Coping With A Pandemic: Pillsbury's Amanda Halter

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Law360 (May 18, 2020, 7:26 PM EDT) --
Amanda Halter
Amanda Halter
As society continues to adapt to COVID-19, Law360 is sharing reactions from around the business and legal community.

Today's perspective comes from Amanda G. Halter, managing partner of the Houston office of Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman LLP and a member of the firm's environmental and natural resources practice section. She is co-leader of the firm's crisis management team and co-leads Pillsbury's COVID-19 response team.

What challenges has the pandemic created in your specific area of work?

We help companies manage environmental liabilities, as well as develop plans and secure permissions for major changes to industrial operations or entirely new facilities. These typically are matters that require significant investment and long-term planning.

For example, long-term projects such as investigations and response activities for contaminated sites under CERCLA or analogous state laws, which typically take several years; the development a new specialty chemicals plant; or the modernization of a production line.

The biggest challenge in the short-term has been that the response to the novel coronavirus has demanded so much of our collective attention — pulling bandwidth away from these kinds of efforts and reducing the workforces that push projects like these forward.

Longer-term, the coronavirus is throwing into question many of the assumptions that undergird these long-range planning and decision-making processes — e.g., if one outcome of the novel coronavirus is an increased demand for more localized supply chains, maybe the plants, refineries and factories we build should be adapted to have greater operational flexibility than the current default model, which generally aims to do a limited number of things at utmost efficiency. These are the kinds of questions people are asking.

Meanwhile, our major environmental statutes, programs, regulations and agencies are fairly static, so there is a clear tension. It is interesting, because it is both a challenge and an opportunity. I believe our environmental and regulatory professionals are up to it, so I prefer to focus on the opportunities.

How are you and your family adapting at home?

In addition to my environmental and natural resources practice, I counsel clients navigating corporate crises of all kinds. I often advise my crisis clients to take advantage of the 24-hour clock — rather than having a core response team in which everyone is working 20-hour days at pretty much the same time — as well as time zone differences where possible, intentionally stagger shifts with defined on/off times, set recurring coordination talks that people can rely on for smooth information transfer and task assignment, and be sure to effectuate clear handoffs between people. That way, things are constantly moving forward but everyone gets some rest. Otherwise, people burn out and risk making errors that can worsen the impacts of the crisis.

With a baby, an elementary-schooler, limited childcare, a spouse trying to shepherd a small retail-oriented business through unbelievable turbulence, and my own law practice — our household feels like a crisis command center right now. Within our household, we don't have a time zone differential to take advantage of, but we are relying more than ever on managing everything in designated shifts, doing proper handoffs, and erring on the side of overcommunication.

During a crisis, it always feels like you're drinking from a fire hose at the beginning, and then at some point, you can hold onto that hose and ultimately aim it — your new normal is that you are the firefighter. We're not quite there yet, but we are getting there — things may never be as they once were, and that's OK. Our goal is to nevertheless continue to live our lives the best way we know how — with teamwork, compassion and gratitude.

What is the most creative or productive response to the crisis you've witnessed so far?

The many thousands of people — including kids! — who are sewing masks and giving them out. They are amazing.

And all the small business owners who are changing their business models daily to survive — from restaurants figuring out overnight how to do to-go meals they have never done before, to our local toy store delivering home-school activity kits, to small-time musicians doing donation-based livestreams and remote collaborations that are some of the most haunting and compelling performances I've ever seen, and on and on.

And who would have thought that "Saturday Night Live" could do remote production in a way that is actually funny? Brilliant.

People are infinitely creative — and that inspires me.

The opinions expressed are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the organization, its clients, or Portfolio Media Inc., or any of its or their respective affiliates. This article is for general information purposes and is not intended to be and should not be taken as legal advice.

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