GC Spotlight: Tom Thomas, General Counsel, Agoda.

Tom Thomas is the General Counsel at Agoda, a global travel booking platform. He created Agoda’s global legal function from scratch to deal with issues facing the growing online travel sector, especially during the pandemic. He tells us more about his role in this episode. Let's get into it...

1. Hi Tom! Tell us a little about your role at Agoda and what excites you outside of work.

I am the General Counsel at Agoda, a leading online travel platform based in Asia and owned by Booking Holdings, Inc. (NASDAQ: BKNG). As GC, I am responsible for the legal function which supports the business in areas such as data privacy, commercial, contracting, corporate, antitrust, litigation, labor law, product, fintech, compliance, IPR and corporate governance and everything else legal. The department is structured according to specialist areas, and we also have regional counsel supporting specific markets. Prior to joining Agoda, I was in-house counsel for Huntsman Corporation, an MNC in chemicals in Brussels and Singapore. I started my career at Linklaters Brussels (with a stint in London and even a short secondment to another firm in Mumbai). I am currently based in Bangkok, one of Asia’s most vibrant cities.

Outside of work, I have developed a passion for food & wine. I try to stay fit by going swimming (great refreshing exercise in a tropical climate!) or do an occasional bike ride around Bangkok airport where there is a very well organised bike lane open to all. Travel of course, is a passion, and I cannot wait for all restrictions to be lifted, both on a professional and personal level. I am the proud father of three children (2 boys and 1 girl), who have coped remarkably well with the different pandemic restrictions and online learning during the lockdowns.

2. What have been your biggest challenges during the pandemic?

Not being able to travel was a challenge, both professionally and privately. In addition, the department had to adapt to work from home but this worked out quite well all things considered. The main challenge felt was not being able to connect in person with people – both with friends, family, and in a professional setting. Nothing beats personal interactions, including “watercooler” chats outside of the more formal meetings.

To ensure I was still connecting with my teams and offering some support, I did a regular “work from home check-in”, outside of regular meetings, just to connect with my team where any updates (personal or professional) could be shared and any topic discussed. I wanted to make sure we didn’t lose the semblance of normalcy in our days and we still found a way to keep a good work culture and the old Agoda office spirit alive.

In one of the better sessions, my team came up with an impressively long list of “WFH tips & tricks”, compiled from each individual. It was a fun, interactive and eye-opening session, the variety of ideas shared definitely helped me in a few ways as well. What’s even better, we ended up sharing some of the better feedback with the People team who then included it in a wider dissemination company wide. It was a great way of connecting and helping each other through this difficult period.

Zoom fatigue was a huge factor too. What was interesting to see is how certain people seemed to thrive in the remote setting whereas others struggled more. As a leader the challenge lied in balancing the two characteristics and finding a way to keep teams motivated and sane. Several people did come into the office, in line with local guidelines.

3. What are your key priorities for the year?

Growing the team through new hires and building up core motivators to keep teams excited, engaged and motivated in their work. There will continue to be changes in the way we work, as we transition to more of a hybrid work approach and employees adjust yet again to a new standard. Given our recent senior leadership changes as well with (current COO) Omri Morgenshtern taking on the role of CEO come 1 July, it will be important to foster good relationships and to aid my teams in adapting to new management goals.

This all while continuing with day-to-day support and enabling key business initiatives while effectively managing risk.

4. What do you think about the use of LegalTech, data analytics and process optimisation to improve your legal department's value (e.g. data relating to contracts, risk, tracking workflows, performance metrics, costs)?

We are committed to implementing a new contract management system and other efficiencies to help improve our processes and optimise man hours – freeing up more time for our team to focus on more meaningful and impactful work. This is an area we are very much invested in. It is essential for any legal function to be as optimised and efficient as the main business.

As a data-driven company, Agoda has a number of tools to help with this. However, there is always room to be better. As such, we’ve spent time investing in R&D to implement new contract management systems, using data to better track tasks, completion status, budgeting & spend and more.

In some areas, we have pioneered the use of certain software tools like OneTrust for data privacy (PIA etc). We are currently focused on a risk mapping initiative, which will be conducted in conjunction with the risk & controls function in the finance team. Another area we would like to focus on more is legacy agreements, and how to ensure these remain relevant over time amidst business and legal landscape changes.

When it comes to AI for standard contracts, I have heard a lot about it in recent years but so far, I haven’t seen an offering or product that really could move the needle, but perhaps I haven’t been looking in the right spots! For instance, we very much still work with standard templates which require input by several (non-legal) stakeholders, and I believe this is hard to replicate with an all-automated tool given there are several tailored agreements.

5. What trends do you expect to see in the legal services industry in the next 5 years?

Ongoing and increased focus on value: added value and value for money to be more precise. External service providers will be expected to think in tandem with the client, offer real-life practical solutions and act as an extension of the in-house legal team. A good legal advisor is an engaged partner who can help to anticipate needs and remove obstacles when they come up. This is nothing really new but my prediction is that it will only grow in importance over time. There is also an expectation to see more data-driven analysis, with benchmarking and (publicly available) industry knowledge being shared more widely. As explained below, I see a role of ALSP especially when it comes to resourcing.

6. Where do you see NewLaw/ALSP fitting in the matrix of your legal department?

Our current focus is still on consolidation and implementing several productivity and efficiency tools. That being said, we have worked with ASLP, including KorumLegal, in the past, and see a role for these NewLaw service providers - in conjunction with the captive in-house capabilities (our historical preference), as well as the more “traditional” external counsel. This will typically be driven by specific project needs. We may outsource certain functions to ASLP overtime, but I expect this to be a conversation driven by or at least discussed with our parent company. At a very practical level, ALSP providers have helped to plug personnel gaps on an “as needed” basis and allowed to quickly react to department and business need. We have had and still have a number of people supporting the team without taking up headcount, in some cases in anticipation of a hire (e.g. for urgent replacement) or, as indicated, on a project basis.