closely with other members of the legal team and all functions of the company in making sure that the acquisition will complete smoothly.

The team enjoys excellent relationships with the business and is highly regarded within the company, not just for providing technical legal advice but also for providing sound and practical counsel in general. This is supported by formal initiatives, such as participation in the organisation mentoring programme, community and social activities, and work shadowing of business units.

One of AIA’s strategic priorities is “Ease of Doing Business” and the team promotes this by innovating processes and resources to empower the business. These improved processes support the business in providing valuable services to AIA’s customers more efficiently and enhances AIA’s reputation.

You have also spoken about the various development opportunities available to your team members, either through training, exposure to other business units or other initiatives. What do you feel are the main benefits of investing in the professional development of legal team members?

The cliché really does ring true – our people are our greatest asset. Fostering talent is critical to the success of the legal team. Ultimately, the team will succeed or fail on the discretionary effort and passion of the team members. I therefore consider the professional development of team members as core to my role.

The benefits are clear. Equipping team members with the skills they need – technical and “soft” – will ensure that they provide sound legal and commercial advice to the business, develop strong relationships and enhance the brand of the team. Providing opportunities to grow flows both ways – the team member is provided challenging and exciting new work and initiatives and the organisation benefits from increased support and capability of its employees.

Providing a clear path allows team members to align their personal and career goals with the strategic and business goals of the organisation. This feeds into a virtual cycle of growth – employees enjoy their work, are more engaged and productive, provide more discretionary effort and stay longer; the increased capability and improved retention increases the organisation’s productivity and reduces costs; this in turn means that the organisation grows providing more opportunities for challenging work and career progression to its people.

Looking forward, what technological advancements do you feel will impact the role of the in-house lawyer the most?

Where I see exciting opportunities are for legal technology solutions to look outwards. This includes improved billing and cost management between law firms and in-house teams and technology to assist interactions within in-house teams and between the in-house team member and other parts of the business, particularly in different locations. This could include “DIY” services where non-lawyers in the business can access automated resources to achieve simple legal tasks without needing a lawyer, allowing lawyers to focus on the important strategic work of the organisation.

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