Protecting the integrity of the institution is the top priority for Lai
As university counsel at the University of British Columbia, Hubert Lai takes responsibility for all legal affairs at the organization that is ranked as one of the top 10 public universities in North America. UBC is home to 67,000 students and 18,000 employees and produces annual revenues of around $2.9 billion. In addition to its focus on education and its linkages to thousands of universities around the world, UBC is also involved in many different types of research as well as real estate development and thousands of trusts, so Lai’s role covers a wide range of duties.
“It’s a very rich and complex environment, so the delivery of high-quality legal services is really important, but just as critical are the values that underline the decisions we make,” says Lai, who has been with UBC for 27 years. “Protecting the integrity of the institution is fundamental in representing UBC’s overall best interests, so, of course, as university counsel, that is my duty and my highest priority.”
When Lai was appointed university counsel in 2001, he was the youngest person to have ever served in such a capacity at a major Canadian university. He now leads a team of 23, consisting of nine lawyers as well as non-lawyer specialists, paralegals and administrative staff. He is also a member of the 11-person executive management team that reports directly to the university’s president and vice-chancellor. The executive management team takes responsibility for executing UBC’s strategic plan and overseeing its day-to-day operations.
In addition to providing strategic legal advice, Lai is also involved in internal regulatory work and overseeing the development and review of the board of governor’s policies that constitute much of the university’s internal regulatory framework. Lai and his team are also responsible for compliance with B.C.’s Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy legislation.
Like other universities, UBC had to make major adjustments when the pandemic crisis first struck last year.
“We had to take 67,000 students and thousands of faculty members who teach those students and shift them from a teaching model that’s been based on face-to-face in-person instruction for centuries to one that is almost entirely virtual — and we had to do that overnight,” says Lai. This tremendous challenge involved thousands of faculty members adapting course material and learning how to use new platforms. To support this unprecedented shift, Lai and his team had to consider a host of intellectual property laws, privacy laws and other regulations.
Like many universities, UBC has experienced an increase in cheating cases amid the remote studying environment, so Lai has also been tasked with navigating these matters delicately.
“We’re working to try to make our student discipline processes more flexible so that we can have additional mechanisms for turning what in many cases are poor judgment calls into learning moments,” says Lai. He adds that premeditated and deliberate cheating is dealt with traditionally.
Supporting UBC in its launch of a new ride-share initiative in partnership with ride-hailing companies such as Lyft and Uber is one of the many projects outside of the field of education that has kept Lai busy in recent months. He has also been involved in supporting the organization in the sale of 67 hectares of land at Kelowna International Airport to the City of Kelowna, so the legal department created a complex set of agreements. Another recent project involved creating agreements with public health authorities to make use of UBC’s ultra-cold freezers to store Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine.
Online resources are valuable tools for Lai and his team at UBC. The legal department established an internal wiki that has been very effective in terms of knowledge gathering, knowledge preservation and knowledge management, and it allows them to be more effective in servicing the organization, Lai says. It also helps improve the quality and consistency of the advice that the team can provide, which, in turn, helps reduce the risk of client groups calling different lawyers to seek out differing opinions.
“With a very complex organization, it can be extremely resource-intensive to gain an understanding of how UBC is organized, what the structures are and what our legal relationships with other parties are, so that knowledge is an incredibly valuable asset, not just to the organization but also to the legal team,” says Lai.
An internal secure intranet site was also set up for client groups to access templates for legal documents, complete with instructions on how to use the templates and information about the application and key clauses, as well as who within the legal team can be contacted for advice.
“It helps us keep track of all the templates we’ve provided and allows us to review them periodically and keep them up to date,” says Lai.
The legal department at UBC benefits from long-term relationships with a select group of firms that Lai considers to be an important part of his team’s service delivery capability. Where the file calls for a team consisting of internal and external lawyers from separate firms, everybody on the team must understand that it’s a co-operative exercise and not a competitive one.
Preparing for the pandemic recovery period is among Lai’s priorities this year as he and his team continue to be proactive and to anticipate issues, while also being responsive and nimble in dealing with issues that can’t be anticipated.
“Everyone around the world hopes that we’re going to see the tail end of this pandemic in 2021, but even if that happens, it’s going to take our institutions and our communities years to recover from the structural, financial and social sequelae, and that’s undoubtedly going to affect the needs of our client group,” says Lai.
Name: Hubert Lai
Company: University of British Columbia
Title: University counsel
Years in the industry: 30
Career highlight: The feeling of being able to contribute to an organization that makes a difference to the world — whether that’s through contributing to positive change or making scientific discoveries — is pretty special. UBC is in a period in its history where it’s been on an incredible upward trajectory. It’s now among the top 10 public universities in North America so it’s been a real privilege to be a part of that.
- Appointed as Queen’s Counsel, 2012
- Appointed as a member of the university executive, 2007
- Appointed as university counsel, 2001
- Founding director of [email protected] Management Inc.
- Director and officer of UBC Research Enterprises Inc.
- Director and member of the management committee of the Hong Kong Foundation for UBC Ltd.
- Member of the National GC Network