Although the COVID-19 pandemic ensured Indonesia’s GDP is expected to contract by 1 percent in 2020, Southeast Asia’s largest economy is set to bounce back strongly this year. Lawyers in the country talk about how the pandemic impacted their work, and also some of the important lessons they have taken away from this period.
At the time of writing, Indonesia’s massive vaccination drive is underway, with President Joko Widodo having been the most high-profile recipient. And the vaccine is expected to provide a much needed shot in the arm to Indonesia’s economy. The country’s GDP is expected to contract by 1 percent in 2020, according to figures from the Asian Development Bank, and then grow by 5.3 percent this year, a marginal improvement on the growth rates seen in 2018 and 2019.
“The pandemic pushed our clients into a ‘wait and see’ mode, in particular, in relation to sizeable transactions. Parties put their transactions on hold as no one knows just how long this pandemic will last.”
—Bono Daru Adji, Assegaf Hamzah & Partners
The mood, therefore, is unsurprisingly upbeat, and it is no different among lawyers, who look back on the past year as a time of resilience, adaptation, and reflection. “The pandemic pushed our clients into a ‘wait and see’ mode, in particular, in relation to sizeable trans-actions. Parties put their transactions on hold as no one knows just how long this pandemic will last,” recalls Bono Daru Adji, managing partner of Indonesia’s largest law firm Assegaf Hamzah & Partners, which is in a strategic alliance with Singapore’s Rajah & Tann. “We saw some transactions, which started before the pandemic, put on hold, while others were aborted.”
From Adji’s observation, the trans-actional/corporate practice saw the most impact. “Here we see the shift from large transactions to various advisory services, ranging from termination of contracts, to force majeure related cases,” he notes. “Our ability to quickly shift gear ensures that we can continue to work with our clients in navigating these unprecedented times. Even when we are not providing advisory services, we remain on standby mode, ensuring that we are ready to go when our clients are. Throughout these times, we understand our clients’ financial situation and put our best efforts to continue assisting our clients.”
Iril Hiswara, managing partner of Hiswara Bunjamin & Tandjung (HBT), which operates in association with Herbert Smith Freehills, says that there was “pleasingly” little impact on work levels. “Our staff have coped magnificently, and our clients quickly adjusted to online deal-making and hearings too. Despite ongoing lockdowns, we saw many types of deals restart mid-year, and some deals that were ongoing when the pandemic hit still completed on time,” he observes. “Moving to remote working was easier than we thought, and we supported staff with PPE, testing, networking and support resources online, as well as more practical support around IT equipment and out-of-office printing.”
Despite the pandemic, there a big uptick in tech-related deals and investments, says Vik Tang, senior international counsel at HBT. “Some [of this was] borne out of necessity as the pandemic affected some business models, but also as companies responded by accelerating tech transformation for all types of businesses, following recent regulatory changes,” he notes. “We’re seeing strong investor appetite for these kinds of deals, especially in e-commerce and fintech, such as online payment platforms.”
On the disputes side, the pandemic impacted all work that required attend physical hearings, including courts, arbitration, and investigations, according to Narendra Adiyasa, partner and head of dispute resolution at HBT. “Courts will close for several days if a case is confirmed, but are generally operating as usual. There is very limited use of e-court applications – even with e-court filings, the hearings are largely still conducted in physical settings,” he says. “Criminal investigations and dawn raids continue – most investigation inter-views are being conducted through physical meetings although we have seen some virtual interviews. Virtual hearings were already more common in international arbitration, and we had one local arbitration conducted virtually.”
Adji points to two clear positives from the pandemic period. “Working from home was definitely a highlight as it allows our team to work more efficiently and at the same time, we were able to cut down costs for the clients,” he says. “The second highlight is technology as in terms of service, we were able to fully appreciate and utilise the available technology to build a closer relationship with our clients, for example by holding webinars – whether tailored to clients’ specific needs or general. As opposed to physical meetings, we can hold webinars more frequently and reach a wider audience – some of our webinars were open to all the clients’ employees.”
David Dawborn, senior international counsel at HBT, has similar feelings. “The bright side was the staff’s magnificent response which allowed us to move fully online in only a few days. That includes our business teams, who have gone above and beyond in providing supporting systems, equipment, and office services,” he says. “The drive to stay in touch remotely has actually upgraded our communication with staff and clients, and there are lessons from this experience that we will use even as we return to normal. Keeping in regular touch with clients – even just for casual check-ins – has helped everyone involved, personally and professionally.”
Dawborn adds that since everyone has been affected globally, including clients, and the common purpose has helped build even stronger personal relationships. “Our smooth move to online execution and advice may even strengthen and help expand our client base, post-pandemic,” he says.
Adji agrees that the pandemic brought lawyers closer to our clients and in many instances, the firm went beyond providing just legal services. “We expect this trend to continue and our relationship to evolve as we weather not only the pandemic, but also major changes in Indonesia’s regulatory landscape. Our clients know that we always appreciate their trust and support, and this will always be expressed by us in year-end thank you notes to all of them. Their trust and commitment allow us to deepen the existing relationship,” he says.
So, what were the key lessons learnt for lawyers during this period? For Adji at AHP, it was first to remain agile and embrace technology. “Second, to further develop our crisis management team, which is available to the clients going forward,” he observes. “Lastly, to consistently check our team’s wellbeing, as during WFH our team members generally worked harder but have lesser chance to social life. We believe that well-being is the main factor that will allow us to deliver first-class legal service.”
Hiswara at HBT says that one must care for, support, and trust their people first, then encourage them to pay that care forward to clients. “In complex and stressful times, keep people focussed on the simple mechanics of our busi-ness- winning, doing and completing the work to support the client. Keeping it simple both acknowledges and relieves the stress on all of us at this time,” he adds.
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