Recruiting in-house teams in the Covid era

Margaret Taylor Thursday 1 July 2021


The Covid-19 pandemic has had a monumental impact on the recruitment sector, affecting everything from shortlists for available roles to how interviews are conducted. Margaret Taylor explores what this has meant for in-house teams and what can be expected as recruitment picks up.

In-house legal teams have always had to work hard to demonstrate their value – the idea that they cost rather than save their organisation money is a deep-seated one in some quarters. From a recruitment point of view that has always created a tension where every role must be justified and measured against the potential for external legal spend. In the time of Covid-19 – where finances are constrained – the situation has got worse.

‘Worldwide, legal functions are being seen as cost centres, not profit centres,’ says Abhijit Mukhopadhyay, Committee Liaison Officer on the IBA Corporate Counsel Forum and General Counsel at the Hinduja Group. ‘Even in normal times, if you ask [to hire] people, automatically there will be some kind of resistance – why do you need that, why can’t it be done via outsourcing?’

‘During Covid things became more complicated; when every overhead matters, it’s more complicated’, adds Mukhopadhyay.

The pandemic hits

When the pandemic hit, businesses around the globe were forced into survival mode. Initiatives such as Germany’s short-time work regulation and the UK’s furlough scheme enabled organisations to keep on staff even when, operationally, lockdowns meant there was nothing for them to do. For those already in employment it created a safety net. For those in the market for a new role there was no such security, with recruitment freezes becoming the order of the day and even hires that had already been progressed being abandoned.

‘It was a very similar scenario to the aftermath of the EU referendum [on the UK’s membership of the EU], when companies had to go to ground to focus on crisis management, keeping their business afloat and looking at how they had to pivot,’ says Sarah Ingwersen, Global Head of In-House at recruitment consultancy Taylor Root.

‘They had to instantly move people to remote working and that took up a lot of management time,’ she says. ‘Information on the furlough scheme was drip fed and it took a lot to make sense of it. A lot of our clients did go to ground for the first month or so and instructions rapidly dropped.’

“A lot of our clients did go to ground for the first month or so and instructions rapidly dropped

Sarah Ingwersen, Global Head of In-House, Taylor Root

Ingwersen explains that a large number of roles were put on hold and hiring freezes were put in place overnight for the majority of clients in the majority of sectors.

The tech and pharmaceuticals industries were the exceptions, as large companies and start-ups alike mobilised in an attempt to come up with a response to the pandemic. Eliza Stoker, the New York-based Executive Director for in-house recruiting at consultancy Major Lindsey & Africa, says that has continued into 2021, with demand for intellectual property (IP) lawyers soaring as companies seek to protect their newly developed assets. ‘IP is very much having a moment, mainly in biotech, so that makes sense,’ she says.

‘It’s a very competitive market for candidates right now in general,’ Stoker continues. ‘In 2019 there was a noticeable increase in the likelihood that any candidate would pretty much have multiple options. That made it harder to close a deal and there were more aggressive negotiations from candidates.’

She notes that in the first six months of the pandemic meanwhile, there wasn’t much hiring – then suddenly companies found they had to hire multiple people all at once.

Paradoxically, that is in part being driven by those businesses that have held fast to the view that in-house lawyers are an expense, who are now looking to build those teams to drive down costs.

Sean Nicholson, Managing Director of recruiter JMC Legal Recruitment, says that since the start of the pandemic more companies have been looking to streamline their legal spend by attempting to keep as much work in-house as possible. While that means dealing with the recurring cost of paying employee wages, it also eradicates the uncertainty of having to pay sporadic – and unquantifiable ahead of time – bills to external counsel.

‘If you bring in an in-house lawyer and they are paid £80,000 a year but outsourcing fees are coming in at £300,000 for doing that, businesses were doing everything they could to hold onto money,’ he says.

‘What we saw early on was some businesses looking to have larger legal teams in-house. If they could save £200,000 a year, they were looking to do that,’ explains Nicholson.

Ingwersen says there’s now more of a ‘business as usual’ feel to companies’ recruitment needs, noting that job flow at Taylor Root has increased by 15 per cent since the beginning of this year. ‘I really feel we’ve come out the other side and are back to buoyant times,’ she says. ‘The leisure sector, hotels, retailers and other consumer-focused sectors are preparing for a really strong second half and candidates are rebounding as well.’

