Most of the corporate world is entering the eighth month of pandemic-driven remote working and, by this point, a long list of companies have taken the plunge and announced that employees can work from home permanently, for the time being in any event. Throughout the pandemic, in-house lawyers have continued to be at the epicentre of the corporate reaction to new developments, announcements, and regulation. Their role within the business has proved pivotal.
How the GC population has maintained relationships with their businesses and carried on as ‘normal’ was discussed during a virtual roundtable in early October, hosted by Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner partners, Daisy Reeves and Stephanie Hosler. It was attended by in-house counsel from a mix of industries including property, finance, telecoms and security.
Reeves explained to the group, “the aim of the roundtable is to look forward; but whilst reflecting on what have teams learnt and what could they do better.”
One of the lawyers discussed how the core values of their business had come to the fore and the sharing of a common purpose, prompting Reeves to ask what first step leadership had made to help reinforce those core values.
“I look at lockdown in two phases” replied one of the lawyers. “At the beginning it was easy because it was so new. There was an attitude of camaraderie. The challenge has been for leadership to keep the momentum up once the novelty wore off.”
Amidst a barrage of correspondence – emails, WhatsApp, Teams messages, Zoom – it has been the more personalised messages from senior leadership that have stood out to work-battered in-house lawyers. The different styles of leadership had also been noticeable to the group. Whereas some seniors had encouraged junior members of teams to contribute their ideas during calls, or over email if they preferred, others had heeded a command and control style, giving orders from the top. The dynamic has created a strange new office politics, albeit one where an employee can just turn the video call off.
“It’s been a test for us as leaders” stated one of the lawyers. “There has been a large pastoral element to the role. I’ve had to consider people’s individual circumstances. We have many in our team that are single and live on their own.”
Home working has introduced colleagues to a 360 degree perspective of each other. Clients are able to peek into their lawyers’ lives and vice versa. Babies, pets, the model train collection. The historic perception of the ‘professional front’ has changed.
However, as comfortable or uncomfortable as working at home can be, what has struck many lawyers is how the divide between their work and home has diminished. One lawyer stated that within her team, people had used their usual commuting time to work.
The businesses are now considering what the return to the office will look like – post-Covid, whether people will still be required to be in the office five days a week. The group were in consensus that they will probably never be back full-time, and some of their companies were looking at shrinking or ditching their office space altogether. This also raises implications for homeworking v. working in the office. How do you retain a sense of equality and togetherness? Technology, such as large screens in meeting rooms, will be important in facilitating this. The practicalities of making a distributed workforce successful include running meetings consistently and efficiently.
“There shouldn’t be a side conversation before or after the meeting. Everyone will go to the meeting with the agenda and the decision is made within it” stated one of the lawyers. “Have the discussion while everyone is there listening so that other decisions are not made in the room when those working remotely have already dialled off.”
Being “in the room” was also deemed very important when working with external lawyers, in situations such as closing deals or in litigious cases. A lawyer noted that it is very hard to resolve something on Zoom when you are up against an acrimonious other side.
“This is when you realise how important dialogue and human faculties are” he said.
For in-house lawyers accustomed to being attuned to the business, the physical separation has made them reflect upon what it means to be “in-house.” The very definition is of being in the building and being fully integrated. Otherwise work can just be outsourced.
“Our value proposition as in-house counsel is having a close relationship with our business – you get to know them working alongside them. It’s really hard to do this virtually” one lawyer said.
To round off the discussion, Reeves asked the group how private practice could best help. The group agreed that they didn’t want to be deluged with information, or constant Covid-19 updates which are mostly irrelevant. Arranging a half-an-hour call on a particular initiative was seen as much more useful. The group were keen for private practice lawyers to talk to them about the tech and software they are using, what they are seeing in the market in terms of what other clients are doing and how they are managing similar issues and more holistic issues around I&D in this climate.
“I expect outside counsel to bring some industry and commerciality to the conversation. They speak to a lot more businesses than I do” one lawyer advised.
On the whole, the group wanted to see private practice lawyers emphasise with what they, and their own clients, are going through including in terms of costing pressures.
Some lawyers have really understood and have seen it as their chance to shine” said one of the lawyers.
“Others have seen it as just another transaction to accost for. The way all external suppliers approach this crisis will be remembered.”