The last time The Lawyer and Paul Hastings co-hosted a roundtable session it was a snowy February and our delegates gathered in the settings of The Ivy Asia.

Eight months and a global pandemic later and getting people around the table for a chat in a London restaurant seems like something from another time in history all together.

This time around our delegates gathered in a setting that has become the epitome of the ‘new normal’ – Microsoft Teams.

It was a fitting setting as the session focused on the ‘future of work’ for inhouse legal teams, and how the inhouse team can help to steer organisations through the turbulent times ahead and beyond.

Attendees included general counsel and senior inhouse legal professionals from FTSE 100 and NASDAQ-listed organisations such as Uber, Vodafone, GSK, SAP, Revolut and more.

The session was co-hosted by Suzanne Horne, head of the International Employment practice and office vice-chair at Paul Hastings, and Matt Byrne, deputy editor at The Lawyer.

The discussion built upon a report titled Navigating New Paths to Growth – An Opportunity for Inhouse to Reimagine and Reshape the Future of Work which was informed by research and interviews conducted by Paul Hastings and The Lawyer at the end of the first phase of the pandemic.

Suzanne said: “We want to take the temperature of inhouse and think about what the future of work will look like. We’re looking at who works, how we work, where we work from and what work we do coming out of the pandemic and into the future. We hope to prompt a discussion about some of these key issues.”

Legal’s role in strategic decision making

The discussion first turned to business strategy. Delegates discussed the extent to which the legal department has been involved in strategy, the broader business decision-making process during the pandemic and its likely role in these issues over the next 12 months and the very strategy itself.

The research undertaken over the summer revealed that more than 40 per cent of businesses had accelerated their strategic plans as a result of the pandemic, while 12 per cent had entirely rethought their business strategy.

For inhouse professionals specifically, the data pointed to heightened involvement. More than 70 per cent of GCs had seen a greater involvement in strategy in the short-term, and more than half expected this to lead to greater long-term involvement.

Comments from attendees suggest that strategic involvement and the role that lawyers are expected to play can vary significantly from organisation to organisation.

One attendee said: “We are there to perform a moral compass type role. We provide a degree of common sense as the business is reacting to changing risks. I’m often in meetings which are unspecific to the law, essentially just to referee on competing interests.”

For board level attendees however it has been a far more hands on year when it comes to steering the direction of the business. One GC said: “I sit on the board so I’m already involved in strategy but this has certainly ramped up and we’re now involved every single day, all day long. I’ve probably worked harder in the last 8 months than in the 7 years previously as I’ve been very deeply involved in steering strategy.”

“Sometimes the business just wants somebody else to bounce things off. These are strictly business decisions and they just want a second opinion to check that they’re doing the right thing. Its been great to be involved in things that I wouldn’t usually be involved in.”

Legal are also increasingly relied on as innovators. One attendee said: “We’re always having to think of whackier contingencies to have in place as we plan for the future.”

Business as usual with external counsel

Research revealed that 62 per cent of GCs believe there will be some long-term change to their relationship with external counsel as a result of the pandemic.

16 per cent of GCs anticipate that they were bring more work inhouse, while 14 per cent expect an increased workload.

Despite this, respondents agreed that in many cases it was ‘business as usual’ for the inhouse/external counsel dynamic. One attendee said: “We’ve actually had more interaction with external law firms than we did prior to the pandemic. We’ve also worked on a number of successful M&As remotely.”

Roger Barron, partner at Paul Hastings, said: “Sarah, Suzanne and I have all worked on M&A deals over lockdown and successfully got deals done. Being able to work remotely has made it business as usual to an odd degree, and people seem even more willing cooperate and collaborate than they were before the crisis hit.”

The strain on the relationship was reflected by another attendee however, who stressed that the recession means that some industries simply cannot afford external counsel for the time being. “I was using an external law firm on a retainer, with lawyers dedicate to me operating as a kind of external inhouse unit. When the crisis hit my business asks us to cut costs, and I had to turn around to that law firm and suspend the retainer.”

