In-House Attys Struggle With COVID-19 Workloads

By Emma Cueto
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Law360 (August 6, 2020, 6:25 PM EDT) -- Two-thirds of in-house legal leaders are struggling to manage their current workload as the COVID-19 pandemic increases their departments' duties and shrinks budgets, according to a report released Thursday by research organization Gartner Inc.

Based on data from multiple surveys since the start of the pandemic, the Gartner Legal & Compliance practice found that 68% of legal leaders at in-house departments are struggling with their workload, and 74% say they are at least moderately burned out as a result of the pandemic.

"Nearly two-thirds of legal leaders tell us they have been pulling resources from other workstreams to support unplanned work since the beginning of the pandemic," Vidhya Balasubramanian, managing vice president in Gartner's Legal and Compliance practice, said in a statement. "This added burden of unplanned work comes at a time when every department is facing severe cutbacks to mitigate the ongoing economic effects of COVID-19."

According to the report, about half of legal departments say their 2020 plans have been heavily disrupted by COVID-19, many are facing an increase in labor and employment, government affairs and regulatory work, and about one in three anticipates that the department budget will be cut by at least 10% by the end of the year.

Additionally, all respondents told Gartner that their department has reduced spending on outside counsel by keeping more matters in-house.

The report urges legal departments to cope with the pandemic and its effects by finding new and more efficient ways to manage unplanned work. About 20% of hours spent on unplanned work winds up wasted, the report said.

"That's over a thousand work hours in a year at a typical $1 billion company with 10 full-time employees in the legal department," Balasubramanian said. "As legal departments address more complex and unpredictable issues, their workload will only continue to increase, and most are not addressing the sources of this waste and inefficiencies."

To improve efficiency, legal departments should plan ahead for how to handle unexpected work. Often, departments waste time on work that doesn't need to be done by a lawyer or lack clear guidance on risk tolerance, leaving attorneys to substitute their own judgment in an unfamiliar situation, the report said.

Attorneys in the legal department should also have a clear understanding of the resources available to them and when it is appropriate to use them, the report said.

Legal departments should also find a way to balance the guidance so it covers a wide variety of scenarios but still provides attorneys with clarity.

"Decision principles need to be both broad enough to be useful as guidance for different scenarios, yet prescriptive enough to direct the desired response," Balasubramanian said. "This will reduce the overconservatism that can slow legal departments and their business clients, and preempt the rampant escalation, rework and duplication of work within legal departments."

--Editing by Orlando Lorenzo.

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