Dave Hattem and Adwoa Awotwi/courtesy photos Dave Hattem and Adwoa Awotwi/courtesy photos

One general counsel is figuring out how to hire and start a new paralegal while the office is closed. Another is working on how to get signatures onto documents in Nigeria, which only accepts original “hard, wet ink,” when no one can travel there.

They are among five general counsel trying to run their legal departments from home during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Recently they talked to Corporate Counsel about how they transitioned the job, what they are able to accomplish, where they are hitting obstacles and what advice they could offer to colleagues. Here are some of their condensed comments:

Christina Ibrahim is executive vice president, general counsel and chief compliance officer of the global oil and gas company Weatherford International in Houston.  

About 99% of the legal department’s 110 employees are working remotely. We operate in 80 countries, and lawyers are dispersed around 15 to 20 of them. A couple decided to keep coming into the office, such as in Russia.

The majority of our work is advising and reviewing documents. You can pretty much do that anywhere. What’s lost is the interaction with other functions outside the law department which creates a more cohesive working environment.

You miss the informal communications where you find out what people are thinking about, their concerns, their strategies, where you can still be of help if you knew.

From the technical, legal support perspective, there’s nothing you can’t do remotely with computers and conference calls. It’s just those soft touches with business partners that are lost.

We are working on how to get signatures on some documents. Some countries, like Nigeria, do not accept electronic signatures, everything has to be in hard, wet ink. We do a lot of intercompany transactions and supplier transactions in Nigeria, which is closed now [to travel]. So we’re going to have to figure out a solution.

I think it’s going to be a long slog, so my advice is to encourage people to take care of themselves, be sensitive to how people are reacting [to working at home], encourage them to make it a peaceful, comfortable environment. Take time to go for a walk, or clean up around you if that’s what you need. And overcommunicate with teammates.

Dave Hattem serves as chief legal officer and corporate secretary of New York-based Equitable Holdings.

The corporation includes two main subsidiaries, financial services provider Equitable and investment management and research firm AllianceBernstein. Equitable has approximately 45 attorneys and 135 legal and compliance professionals, while AllianceBernstein has about 110 legal and compliance professionals.

While the current crisis is unprecedented, fortunately, the law departments across Equitable and AllianceBernstein have operated out of several locations with flexible working arrangements for some time. Therefore, we had experience and technology in place to pivot to a full-time remote work environment.

In addition to handling all business-as-usual matters, such as regulatory filings, we continue to identify, assess and respond to the myriad of new legal and business matters arising out of the crisis. These include new government mandates, working arrangements and business challenges. We have redirected resources to address totally new issues, all of which require immediate attention.

We communicate exhaustively with our staff, clients, vendors, regulators, executive management and board. [It’s important] to ensure the human connection is maintained and enhanced during this strange period of social isolation.

Our virtual law department meetings continue at every level—as teams, leaders and practice groups speak regularly and often via video and audio conference calls and Skype.

Adwoa Awotwi is general counsel for LocumTenens.com, based in Alpharetta, Georgia, which provides temporary physicians to facilities across the country. 

My department is small, just me and a paralegal. We work closely with our parent company, Jackson Healthcare, which has four attorneys and a paralegal. I have hired a new paralegal and have to figure out how to get them started next Monday.

Work has been crazy because of the virus. We provide temporary health care staffing, so some of our clients have canceled their bookings while others have stepped up their requests for clinicians, especially in the emergency rooms. We are trying to accelerate the pace that we get clinicians and to keep up with increased requests for specialty teams.

We have been dealing with some novel legal issues, such as with so many cities and states instituting shelter-in-place or stay-at-home orders, how can we get our clinicians to their assignments? We are providing them with a letter identifying them as exempt health care professionals.

Another novel issue was finding a way to prescreen clinicians about whether they might have been exposed, including by asking about their recent travels, without introducing discrimination.

We are handling the routine work OK from home because it involves mostly documents and documentation, which we can do over email. It’s helpful in some contract negotiations, when normally we would meet in person, to do conference calls to finish up the details.

After the first week I suffered some “home fatigue,” and I realized I need to take regular breaks, put up some boundaries so I don’t start early in the morning and work late into the night, make sure I eat and go outside to take short walks. It made a world of difference.

I think this whole “new normal” is going to change how a lot of folks do business in the future, including in the legal field. It will be interesting to see where it goes.

Richard Nohe serves as general counsel for BT Americas Inc., in Dallas, which provides networked information technology services.

I manage the legal team across the Americas region, but virtually the entire BT team across the globe is working from home. We are fortunate to have the right tools to make it work, as BT sells the type of services that enable large multinational corporations to embrace remote working. For the most part, employees have laptops with video and are accustomed to using Skype, MS Teams, Cisco Webex, Zoom and other virtual-meeting software.

Over the past decade, I have seen the pendulum swing back-and-forth between office and agile. Nothing can replace face-to-face engagement. However, when the team knows each other, technology can provide flexibility.

One thing that is more difficult is doing a workshop to work through an issue with a multidisciplinary team. Virtual tools can be used but are not a substitute for face-to-face interaction. The advising in a negotiation setting or in brainstorming for product development and the like is not the same.

I would say that most tasks can be handled remotely, and short periods of working from home is productive. The unknown at the moment is how long society will be in this position, and what will happen at the human level, rather than the task level.

What we lose by being remote is human contact and the ability to interact socially, either at the water cooler or across the negotiation table. Therefore, we need to manage through this time by making sure we check in with each other. Having video makes a huge difference and it should be used for a virtual cup of coffee or a substantive meeting. It relaxes people in the first instance and keeps people on their toes in the second.

Mark Smolik is general counsel and chief compliance officer of DHL Supply Chain Americas, based in Columbus, Ohio.

The legal department has about 62 people scattered in 57 different places, most working from home. I would say we are doing about 95% of what we would be doing day in and day out in the office.

We were prepared for this because for most of 2018 I was not physically in the office due to illness. Everyone knows their roles and responsibilities and what to do. The situation has gone flawless and it’s been a cakewalk for us.

We are completely consumed with COVID-19 issues. It is our priority. We have half a million employees, some diagnosed, some in quarantine, but we are making a Herculean effort to move 7% of the world’s commerce.

On the one hand, we are seeing that all our associates are protected and deciding what to do if an employee on a trip is exposed. On the other hand we are figuring out how to continue our business. For example, everything you see in your 7/11 store was brought there by us, and in your hardware and grocery stores. The sheer volume now of pharmaceuticals or of groceries are challenging to keep up with.

We are also dealing with dozens of states and counties that say stay at home. Those orders have to be reviewed and evaluated to decide who can go to work and under what circumstances. We need to make sure we can continue to operate our warehouses.

As for tips, the first thing is respect the fact that team members are moms and dads and spouses and children first. I made it clear that foremost they have to take care of themselves and their families, and then somewhere down the line they are members of this team.

We went to great lengths to make sure they’ve got all the resources they need at home with virtual offices. We communicate effectively and often. Weekly team calls give each member an opportunity to engage with everyone else. Staying connected is very critical.

So is being deliberate and clear on expectations. Giving them the autonomy to do what they need to do, such as forming alliances as needed, has paid significant dividends.