Episode 6: Leading Through Change in Law and Finance with Ben Bowden

From a barrister-turned-attorney in London to an in-house counsel turned COO at Standard Chartered in Singapore, to a GC at Assembly Payments - Ben Bowden’s has not only traveled across the legal spectrum but also the globe professionally.

In the latest episode of #LegalMatters, we pick his brains about the financial services industry, his wide and varied experiences working with multiple stakeholders and teams, and how he developed management skills and expertise.

Let’s dive in -


You’ve navigated through many career pivots and led multiple teams. Now after 25+ years of experience, what would you say is key to building a fulfilling career?

I think the biggest thing I’ve learned about careers is – things don’t often go to plan, and that’s fine. When I started my pupilage at a barrister’s chamber, I thought that was the only thing I wanted to do.

Instead, I took a fairly meandering path to where I am now. I moved to a law firm, then I moved countries with a different firm. After that, I switched gears to an in-house position at a bank when a good role happened to come up. I worked across a lot of different roles at the bank, and now I’m at a fintech.

I think for something long-term like a career, it’s best not to try to plan in too much detail. Specificity is fine for short-term goals, but you’ve just got no idea what the world is going to be like in 10 or 20 years’ time.

It’s OK to have an overall direction of travel, but it’s important to be flexible enough to change. You might end up getting to where you’re going via a different route. Or you might realize that you want to go somewhere entirely different.

If you’re too hung up on one particular goal, you might miss opportunities along the way.

When I was young, one of the things that attracted me to the law was that there seemed to be a defined career path. But as I’ve got older, I’ve got more comfortable with ambiguity and with not knowing exactly where I will end up. As long as you’re focused on doing a good job where you are right now, the future has a way of taking care of itself.

The other thing that I’ve found helpful is to make sure I keep learning. Where I’ve had career decisions to make I’ve tended to choose the path which will either create optionality for me in the future, or keep me learning, or preferably both.

This is becoming ever more important as industries are changing and being disrupted, and the pace of that change is increasing.

You’ve been on both sides of this change - at least in the finance sector. What do you think is the future of financial services?

The banks are facing a number of challenges right now.

I personally don’t think there is a future for the universal bank business model. Individuals and companies will continue to need banking services, but the way those are delivered, and the entities delivering them, will change.

On the consumer side, people no longer want to go to a big stone building for their banking services. They want them delivered in a convenient way over the internet. And traditional banks aren’t necessarily the best at doing that.

Perhaps some banks will be able to make that pivot effectively, but I think they will have their work cut out to compete with the big technology platforms.

I think we’ll either see banking services added to existing platforms or the emergence of super apps, like WeChat and Alipay in China. The role for traditional banks may be in the background, as infrastructure providers.

On the commercial banking side – I think you’ll see platforms that can provide one-stop-shop financial services to businesses through a single API integration. And also in areas like private wealth and investment banking you’re going to see fintech disrupting the traditional players.

That’s what’s happening right now - fintech is disrupting the banking industry. But blockchain and cryptocurrencies can create further disruptions. Eventually, the competition for everyone in traditional finance will be DeFi or decentralized finance. Right now DeFi is in its infancy, but eventually, we could see a world where everything that traditional finance does today via trusted institutions can be done better by trustless, decentralized smart contracts built on a blockchain such as Ethereum.

Having said that - is there anything you miss, from your time working in a bank?

Oh, for sure. I spent more than 12 years at Standard Chartered and I had some great times there with some fantastic people. There are challenges that come with working in a large organization, but there are advantages too. Particularly once you’ve settled in and figured out how to navigate the organization.

One benefit of working at a multinational is the range of people you get to meet, in different places. I had people reporting to me all over the world, and I really enjoyed the challenge of managing a global team.

Another good thing about being a part of a large organization, particularly from the perspective of the in-house legal team, is the level of internal resourcing and expertise that you can draw on. Small companies are not going to be able to support a large legal department.

But on the other hand, working for a smaller organization means there is a lot of hands-on experience and more freedom to act quickly.

I am the only lawyer at Assembly Payments. So, although I would typically discuss things with team members, when I make a decision I often have the freedom to put it into effect, without having to call 10 different people for approvals.

And what do you think will be the impact of technology on legal roles that we know of today?

Technology had automated blue-collar jobs before, and now it is automating white-collar professions as well. The legal industry is no different. We are already seeing a lot of process-driven tasks being automated and improved.

I’m not one of the people who think we’re going to have a crisis of joblessness because of automation. It happened many times in the past that waves of new technology have made entire occupations redundant. But every time new kinds of jobs were created. I think this time will be no different.

Law is not an occupation that is going to disappear. But the task that a lawyer performs will change. Anything that is repeatable and process-driven will increasingly get automated. This isn’t anything to be afraid of. It will free up lawyers to do the more creative, strategic, and interesting work that isn’t easy to automate.

