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A time for leadership—legal department effectiveness considering COVID-19

REUTERS/Denis Balibouse (Photo)

This year was already shaping up to be a challenging one for in-house legal teams across Europe as the UK’s departure from the EU brought with it new challenges and a plethora of new regulations to accompany existing corporate activity. And then COVID-19 hit. Teams had to adapt to new ways of working as well as oversee compliance with a whole set of new policies to keep staff and customers safe, and the business on track.

As General Counsels (GCs) try to improve the effectiveness of their department in adding value to their organisations, COVID-19 puts a much greater emphasis on their role as leaders, rather than as legal experts.

A new report from Thomson Reuters, 2020 State of the European Corporate Legal Department draws on research from Acritas to look at trends trends in the European market that all corporate legal departments should pay attention to.

Here, we look at some of the areas that GCs are thinking about as we negotiate the COVID-19 world. For most organisations, business continuity plans kicked in and teams are on top of the obvious tasks of monitoring regulatory changes, reviewing contracts and identifying new risks. The challenge now is to add greater value to their organisation beyond the legal detail. These changes have a knock-on effect with how they lead their own teams.

It’s all about communication

The sense of crisis, combined with remote working, places great demands on leaders’ communications skills. They need to provide emotional support as well as practical direction. There is a limit to how much they can address concerns about family health or the global economy, but they can alleviate worries about work, their team, and the company. It’s vital to take time to understand how colleagues feel, how they are coping, as well as how their work is progressing.

George Kohlrieser, of IMD Business School, developed his ’Secure Base Leadership’ model to help teams to outperform by providing the emotional support that enables them to take risks–but this approach is equally valid in leading a team through a crisis. Five key characteristics of his model are particularly relevant today:

  • Stay calm;
  • Listen and enquire;
  • Deliver a powerful message;
  • Focus on the positive; and,
  • Be demonstrably accessible.

While some senior professionals have found working from home easy, they shouldn’t forget that for others–especially junior staff– it’s been much more problematic. It’s not simply a question of physical space or difficult IT connections. The loss of office camaraderie, of water cooler conversations and throw-away comments in the corridor–risks eroding team culture, relationships and trust. Crucially for junior staff, they lose the ability to learn from their more experienced colleagues simply by working alongside them. As one junior lawyer put it to her boss, “I never realise how much knowledge I was absorbing just by sharing an office with you”.

Keeping the in-house team working well together is one challenge; but given that the team’s effectiveness increasingly means collaborating with other functions across the company, it’s not enough. We sometimes hear how legal teams can feel isolated from the rest of the business, relegated to purely legal matters. If the in-house team felt they were side-lined as a ‘back-office support function’ before COVID-19, the lack of visibility and physical presence will make this even harder. GCs need to encourage their teams to be proactive and facilitate cross-functional contacts as much as possible.

Experts talk of two golden rules around crisis communications:

  • Communicate frequently: it’s easy to think that once is enough for a message to get through, but repetition and consistency are essential to cut through the clutter of news and noise that bombard staff every day. You cannot over-communicate in a crisis.
  • Listen and enable safe feedback: it may be a cliché, but communication is a two-way process. Staff must feel empowered to raise their concerns and confident that they will be heard.

Corporate culture–a source of risk?

Many commentators have heralded the demise of the office and a move towards remote working. In his recent article, ‘Legal Teams Use Pandemic Data to Explore Technology to Better Serve Clients’, Marc Jenkins, CEO of Adappt Legal quoted University of Chicago research that showed that over 80 percent of work in legal occupations could be done from home. There are clearly many benefits both in the short term—reduced COVID-19 risks—and the long term benefits of reduced office costs, better work/life balance. Moreover, as Marc pointed out, there’s a range of legal technology available to support efficient remote working. However, GCs need to be conscious of the disadvantages of remote working. A hybrid model, where some work remotely and others are in the office, risks creating a two-tier team, where those in the office form an inner circle, privy to insights and gossip that remote workers are not. Though, the greater impact of having large numbers of staff working remotely is likely to be on corporate culture. Managers already talk of the difficulties of creating a common culture and shared values across regional offices and functional siloes: how much harder will this be when individuals are working on their own? To lawyers this might seem to be a ‘soft’ issue, far removed from the ‘hard’ challenges of contracts, regulations and litigation: but corporate culture drives behaviour and builds trust—two key elements in the legal team’s safeguarding role.

Leading the organisation

The GC is also part of the senior leadership team and has an important role to play in running the whole organisation, not just the legal team. In this capacity, the GC needs to understand the strategic issues facing the company. All sectors face disruption. For some, there’s a threat to their very existence, for others there may be obvious opportunities. How can in-house legal teams support their colleagues in navigating change and disruption?

A constant buzzword in business today is ‘agility’—the need to move fast and be ready to adapt—whether it’s the whole business model, the supply chain or internal processes. A challenge for in-house legal teams here is to balance their safeguarding role—which tends towards caution and risk aversion—with the need to support and encourage new ideas. Many changes will require a multi-disciplinary approach and almost all will have a legal or regulatory impact where GCs can—and need to—take the lead.

As company boards look to the long-term future, many will see the current situation as an opportunity, rather than a threat. Existing political, economic and social trends—especially around sustainability and inclusivity—are likely to accelerate. GCs need to be part of these discussions as they prepare the companies for a sustainable long-term future. It’s an opportunity to revisit and re-affirm the organisation’s purpose, its values and its culture—and to ensure they are fit for the future.

Download your copy of 2020 State of the European Corporate Legal Department.

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