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In-house teams face busy 2022

Joanne HarrisThursday 2 December 2021

In-house teams are looking ahead to 2022 and the combination of pandemic-related and business-as-usual issues, as well as increased focus in areas such as ESG and wellbeing, which the year is set to bring. In-House Perspective speaks to counsel about their expectations.

With only weeks before the new year, many companies are starting to think about what 2022 might hold. The combination of Covid-19, macro-economic and geopolitical pressures such as the climate crisis, plus an increased awareness of the value of wellbeing for staff, are all giving rise to extra work for in-house lawyers. Their role as critical members of a management team is arguably more important now than ever before.

‘We have a much bigger role to play in terms of culture than we were allowed to in the past,’ says Vicky Wells, General Counsel at UK renewable energy construction company Anesco. ‘Lawyers have become really great at applying their mindsets; not just thinking about being a lawyer in the room, and not being the lawyer in the room at all but being part of the management team.’

Harpreet K Sidhu, Publications Officer for the IBA Corporate Counsel Forum and General Counsel, Corporate Secretary and Privacy Officer for Canadian-headquartered pet insurance company Pethealth, says the Covid-19 pandemic showed in-house lawyers the importance of working with other stakeholders within a business.

‘You can’t just show up at the last minute, you have to be involved in the process,’ Sidhu says, adding that from the in-house counsel perspective being creative and networking across the business pays dividends.

This is especially the case when dealing with business-critical issues. Sidhu believes that for Pethealth, and for many companies across numerous industries, data protection will be top of the agenda next year.

She says customers are increasingly concerned about data protection issues, and in-house counsel are having to grapple with how they manage requests for data. Multinational companies are particularly affected, due to the myriad of regulation governing data protection and cyber security around the world.

But in-house counsel may find they now also have to look more closely at employee data protection if they work in a business requiring mandatory Covid-19 vaccinations.

Sidhu says that ‘once you start storing people’s medical information your threshold has become higher in terms of protecting that data. Companies don’t think of all these consequences and it’s so important.’

The need to consider issues such as this alongside the question of employee wellbeing is of increased importance right now. Being part of the business therefore particularly involves building a strong relationship with the human resources team.

For Sidhu, her silver lining in the pandemic was that she and her chief HR officer built a great relationship. ‘We looked aligned as a company because of that. If you don’t have a good relationship with your people, now is the time to build one – you can’t operate in silos,’ Sidhu says.

“If you don’t have a good relationship with your people, now is the time to build one – you can’t operate in silos

Harpreet K Sidhu, Publications Officer, IBA Corporate Counsel Forum

‘There’s always crossover between legal and HR,’ Wells agrees. ‘It’s a lot more about culture and values and governance. HR have a much bigger role to play than they were allowed to in the past in terms of governance; we have a much bigger role to play in terms of culture than we were allowed to in the past.’

Hybrid and remote working will remain core issues going into 2022, with incoming employees demanding flexibility and more consideration of their wellbeing at work.

‘It’s not just about more money, it’s about the whole offering, including benefits, lifestyles, flexibility, diversity and workplace culture, it all has to come together,’ Sidhu says.

Wells, a recent recruit to a new company growing fast, says Anesco’s management are constantly thinking about workload and how to manage this with employee wellbeing.

‘I’ve always found that purpose is very important to wellbeing,’ she says. ‘Businesses I’ve been in where the purpose is starting to drift a little bit is when employees can feel disgruntled. It helps people through the hard times when there’s lots on their plates. The focus over this year is making sure that we don't drop that.’

In a rapidly expanding company, Wells says the key question for the legal team is how to provide pragmatic, fast advice that protects the business – keeping the wheels turning but not putting the brakes on.

Both Wells and Sidhu expect there to be some continued Covid-related work into 2022, although the focus has shifted from reacting to the pandemic to ongoing management and communication to the business.

But there are other macro-economic drivers out there which businesses are having to think about. Environmental, social and governance (ESG) is, alongside data, at the top of the regulatory agenda and Wells says in-house lawyers can play a key role in driving a business’ position on it.

‘Lawyers are often the voice of consciousness. We start off in a good position when we raise something and say “this is a serious issue”. We have a privileged position there in being able to raise important issues,’ she points out.

Allied to this is a need to stay on top of corporate governance issues, maintaining oversight of a business’ obligations while helping it flourish. Once again, a key message for in-house counsel in the coming year is to keep connected to the company.

Sidhu suggests networking and a willingness to be creative will help general counsel stay relevant and have the most impact in a year that looks set to see teams juggling business-as-usual issues, ongoing pandemic questions and regulatory requirements.