Thursday, September 9, 2021 - 15:35

A POST-COVID WORLD FOR CORPORATE COUNSEL

Remote talent management, boundary setting, contract evaluation for digital issues – six industry leaders give their takes on the post-Covid world for corporate counsel. 

COVID

BY RACHEL CHIA

Learning from the lessons of the pandemic, corporate counsel around the world are focusing on a different kind of task: reviewing contracts to see if they are robust enough for the new normal that we’ll probably operate in for the foreseeable future. This is just one of the many changes to the work of corporate counsel, according to Francis Goh, who heads Harry Elias Partnership’s international arbitration arm.

Speaking at a webinar in June, Francis noted that his firm was seeing a greater take-up of negotiation and mediation. “People realise that litigation or arbitration may be a zero-sum game. Standing for your rights is not going to get you very far in a Covid situation, or in a post-Covid situation where everyone is trying to survive.”

Changes like these were felt keenly by the event’s attendees, who shared the changes they had experienced in their day-to-day work: about half of them felt their roles had changed since the pandemic, with four in 10 saying they handled more disputes. An equal number shared that the nature of disputes had changed as well.

As Rama Tiwari, Chief Executive of SAL, pointed out, digital-related disputes are occurring more frequently.

These changes have made the fundamental role of general counsel as risk managers more challenging, shared Terry D Thornley, the APAC general counsel for executive recruiting firm Spencer Stuart. “The speed, complexity and the risks themselves have all changed dramatically.”

Added Francis: “You're going to migrate (to a digital model), you're going to adopt new channels of communication, put data on the cloud. But do you have the contract and infrastructure that says you've identified the risks, managed the data, (and how are you) going to deal with jurisdictional issues?”

To cope, firms must assess if they need to beef up their teams with digital talent – “or even just the skills to understand the contracts that you're entering into as you go into a cloud relationship,” said Rama, adding that counsel could also explore digital tools to drive collaboration and speed up service delivery.

TEAM MANAGEMENT

Amid the trend of work from home (WFH), managing teams remotely is proving a major challenge for many professionals and general counsel are no exception. Joanne Simpson, vice president, legal Southeast Asia and Pacific Rim at Wyndham Hotels & Resorts, acknowledged that holding performance reviews over Zoom is “tough”. “But if one of the key skills in the future is digitisation of working environments, that is one of the skills that GCs and everyone in our legal team is going to have to develop,” she said.

Spencer Stuart’s Terry, who has a two-month-old daughter, said the key to building relationships online is by understanding each team member’s unique life situation. Leaders should use their emotional intelligence to assess what could be causing issues, and how to empower staff to successfully work from home. He admitted that his WFH situation went from “pretty easy” to “a lot of bottles and diapers and crying” within two weeks.

K K Lim, head of cybersecurity, privacy and data protection at Harry Elias Partnership, added that “little considerations” go a long way in building trust with staff. For example, this includes scheduling calls during nap times for team members with infants.

FIRM BOUNDARIES

All the speakers agreed that with remote work, it is easy for lawyers to end up overworked. This applies especially to those with colleagues in multiple time zones, said Joanne. “There’s always been that after-hours expectation, but that is heightened because you've got your laptop with you all the time when you are at home. It’s important that we are talking to our teams to establish a healthy work-life balance while meeting our KPIs,” she added.

Francis added that working effectively in the pandemic requires discipline to demarcate work and rest time, which is “vitally important” for mental health. “If you are not disciplined, you are going to face psychological issues and emotional issues, and we have seen a lot of that taking place these days,” he said.

Alexis Talcott-Curry, assistant general counsel (Asia Pacific) of CCL Industries, said that part of effective boundary-setting includes clear performance expectations. This includes establishing that performance does not equate to face time. “It's incumbent on us to make sure that we’re clear with our teams how they're going to be judged. I would suggest that it ought to be on the merits of the work,” she said. “As lawyers, we tend to be perfectionists, so there’s that desire to cross the boundaries because we want to make what we're doing better and better and be perceived as performing.”

The speakers were speaking at a June 11 webinar titled “Corporate Counsel in a Post Covid-19 World", organised by Harry Elias Partnership in collaboration with the Association of Corporate Counsel (ACC) Singapore Chapter.

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