GCs on Covid-19

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Jamie Rayat
The Legal 500, London


Broadcasting from London’s International Arbitration Centre, The Legal 500’s Publishing Director, David Burgess, welcomed a global virtual audience to the webinar, held in panel discussion format. The session began with a poll asking attendees ‘how has Covid-19 affected your interaction with clients?’ Approximately half of respondents said they were working collaboratively with clients, and 38 per cent had not seen much change except increased working from home.

The panel was then asked to share their experiences. Janet McCarthy, Group Legal Director of Bupa, explained her organisation had pulled together during the crisis, but pointed out there is still work to do externally. Citibank’s Fauzia Kehar noted how face-to-face interaction had become more digitalised and CAN’s Executive Vice-President and General Counsel, Jose Gonzales, added detail on how interactions within his legal function had changed: ‘You don't just show up to a meeting and have that side conversation where three things get done then move on. Everything is a half hour scheduled meeting. I don't think we're working very differently, but it's more intentional, which makes it harder [and] takes more effort. I think it's a little bit exhausting for people’. Helen Hayes, Legal Director for Uber’s United Kingdom and Ireland market, explained that while her diary didn’t look different to pre-Covid-19, she highlighted transactional interactions and the increased importance of nurturing relationships.

The main source of change for Hayes’ department centred on doing more with less. Headcount cuts, operational and strategic changes mean much more is being done, and more quickly, by in-house legal teams. McCarthy summed up the in-house legal perspective as follows: ‘Our world is upside down in every sense’.  

Directly addressing firms and what they can do for clients in this context, McCarthy proposed they pick up the phone and ask ‘in this topsy-turvy world, what can we do to help you?’ She explained how in eight months, only one law firm has done this. Jose had friends in law firms reach out to him but only in a personal capacity. He admitted that the crisis has – thanks to in-house teams not outsourcing work due to time constraints – altered the firm and client dynamic. Hayes agreed, stating in-house counsel are ‘firefighting’, and suggested firms can be useful to general counsels (GCs) by helping them navigate new areas of business that are growing thanks to Covid-19. She admitted however, that you just ‘don’t see that’.

The second poll was then put to the audience, asking ‘how would you rate your firm on diversity, inclusion and wellbeing progress?’ A total of 84 per cent of respondents said ‘discussions are being held internally to see how we improve’, their companies were ‘making measurable changes’ or ‘have measurable plans in place’. Kehar explained that while there was always more that could be done, ‘the needle has definitely shifted to being more positive’ in the in-house legal and corporate worlds.

Burgess commented that surveys showed Covid-19 may be pushing women back in ‘traditional roles’ in the home and preventing progress. When asked if this was the case in the legal industry, Hayes hoped it would be the opposite, explaining the crisis has demonstrated lawyers can do brilliant work remotely, and has broken down barriers regarding families and lives outside the law. Kehar has had young lawyers and mothers come to her with gratitude about being able to work from home and with more flexibility.

A question from the audience asked if GCs made decisions about law firm selection based on diversity. In response, Kehar’s experience was that firms tend to emulate what clients are doing and often incorporate the same value systems, so GCs must lead by example as chances are, law firms pick up on that.

Burgess then moved the discussion on to wellbeing, stating it’s a huge topic at the front and centre of everyone’s lockdown due to new working patterns.

McCarthy answered that we will all get through this in time, but it’s about resilience. Kehar echoed this and added ‘the only certain thing is more uncertainty, the message we can portray towards our teams is that they're not alone … no one has a perfect fix and we are evolving as we go along’. Jose mentioned his team has spent time thinking of the department as a collection of individuals more than ever, including asking who may be having a harder time of things, such as those with small children and people who live alone. He explained that they should be not be treated differently but instead supported appropriately.

Burgess noted the ‘old-school’ mindset of unhealthy hours and time spent in the office, and asked the panel if the pandemic was an opportunity to be more open about challenges faced, and whether this is emerging in the legal industry.

Hayes pointed out that boundaries are gone, so there are risks of no mental and physical breaks from work, and managers need to be looking out for signals. Ways to do this include email time stamps, work patterns, direct meetings with team members as well as skip-level meetings. She adds that Uber has in general fostered a supportive, open culture, but law firms may still have some way to go in that. McCarthy echoed this point about culture, stating Bupa’s purpose (helping people lead longer, healthier, happier lives) is not just what they do for customers but is encouraged internally amongst business teams. McCarthy then explained how Bupa uses the following tools to support internal wellbeing:

  • Taxonomy: empowering people to have conversations around wellbeing via vocabulary training; and
  • Self-awareness: knowing how to identify red flags and speaking about them in team meetings to pick up on the mental states of colleagues.

She added that a silver lining of Covid-19 is that wellbeing as a topic has become more normalised, and she hopes that in 2021 we can retain openness and conversations around mental health and wellbeing.

Kehar described her approach to team wellbeing as the Three Musketeers philosophy of ‘we’re all in it together’. In practical terms, this involves picking up the phone and seeing how people are doing, particularly those more prone to stress, and keeping a pulse check on people working for you and with you.

After the panel identified these tools and tips around mental health as well as their importance, Burgess asked the panel about experiences with law firms and wellbeing. Jose said that his firms are always trying to understand culture – both company and legal department culture – but hasn’t noticed an improvement in how that’s done. He admitted all business cultures are in flux at the moment and he feels he sits in a very different company than he did a year ago. He doesn’t blame law firms who struggle to figure out where organisations are going, as they’re moving so quickly and can’t be certain where they’ll end up.

McCarthy then encouraged firms to check if clients wanted to have conversation with teams on each side, discussing ways of working. She emphasised we all need to help each other, which goes back to trust and openness, and that if firms and clients start there, they will probably enjoy a much more fulfilling relationship.


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