She says that as lockdowns have eased and vaccines have been rolled out that has encouraged companies to start recruiting again and lawyers to start to gain more confidence.

A new reality

Not all in-house counsel use external recruiters to help build their teams. Part of the job of Aleksandra Doerffer, Diversity and Inclusion Officer on the IBA Corporate Counsel Forum and associate general counsel at Canada’s OPTrust Pension Fund, is to preserve the assets that belong to the scheme’s 98,000 members – as a result, working with third-parties is not usually an option. The organisation will generally rely on spreading the word about vacancies in meetings and in other social settings with contacts.

Due to the pandemic it was forced to rethink that approach.

‘At OPTrust we have to be very mindful of how we utilise the pension plan’s assets [as] we have to deliver best value for our members,’ says Doerffer. ‘What that has meant is that sometimes when we’re looking for very specific talent we might work with external recruiters.’

Throughout the past year OPTrust has made a number of hires into its 15-strong legal team. As well as having to find new ways of advertising those roles it has had to handle the entire process, from the interview stage right though to induction, remotely.

‘Throughout the past year working from home has been a success story for the entire OPTrust team and we have recruited a couple of individuals in a remote capacity,’ she says. ‘The process has been slightly different because we don’t have that ability to meet in person. We’ve continued to rely on word of mouth to some extent to promote opportunities and have been able to successfully leverage virtual meeting platforms. We’ve been able to get to know potential candidates and have developed a virtual onboarding platform that mirrors the in-person programme that we’ve had for many years.’

Adapting to the Covid era

It’s a phenomenon that has been replicated many times in cities across the world, as businesses in all sectors were forced to adjust to the long-term nature of the pandemic. If businesses did not adapt, they would end up left behind – and businesses have had to come to terms with that fact.

Nicholson says that over the past year he has held interviews with clients and candidates ‘on park benches in London and had offers and placements come off the back of that’. He says ‘businesses haven’t stopped and candidates still need new jobs, they’ve just had to adapt’.

“Businesses haven’t stopped and candidates still need new jobs, they’ve just had to adapt

Sean Nicholson, Managing Director, JMC Legal Recruitment

Much of that has involved holding interviews via video conferencing. Nicholson notes that platforms such as Teams and Zoom have become a ubiquitous – and invaluable – part of the interview process, though he adds that meeting candidates for the first time without being in the same room as them has proven to be fraught with difficulties. ‘You’re missing a vital part of the communication – eye contact, how they move, how they hold themselves,’ he says.

For Mukhopadhyay, that has been one of the biggest frustrations of recruiting during the pandemic. As head of legal at a transnational conglomerate made up of over 100 companies in 70 countries, he had no choice but to continue recruiting even as Covid-19 raged. New hires have been taken on by the team in 25 different jurisdictions but, as Hinduja is headquartered in London, Mukhopadhyay had to take the unusual step of interviewing every candidate at every stage remotely.

‘Before, we would use the phone then ask the shortlisted two or three to fly here so we could spend time with them,’ he says. Not being able to do that has made the task of picking which candidate to go for harder.

‘The most important challenge, once you’ve got CVs and a shortlist, is interacting with the candidates,’ Mukhopadhyay says. ‘When you call people into the office you can talk to them in a relaxed way and judge their body language, but that has been lost in the last year. It’s difficult to understand who those people are and what they can do. I’m not enjoying recruiting people remotely, but I don’t have any other option.’

“When you call people into the office you can talk to them in a relaxed way and judge their body language, but that has been lost in the last year

Abhijit Mukhopadhyay, Committee Liaison Officer, IBA Corporate Counsel Forum

Ripples in the talent pool

The pool of talent has also changed. Although confidence is returning, many people initially chose to put off their search for a new job until there was greater certainty in the global economy. The repercussions of that are still being felt.

‘Companies that were recruiting had to flex on the type of candidates they were looking at because what they would typically look for weren’t active in the market,’ Ingwersen says. ‘Candidates who had been looking to move just because they wanted to progress their career or try something else really stepped back from an active search because there was so much nervousness about job security.’

She adds that there were situations where offers couldn’t be honoured. ‘We were actively encouraging candidates that if they didn’t need to leave to sit tight and ride it out,’ she says. ‘We were honest with clients and said the shortlist you are going to get is not what you would get in a bull market.’

