Weathering A Pandemic: What GCs Have Learned So Far

By Michele Gorman
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Law360 (May 8, 2020, 5:20 PM EDT) -- Since the World Health Organization publicly deemed the COVID-19 outbreak a pandemic on March 11, general counsel say they have increasingly tackled problems outside their legal expertise and training, realized they must master new ways to communicate and thought even harder about alternatives to traditional legal rates.

Even before the escalation of the crisis, general counsel across industries were asked to do more — often with fewer resources — and their position was expanding beyond the traditional legal, compliance and governance functions to take on additional roles and apply legal issues in a larger business context.

But now these top corporate lawyers and their teams have seen even more clearly how crucial it is to have good judgment and to act nimble and calm under pressure. Many said they're providing an abundance of guidance outside the realm of their legal training, addressing questions and concerns as colleagues across the business call on them for assistance in maneuvering through uncharted territory.

"In the face of fear and uncertainty, calm and steady, yet decisive, management and counsel is extremely valuable," said Christopher Updike, general counsel at Stretto Inc., which provides bankruptcy administration and technology services for the corporate restructuring and consumer bankruptcy sector.

Leaders throughout organizations are looking to their lawyers because they're poised and expected to usher a business through difficult times, while being straightforward and transparent about what's at stake, said Chris Young, general counsel at legal technology company Ironclad Inc.

New challenges often pop up daily, and there are endless new issues and topics that several general counsel said they've had to interpret and analyze.

As governments responded to the pandemic early on, local measures ordering businesses to close and residents to stay home — and new legislation like the Families First Coronavirus Response Act and the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act — emerged quickly. And tracking how federal, state and local policies continue to change adds a layer of burden, general counsel said.

Then there's the medical aspect of the ongoing situation. Lawyers are trying to learn about the science in a space where much is unknown, said Hannah Gordon, general counsel of the NFL's San Francisco 49ers.

"If you would have told people a year ago that we would be taking temperatures before allowing people to enter a workplace, we would have thought that was ridiculous," she said. "Now it is a best practice."

Similar to what other in-house lawyers said they've experienced, the crisis so far has shown Daniel Goldstein, chief legal officer at Pitney Bowes Inc., how fitting the term "general counsel" is, as he faces new issues each day, from discussions about social distancing and when people should wear masks to protocols for quarantining.

"The job is about being a counselor in the broadest sense of the word," Goldstein said. "We are problem solvers, and the legal component is just one aspect of the job."

As a result of the uncertain environment, many said some of their priorities have shifted. Now they might be more apt to, say, spend extra time reaching out and talking with a colleague who lives alone and is struggling with remote work or checking in more frequently with individual team members.

In addition, what was once a quick task of popping their head into someone's office now requires more coordination and extra steps: taking the time to draft an email or pick up the phone, and then likely having a follow-up conversation, said Renee Wilm, chief legal officer at Liberty Media Corp.

Wilm — who began working at Baker Botts LLP in law school and continued there for more than two decades before joining Liberty Media in September — also offered a pandemic survival tip for firms: Don't be wedded to traditional rates.

She recommended firms empathize with their corporate clients' current budgetary constraints and take the initiative to reach out and brainstorm different structures, such as discounts and alternative fee arrangements.

Behave more as a partner to in-house counterparts rather than as a vendor; not doing so could backfire on firms in the long run, she said.

As organizations in different industries have been forced to embrace agility and adapt to the current situation, general counsel say their teams are collaborating and growing closer as a company than ever before.

General counsel have learned that their teams can come together even when they're working remotely. Many shared how impressed they've been to see entire departments simultaneously transition to a socially distant work environment while trying to ensure as much business continuity as possible.

"I've seen firsthand how people, regardless of their know-how, can join together to focus on what matters most, the health and well-being of our employees, our customers, our vendors, and our communities," Goldstein said.

Given the commonality of the experience, in-house leaders also said they've noticed how much their relationships with team members have deepened, especially given the more frequent interactions in the absence of sporadic, face-to-face conversations in the hallway or in line to buy lunch.

At Liberty Media, Wilm said she previously held monthly check-in conferences with her department. To keep the lines of communication open, now they meet virtually each week to share projects, ideas and best practices, she said.

Others shared similar situations. As the boundaries between home and work life have blurred, Discover Financial Services Inc. chief legal officer and general counsel Wanji Walcott said she has enjoyed meeting colleagues' partners, children, parents and pets when they walk past camera frames during virtual meetings.

She has learned that problem solving in a remote work environment can be done more effectively over videoconference than on the phone, largely because it allows users to see others' expressions and thus connect more deeply.

Although the past two months have been challenging for many, some general counsel have viewed the crisis as an opportunity to think about the type of future their companies want to create, starting with deepening their partnerships with customers.

Although it's unclear what the "new normal" will eventually look like for society, Updike said strong interpersonal relationships and discovering more ways to connect with others — virtually or not — will remain crucial moving forward.

Goldstein echoed the sentiment, saying he thinks the pandemic will change the frequency and the ways lawyers communicate, including his in-house team and outside counsel.

"I'd expect more phone calls will become video calls," he said. "In some ways, we will become more closely connected to distant colleagues than we are today."

--Editing by Brian Baresch and Michael Watanabe.

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