Client servicing during and after Covid-19 - the corporate counsel perspective
Chair, IBA Corporate Counsel Forum
Crisis, emergency. Every corporate counsel knows that during their professional life they will go through at least one, but most probably several. Almost every company has emergency policies, response teams and a crisis unit in place. When the time comes to apply them, things do not always go as planned as it is difficult to predict every aspect of an emergency and how it could develop in the short or medium term.
The Covid-19 pandemic is proving to be a hard challenge because the emergency is new in scale and will last for several months. An emergency is normally expected to be an extraordinary turn of events that affects only part of a business; in the case of Covid-19 the activities of a whole company are affected (in one way or another) and the emergency has become ordinary business – and will remain so for a long time.
The need to quickly reshape the activities of a company in order to cope with the emergency and to mitigate its effects implies that corporate counsels are asked to simultaneously deal with any and every area of law while being involved in any decision-making with the management. In-house legal departments are facing an increase of workload while they are requested or obliged to work remotely, with the whole team spread in different locations.
How can law firms’ relationships with their clients develop in these times?
Sharing of general know-how
Each country is issuing new laws and regulations to govern the lockdown period: those regulations are relevant to many different areas of law; are different for each jurisdiction and may be amended every two or three weeks to take into consideration the development of the emergency, including the easing of the lockdown. Since the start of the pandemic many law firms have made national or multijurisdictional analysis of such laws and regulations available to their clients. Any peculiar matter relevant to a specific business could then be addressed directly by the corporate counsel with the law firm, in particular for what concerns foreign jurisdictions. The same would apply to certain legal concepts that may be different depending on the jurisdiction (eg, force majeure or frustration).
Consider secondment of resources to in-house legal departments
Some lawyers within a firm may have spare capacity considering, for example, that transactional work may be reduced during the emergency period. A firm’s resources could be seconded for a couple of days a week to an in-house legal department for an agreed fee that most probably would be acceptable for both parties under the current circumstances. Furthermore, as in the coming weeks many lawyers will continue to work from their respective homes the costs of the secondment could be further reduced.
Offer online training events
Although the workload of in-house legal departments is expected to increase during a long-lasting emergency, it is possible that some in the team may have a couple of hours of spare time during a week. The same could well be possible for a law firm. That spare time could be used to organise online training events for both firms’ lawyers and in-house counsels.
Keep the relationship going
Working remotely may have an impact on the relationship between a firm and its clients; however, availability and responsiveness should always remain top priorities even during the emergency. Even when the pandemic will eventually be over some ways of working developed in the Covid-19 period will continue to be applied. Many things will not go back to what they used to be.
As a consequence of the pandemic almost every company will need to reduce its costs and legal departments will also be required to reduce their budgets while the demand for legal services (both in-house and external) is likely to increase. Only a company that can survive the crisis will remain a potential client in the future. It is in the best interest of both parties to find workable fee arrangements that take into consideration the unique current situation.
Help to shape the future
Companies may not have had enough time to prepare for the emergency but they have now to think about their future; external counsels can assist in that respect, for example, helping to understand what changes in the legal framework could be expected in the near term and how to be timely prepared for such changes.
Finally, the legal legacy of Covid-19 pandemic will last for years and companies will need to deal with the consequences of the emergency. Creating, keeping or improving valuable relationships between firms and clients during the crisis will only add value in the future.