Stoker notes that, despite lockdown restrictions beginning to lift – and despite the problems inherent in remote recruitment – that is likely to continue for some time to come. That’s being influenced by ongoing nervousness about the jobs market, but also about what the return to normality might look like and how quickly the ‘new normal’ might arrive.

‘Meeting in person, some organisations feel they are not willing to give up that part of the process, but I’ve had candidates baulk at that and say if that’s part of the process they’re not interested,’ she says. ‘Sometimes the candidate gets borderline offended at the request. We have to tread carefully around that issue. Right now it’s a bit challenging to think about starting a new job. It feels like a lot for people right now and there are fewer candidates willing to commit to the process.’

“Meeting in person, some organisations feel they are not willing to give up that part of the process, but I’ve had candidates baulk at that

Eliza Stoker, Executive Director, Major Lindsey & Africa

A lasting legacy

Not all teams have needed to expand since the pandemic began. Harpreet Sidhu, Publications Officer on the IBA Corporate Counsel Forum and General Counsel at US insurance company Pethealth, says her organisation’s personnel needs have remained largely unchanged throughout the Covid era. Nevertheless, just as other businesses have had to adapt and embrace virtual recruitment processes, the way the existing team Pethealth team works has been overhauled too.

‘There has been an ongoing concern for in-house counsel teams to make accommodations and changes to accommodate Covid-19 rules and regulations regarding workplaces,’ she says. ‘In-house counsel teams have now directed some more attention to workplace safety and requirements to safely bring employees back to the physical office.’

Sidhu also believes that in-house lawyers who are privacy officers, as she is, have placed more emphasis on ensuring data protection and privacy is adhered to as everyone is working from home and companies are more exposed to cyber-attacks and data breaches.

While that has the potential to increase workloads, Mukhopadhyay says there are concerns that in-house teams are under pressure to be constantly available, a product of the fact that everyone is working from home – while simultaneously being more difficult to control because everyone is working remotely.

‘A problem everyone is facing, particularly at the senior level, is that people think you are available 24/7,’ he says. ‘Messages, texts, WhatsApp [messages] come in at all hours and the expectation is that you’ll sit with your laptop on the table all the time. When you come into the office for work the expectation is lower.’

‘Now people think you get up at 7am and sit at your laptop or mobile,’ he adds. ‘We get invited into Zoom calls just by being sent a link; with physical meetings it doesn’t happen like that.’

That brings a pressure of its own, but Mukhopadhyay feels that pressure is heightened because of the way in-house teams are constantly having to justify their existence. Though that can be stressful, he says in-house lawyers can use it to their advantage, becoming the go-to authority in areas such as electronic contracts that have come to the fore as a result of the pandemic.

‘I believe people should develop themselves as a brand so they remain relevant in a Covid or non-Covid situation,’ he says. ‘People will know you are a go-to person that’s there to help the business. You have to remain relevant all the time and try to give value addition so the business remembers you whether you are working remotely or not.’

Mukhopadhyay stresses that, as remote working is likely to remain in some shape or form long after the pandemic has died down, a balance has to be found so in-house lawyers can benefit from the added flexibility without feeling the strain of the extra demands. It’s not the only area in which organisations and candidates will have to adapt as things shake down and what is meant by ‘the new normal’ becomes clearer.

The long-term impact of the pandemic, Ingwersen believes, is that digital recruitment and flexible working practices will endure in some form. Face-to-face interviews will come back into vogue, she says, but probably only for the final stage, while full-time home working is likely to be replaced by a hybrid part-office, part-home model. For organisations looking to bolster their in-house teams that creates a far deeper candidate pool; for candidates looking to progress their careers it opens up a greater number of opportunities.

However, Stoker stresses that candidates are continuing to show nervousness about promises being made to them now in case they do not hold true when the pandemic is over and business-as-normal makes a comeback. Organisations that ensure the best of the pandemic-led practices become the norm will be the winners in the long run, she says.

‘Right now people are being told they can work anywhere, but there’s a concern about whether that will remain true – at some point are these people going to be told they’ll have to relocate?’, Stoker says.

‘Candidates express that concern and we don’t know what assurances to give them,’ she adds. ‘I hope that work from anywhere is permanent. If an employer is in New York and they meet the right candidate but they live in Idaho it represents a maturity in business thinking to say they can work with this person because they are the right person. That represents a paradigm shift that would benefit businesses.’