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Contributed by Sonya Olds Som, Heidrick & Struggles
The year 2020 has seen great disruption from the Covid-19 pandemic, economic downturn, and social unrest. While no one has remained untouched by these forces, a fair share of the burden in corporate America—and the opportunity for leadership—has fallen on general counsel. Charged with managing their now far-flung legal departments, representing the interests of their often-struggling companies, and dealing with a number of collaborators, most notably outside counsel, GCs have faced new challenges and, in most cases, met them.
I spoke with several general counsel over the past months about the impact these crises have had on their daily professional lives. Here are some of the key points they've made, along with my observations.
Before these crises struck, many people thought the idea of dispersing the workforce was impractical, impossible, implausible, and unacceptable. Many companies felt strongly that employees, lawyers included, needed to be in the office. But six months later, it's become clear that working remotely is, in fact, practical, possible, plausible, acceptable—and, in some regards, even beneficial.
It wasn't easy getting to this place.
As Michael-Bryant Hicks, general counsel at Elanco Animal Health, explained, “An initial challenge in the early days was getting our minds wrapped around the far-reaching impact of the pandemic. It seems naïve now that we imagined we might all be able to return to the office in six to eight weeks. No one had been through a pandemic before, so there was no clear template in place.”
The lack of a template was also an issue that Brandon Smith, general counsel at Tenneco, faced. “Everyone was learning on the fly,” he said. “It has been a challenge communicating with some team members and maintaining a high level of team engagement.”
The challenge for Luis Avila, interim general counsel, vice president of governance & compliance and corporate secretary at Cox Enterprises, was “remaining connected and not letting the current work environment diminish the culture we're so proud of. It was hard initially to imagine how we could ‘bump into someone’ in this virtual world.” Still, he added, “We were able to move quickly to have all meetings go video.”
At 3M, general counsel Ivan Fong noted that, “As a global company with a global law department, many of our colleagues were already well-versed in connecting virtually.” Nonetheless, his law department has had to quickly adapt, like everyone else, to video conferences and to figuring out “how to best manage the stress and uncertainty caused not only by remote working arrangements, but also by the fact that we don't know how long this ‘new normal’ will last.”
A More Personal Workplace
But there have been many side benefits to remote work. For example, Fong said, “Our current efforts to adapt to the new reality have given us an opportunity to be even more inclusive and collaborative.” Without the time and cost of physical travel, we've been able to connect virtually with more of our people, more readily and more easily.”
And this has contributed to even greater inquisitiveness and innovation. As Sharon Barner, general counsel at Cummins, said, “Since no one is traveling, everyone is always in front of the computer and they all have extra time to ask questions and raise issues.”
Of course, without traveling and time spent commuting, there has also been, for general counsel and their departments, greater flexibility and work-life balance. As Avila noted, “It quickly became apparent that we had ‘office mates’ we couldn't control, be it a child, a spouse, or a pet. This has actually connected us as a team and with our clients in a way that wasn't possible in the office. We have gotten a glimpse into each other's taste in artwork, we know the names of each other's kids and spouses, and we have had more [virtual] happy hours than we ever did before.”
Leveling the Playing Field
Working remotely has also opened opportunities that were not available when everyone needed to be in the office. Job applicants who needed to work remotely are now considered more seriously than they would have been pre-pandemic. There are also advantages for working parents of young children, who didn't previously have time to do the necessary internal networking within the company or to go out at night and travel as frequently.
The need to allocate increasingly scarce resources, Smith noted, has also provided opportunities that didn't exist before. “We've in-sourced a lot of work from our outside firms in order to right-size our total spend,” he explained. “That has created some really great opportunities for attorneys who may not have had leadership roles before to show what they can do. As they branch out into a new area of law that they may not have had a lot of experience or leadership in before, they're now being viewed as the authority within the company.”
A good general counsel is first and foremost a good leader. They're a good leader in terms of the people on their legal team, and they're a good leader within their organization. The current set of crises has made that even more evident. As Barner noted, “So many things are happening at the same time in so many different places. You need to be able to lead your organization through the chaos, to find calm in the storm, and to be able to direct people in a meaningful way.”
This has been particularly important in navigating the quest for diversity and inclusion set off by George Floyd's murder. And given, as many attorneys of color have noted, that jobs in the C-suite most likely to be held by women or people of color are general counsel or head of HR, it's only natural that companies have been turning to those professionals for advice recently to help shape their diversity and inclusion plans.