Technology is key

The ability to maintain any semblance of ‘business as usual’ has been thanks to the uptake of technology.

“The whole idea of remote working has taken on a new meaning, largely down to the use of tech,” said Sarah Pearce, partner at Paul Hastings. “Technology is at the core of what I do on a day-to-day basis.”

The uptake of technology was rapidly accelerated as a result of the pandemic and working life has been fundamentally changed.

61 per cent of GCs agreed that the pandemic has permanently changed their organisation’s approach to AI and automation. A further 30 per cent believed that AI or automation will replace roles across the wider business workforce.

“We were just rolling out MS Teams when the pandemic hit, and this was dramatically accelerated,” said one roundtable attendee. “We have also been using an automated contract management system which has been excellent, and collaboration within the team has been great.

“We’ve always done a certain amount of remote working, and I think going forward there will be less physical travelling as people accept that meetings can happen successfully in this forum.”

Virtual relationships & meetings

How long can virtual collaboration be sustained before the desire for face to face to grows too strong?

One attendee said: “A lot of the success of remote working has been built on the strength of relationships built via face to face interaction. We’ve been trading on the credit of the relationships, and I think we’ll have to get back to some blend reasonably quickly.”

There was a broad agreement among attendees that while virtual interaction has been fine, face to face meetings are sorely missed for a variety of reasons, not least of all mental health and a desire to just get out of the house.

One key positive that was stressed by the delegates was the democratising effect that virtual meetings had had. “Prior to the pandemic I’d have regular calls with a group of lawyers who were together in San Francisco and it was really difficult to get a word in edgeways while they were having fluid conversations. When everyone is on Zoom things are more democratic as long as you make sure you’re bringing everyone in on the conversation.”

Another key positive of virtual working and the successful use of technology will be the ability to hire people who aren’t necessarily within regular commuting distance of the office, explained one delegate. “There had been a bit of reluctance within our business around hiring people remotely. I think one of the shifts we’re going to see now is that we can hire people who would otherwise have been lost to us because they worked regionally. I think the combination of good technology and maturity around working hours and flexibility will lead to huge opportunities for people who would otherwise have been lost to regular office life.”

Sponsor’s comment: Not a suit in sight

Paul Hastings was delighted to co-host the roundtable discussion on ‘Reimagining and Reshaping the Future of Work for the In-house Legal Team’ as part of our Navigating New Paths to Growth programme and we thank all the participants for their valuable contributions.

Given the nature of the businesses and sectors that contributors represented, there was some real diversity of opinion and experience which made the discussion even better.  The key takeaways were:

  • Strategy – In-house had seen an acceleration in their involvement in strategy as a result of the pandemic. Business has seen the value-add of the inhouse lawyer skill-set in responding to the pandemic – so the overall expectation is that in-house will have a greater role in strategy and business decisions moving forward.
  • Tech enabled – Obviously the use of tech was accelerated by the pandemic but for those GCs at the tech companies, Slack has replaced the ‘watercooler’ moments and enabled the busy inhouse lawyer to cut through the deluge of emails.
  • Stakeholder, internal or external relationships matter. To date, in house had been trading on the strength of existing relationships but this may not be sufficient for the future. Everyone appreciated the benefits of remote working and virtual meeting but the loss of face-to-face contact for solving complex matters needs to be overcome.
  • D&I – There are definite opportunities for a broader talent pool not limited by geographical location. At the same time legal leaders acknowledged their slightly privileged position with a voice at the table, and called out the importance of including everyone in the conversation about how we work, where we work from and what work we do.
  • Top challenges for the year ahead – On-going disruption and uncertainty, regulatory issues, compliance, risk and cost management.

This was a group of legal leaders who sounded like they had every intention of making the most of the opportunities.

To access the research project conducted by Paul Hastings and The Lawyer – Navigating new paths to growth, an opportunity for inhouse to reimagine and reshape the future of work – click here.