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The impact of COVID-19 on managing your legal department—a new report

Robert Clay

15 Mar 2021

Image Credit: REUTERS/Regis Duvignau

Earlier this month I chaired a meeting of the Practical Law In-house Consultation Board, where the topic of conversation was how COVID-19 has affected the management of legal teams. Here are some of the key points from that discussion.

Dealing with the move to remote working

The sudden move to remote working in spring 2020 was a huge adjustment for some teams (struggles with printers and toner were highlighted) but relatively seamless for others who were able to rely on their existing cloud infrastructure.

Day-to-day keeping in touch with team members has become important, with a mixture of team meetings and 1-2-1s being employed. Monitoring pinch-points via weekly 30-minute meetings has proved useful for some teams.

The 2021 State of the Corporate Law Departments report from Thomson Reuters looked at how COVID-19 changed the way law departments work and will help you learn how to remain adaptable amid continuing uncertainty.

However, online meeting fatigue is a big issue, with an understanding that lawyers need to avoid spending their days in a procession of meetings. One practical way to help, which we have adopted internally, is limiting the duration of meetings (for example, by reducing 30-minute meetings to 25 minutes).

Adopting different ways of working

Many teams have seen an expansion of their ‘business as usual’ work, together with an increase in new projects and programmes. Work prioritisation has consequently become a big focus as teams are unable to do everything that is being asked of them. These pressures have encouraged teams to embrace different styles of working, including using:

  • Self-help guides: These can be pushed out to the business so that they can service their own legal needs.
  • Triage: This process can be used to allocate work across a broader network and to identify others within the organisation who can provide support, such as budding paralegals.
  • Playbooks: These can give projects more discipline. Different departments can work together on a cross-functional basis to create a playbook that outlines the different roles each function has in ensuring legal compliance. They may be helpful to both new joiners and existing employees as they help crystallise processes or structures.
  • Legal work packages: Some teams are introducing more formality around requests for legal support from the business, either by using software tools or by drawing agreed lines around the scope and level of work to be undertaken in response to a request.
  • Project sponsors: In key areas, some teams are doubling up by having a lead project sponsor and a colleague in support. This means that if one is unable to react, the other can pick up the work more easily than if they were starting from scratch. This process is made possible due to shared drives, such as GoogleDrive.
  • Technology: Online whiteboards can be used in brainstorming sessions when thrashing out a legal position or making sense of a piece of legislation.

Looking after the wellbeing of the team

Mental health, particularly loneliness, has been a priority for many teams. Extra effort has been made to check-in and catch-up with team members to ensure that nobody feels isolated. Some lawyers, particularly working parents, are struggling to manage their workload. Although there is a recognition of their need for flexibility, some are working weekends to compensate, which raises concerns about burnout.

One organisation has set up a review of its values, culture and purpose with the aim of encouraging employees to ‘be kinder to each other’. Another has worked with its insurance companies to facilitate wellbeing programmes, such as Mindful Mondays and mid-week HIIT (high-intensity interval training) classes. Social interaction was regarded as a good way of aiding wellbeing if it is voluntary and there is no pressure on individuals to attend. Examples include:

  • Coffee mornings
  • Bake-offs
  • Virtual book clubs
  • Online painting

Working with third-party legal suppliers

Cost constraints have had an impact on the use of third-party legal suppliers. However, according to one contributor, in their experience, firms appeared reluctant to speak to their clients during the pandemic. Some teams struggled initially as the main offerings from firms focused solely on COVID-19 or Brexit updates. Another team would have appreciated the offer of associated services from firms, such as licences to use their software.

Concern for junior team members was a focus, especially in terms of learning and development opportunities. One team has a three-month rotating programme of secondees (typically trainees who are nearly or recently qualified) with their key law firm. The secondees do not get involved in transactional activities but provide advice that assists junior team members. The programme also provides the secondees with in-house experience without leaving their home and with the full support of an external employer.

Addressing diversity and inclusion

Diversity and inclusion (D&I) is a significant focus for many organisations, with several currently carrying out reviews of their D&I position. One team is working with the Law Society on a series of change programmes, including D&I. Other well-received initiatives include:

  • Establishing global and regional committees to identify local nuances
  • Engagement sessions led by the CEO and regional CEOs
  • Using polls and other different measures to get feedback
  • Inclusion training, which incorporated e-learning and small face-to-face sessions
  • ‘Be the ally’ training

Starting a new legal role during a pandemic

Two participants started new roles during the pandemic, which gave them some interesting insights into their new organisations. It highlighted the importance of a well-structured on-boarding programme and the need to meet people from across the organisation, not just the legal team. They miss the water cooler chats that can flag where Legal should be involved and they are yet to meet most of their team in person, which is a challenge.

On the plus side, one General Counsel benefited from a six-week structured handover from their predecessor who provided a list of 60 people across the business that they should meet. That level of support would probably not have been provided outside of the pandemic.

Contemplating a return to the office

Some teams are considering what the future office environment will look like, with many likely to adopt a hybrid model of working in the office two or three days per week. Most will maintain a meaningful office presence for client and team meetings, and training sessions. One team is already conducting a review of discretionary travel and looking at what their future travel arrangements will look like.

Download your copy of the 2021 State of the Corporate Law Departments report.

To read the original article ‘Managing legal teams during the COVID-19 pandemic’ on the Practical Law In-house blog, please click here (free access).

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