In the past two decades, the GC role has come into prominence as a sort of moral and ethical voice of the company—not just from a legal standpoint in terms of what the company is allowed to do, but in terms of helping to lead the company to determine what it wants to stand for. This is an opportunity and an added responsibility, with a real sense of urgency.
Leadership in the Legal Department
In the same way that George Floyd was not the first Black person to be killed by police, people didn't just start having to balance caring for sick relatives with their jobs. People didn't just start having to balance child care with their work. The situation has literally put a camera in the homes of employees.
As Fong said, “It's clear that the killing of George Floyd has hit close to home and has taken a substantial emotional toll on all of us. As a result, I'm now even more concerned than before about the long-term impact to mental health and well-being of our legal team. We now host more regular check-ins with our legal department and with our different work groups, and managers have more frequent one-on-one calls with their teams to catch up.”
In stressing the enhanced importance of communication, Smith noted, “There is a regular cadence to our team's communication. We have a standing daily call to discuss key issues and best practices, and we do a virtual happy hour to relax and talk about things other than work.”
Both Hicks and Barner reported similar efforts: Hicks holds meetings via Zoom with his direct reports both individually and collectively every day and also joins them for happy hours. Barner and her team have a daily huddle every morning to check on how everyone is doing, both personally and professionally.
Leadership in the Company
Part of the general counsel's responsibility, Barner said, is to be a forecaster and a strategist. “You need to be thinking not just about how the situation looks now but about how it's going to look three weeks from now, six weeks from now.” Part of that, she added, is being “involved in the company's day-to-day crisis management planning. Don't be relegated to just the legal issues. The GC should be a big picture strategist and adviser, seeing how all the pieces connect. Err on the side of overcommunicating.”
The point here is that it's clearly better to check in more often than necessary rather than risk having your team feel as if they're not in touch with you often enough.
Part of this, Hicks noted, is “thinking about what was important to the company before the pandemic—and what's still important now. Don't get permanently distracted from achieving important goals, such as critical deals,” he added. “It's important to help management keep focused on what a ‘win’ looks like and focus on that despite the circumstances.”
And that means communicating regularly with the CEO via video calls to ensure that the organization is keeping focused on its core values and objectives, Smith added. “Recognize where your organization is strong,” he said, “and hold on to that during and after the crisis.”
Leadership With Outside Counsel
While, as Hicks said, it's important throughout these crises to “use law firms to provide a lot of guidance on the legal issues so you can focus on strategy implementation,” it's also important as general counsel to work closely with law firms to ensure that the work distributed to them is distributed equitably. Many Black lawyers were displaced due to the economic crisis of 2008 (including me).
Black America, in general, lost much of its economic gains during that time and has not yet fully recovered. The GC, therefore, has a critical role to play in making sure this disproportionate impact on Black lawyers doesn't happen again, starting with talking to the law firms that represent them to ensure that the Black lawyers on their teams get credit for their work.
In reflecting on the lessons learned from these crises, on the sea change we're witnessing, general counsel have been hopeful. As Smith put it, “Scarcity is often the mother of innovation. You can come out stronger after the crisis.” Hicks agreed. “A crisis clears the mind,” he said. “It can be an opportunity to figure out which processes you don't actually need at all after the crisis has passed.”
All these general counsel noted that what makes this situation different from 9/11 is that September 11 was a fixed moment in time. While it changed things, it was localized in terms of time and locations. But this—the virus, the downturn, the social unrest—is happening everywhere and to everyone, all the time, with no end in sight. The discussions being generated cannot be put on the back burner. There's an urgency and an immediacy.
Moreover, Avila and Barner noted that it's important to accept that there is no going back to normal, and, frankly, they agreed we shouldn't want to. We shouldn't want to lose the lessons we should be gaining from this, they said. We should be trying to make our society better. We should have income equality. We should have better health care. We should have better resources for people. We should have a level playing field for everyone in the workplace.
Will that happen? Well, most people are now taking a deep breath and saying, “We're going to do everything we can to seize this moment and to try to make lasting change in our organizations.” As Hicks concluded, “It's important to realize that though the situation may look dire now, we will come through it, one way or the other, so careful thought must be devoted to thinking about who we want to be on the other side.”