The rise of LegalOps is a key part of this. And I think that LegalOps and legal technology will become an increasingly important part of law firms and large in-house departments.

But implementing technology also has its own expenses. In a lean legal department, how do you navigate this problem?

Legal technology is relevant irrespective of the size of your team or organization.

In a large organization or team, you try to push tasks down to the lowest level that can competently perform them. But with technology, you can instead push them into a system that not only does the work faster but also provides a solid understanding of where your time and money are invested. Then, the conversations around budgeting and resource allocation become easier.

All legal departments are being asked to do more with less, and that is particularly acute for smaller organizations with fewer resources. Technology is particularly helpful for organizations that are small but need to scale efficiently.

For example - SpotDraft helps me generate and execute contracts faster so I don’t have to spend as much time on administration. So, we will be able to 10x the number of contracts we deal with without 10x-ing the number of lawyers we have.

Also, for organizations both large and small, one of the key issues for legal departments is how they demonstrate value to the rest of the business. This has traditionally been quite difficult since not everything we do is easy to measure. But I think technology will - on the one hand, make the measurable stuff that lawyers do easier to track, and on the other, free up lawyers to do the more strategic, value-add things that may not be easy to capture in a metric.

Which is easier then? Implementing legal tech in a larger organization, or doing that in a smaller organization?

Once you are able to display the value of a tool, I think it is much easier to adopt and implement technology in startups compared to larger organizations.

At Assembly Payments, we’re a cloud-native business, and we’re used to using a variety of services from other cloud-based vendors.  If I can demonstrate internally that we have a particular problem, which can be effectively solved by plugging into a system, it’s quite easy to get the approval to do that. 

Implementation in larger organizations often takes longer, which is to be expected. And there is often a considerable volume of existing legacy tools that a new software needs to be integrable with. For larger businesses to incorporate a new platform/system into their existing ecosystem can be more difficult.

For example - when Standard Chartered set up its digital bank in Hong Kong, the solution they adopted to the problem of legacy technology was to start again from scratch. They brought in a completely new technology stack for the digital bank because they knew they would struggle to move as quickly as they wanted to if they had to build on the existing systems.

Smaller organizations don’t have that challenge to the same extent, primarily because there are not as many existing tools that the new system has to incorporate with, and partly because the decision-making process can be much shorter.

You now don the hats of both a COO and a GC. What are the challenges of handling both responsibilities at the same time?

In my case, the two hats fit quite well together. I am more of the infrastructure/risk-type COO. I have historically had experience running risk and compliance and it just made more sense for those teams to also report to me.

Most of the things that our operations team does here is around risk management, and lawyers are also ultimately risk managers. I have had compliance roles in the past, and I think the skills I gained in those roles have made me a better lawyer.

Being the sole legal authority in a company also means hiring external counsel for more strategic projects. How do you evaluate who you hire?

It is horses for courses, depending on what help I want, and in which area. But I’m ultimately looking for external counsel I can trust.

Even in very good firms, it tends to be the particular partner that I would go to. I’m looking for the best expertise in a particular area.

As a general counsel, I can’t be an expert in everything, so I need to be able to lean on the best external expertise. Also, I want to be able to trust them to get on with it. I don’t want to be reviewing every page of every document they produce. I need to trust that they can deal with the straightforward stuff, and bring anything important to me for a decision.

What advice would you give to smaller companies who are looking to hire GCs?

My first piece of advice will be to hire a lawyer earlier than later. That can bring a lot of value to your organization, especially in more regulated industries like financial services. Your GC can contribute to your growth strategy, help you avoid early pitfalls, and build a strong legal framework.

Your first legal hire is someone who will set up your legal foundation. And while experience is definitely important, you need to strongly look at the commitment they might bring to the table.

You can outsource a lot of your legal work to external counsel, but there is real value in having someone on the inside who can interpret legal advice and help the business make decisions. External counsel can tell you the law, but they can’t make the calls for you.

Often companies don’t really appreciate the value of having that expertise on the team until after they’ve hired someone, and sometimes they wish they’d done it sooner.

Perhaps take that advice with a pinch of salt, though – of course as an in-house lawyer I’m going to think that everyone should hire more in-house lawyers!

What advice would you give young lawyers starting their careers now?

There has been a lot of change since I started out as a lawyer myself. But for people starting now, the great thing is that there is a lot of scope for experimentation.

As I said earlier, the world is changing fast and no one knows what it will look like in the future.

Try different things, be flexible, and be open to changing directions. When I was starting out, I knew a lot of young lawyers who ended up deciding law wasn’t for them and had really successful careers in other areas. I always enjoyed it and have stuck with it, but everyone is different.

And within the law, there are so many different specialties and areas of expertise. Someone starting out can’t possibly know in advance what will suit them. You just need to try different things and figure out what you like doing. Then once you’ve found something you like, follow it and see where it leads.