COVID-19’s Lasting (and Exhausting) Effect on Legal Departments
This past year legal departments found out just how elastic they can be. Call it “agility” or “resilience,” but the fact is in-house leaders absorbed extra work from hiring freezes, COVID-19-related litigation, data privacy concerns and workforce issues, all from the sometimes chaotic confines of their homes.
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This past year legal departments found out just how elastic they can be. Call it “agility” or “resilience,” but the fact is in-house leaders absorbed extra work from hiring freezes, COVID-19-related litigation, data privacy concerns and workforce issues, all from the sometimes chaotic confines of their homes. So to say that this past year has created a lot of “challenges” is a bit of an understatement for those in the trenches. The truth is that the challenges this past year presented have been immense, particularly on people’s mental health. While the 20-foot walk to the “office” may have seemed like a dream when compared to the two-hour commute into the city in the early days of the pandemic, running a nearly fully virtual workforce for over a year has undeniably created real issues around connectivity, morale and engagement.
So what can be done to ease the stress of this new reality?
According to Coinbase chief legal officer Paul Grewal, openness and candor are crucial ingredients. “One thing that’s been effective in drawing people out is showing some vulnerability and sharing with the team: I’m struggling every day with my kids, my schedule, my stress,” he adds. “I talk a lot about the struggles I’m having and, hopefully, in doing that I can make people realize that we’re all in this together and not everyone is figuring things out.”
Part of that development is connected to the widespread use of video calls, which give co-workers a window into one another’s living spaces.
“In this environment, keeping a strong connection has become more top of mind,” says Booking.com chief legal officer Maria Rocha Barros who has a 3-year-old at home and is pregnant with her second child. “Creating open conversation about the responsibilities that we are juggling has been important to ensuring everyone feels comfortable to raise those concerns.”
Visa Inc. general counsel and senior vice president Julie Rottenberg also stressed the importance of communication from the top down. “I think, like everybody, we’re starting to see some fatigue,” she says. “It’s hard to maintain the really insane pace that all legal departments have faced this year. So we’re really encouraging everyone to take a break and recharge. It’s really important that everyone takes some time off.”
Even if many of us head back into our offices in the near future, the pandemic ushered in a new way of working, and there’s no going back. So it needs to be sustainable.
In-house lawyers who have struggled to find anything resembling a work-life balance for themselves while working remotely are now in the process of helping their companies figure out how remote work can continue post-pandemic, which only serves as yet another addition to an already heavy workload.
And it is that increased responsibility coupled with the work-from-home environment that can come with a steep price. An Association for Corporate Counsel poll in July 2020 found that more than 88% of the 460 in-house lawyer respondents were working from home and 53% indicated that they are logging more hours than they did when they were in the office.
Suffice to say that, for many in-house lawyers, remote work didn’t get any easier from there. The pandemic solidified GCs’ role as top-level crisis managers as well as growth drivers. Companies’ top lawyers are now working across business units such as HR, real estate, operations, IT, finance, and supply teams, and there is no going back to being viewed as just “Legal.” All this while also being asked to cut costs.
Want to know more? Here’s what we’ve discovered in the ALM Global Newsroom:
Heather D. Nevitt is the Editor-in-Chief of Corporate Counsel and Global Leaders in Law.
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