In 2017 one of my colleagues at Lawyers on Demand (LOD), Sarah Taylor, investigated flexible working in the legal profession after receiving a scholarship from the In-house Lawyers Association of New Zealand (ILANZ).
Sarah found that while there were some in-house lawyers working flexibly, many in-house functions were slow to offer flexible working arrangements, despite many in-house lawyers wanting more flexibility.
Fast forward to 2020, where the lockdown forced a shift to 100% remote working for most in-house legal functions.
In an article in the July issue of LawTalk, I summarised the findings from an online survey that LOD conducted which revealed that, for most in-house legal functions, the shift to remote working had gone smoothly and their lawyers could work pretty much the same way as they would in the office. This suggested that flexible working had come of age.
I wanted to explore this further to see if post-lockdown flexible working arrangements have become the ‘new normal’. My colleagues and I approached several senior in-house counsel in the private and public sectors. We asked them about the shift to remote working as a result of lockdown, and how that had affected their views on flexible working and using temporary flexible in-house lawyers.
What emerged are compelling insights of what happened through lockdown and what it means for in-house teams going forward. What also came out were descriptions of how ‘flexible’ (that is adaptive and agile) in-house lawyers can be in helping solve problems for their organisations, and how these counsel have become ‘lawyers who are not just legal’.
Smooth shift to remote working
The senior in-house counsel we talked to confirmed our survey findings. For most in-house legal functions the shift to remote working had gone smoothly – at least from a logistical and technological viewpoint.
Cat Prior is Manager, Legal Team at Ministry for the Environment. She said: “The transition was easy in that our laptops and system access were ready to go from anywhere with internet.”
Andrew Cordner, Director of Legal at Fonterra noted: “Not everyone was completely set up at home to start with but we worked with them to make sure they had the resources and equipment to do their role.”
Technologies allowed lawyers to work remotely and plug into in-house functions and communicate as if they were working in the office despite being actually located elsewhere.
Tim Whiteley, Deputy Chief Legal Advisor at Department of Internal Affairs said: “As all our tools/resources are online, we could work pretty much the same way as we would do in the office most of the time.”
Vicki Scott, Acting General Counsel at Real Estate Authority, said: “We very quickly embraced Microsoft Teams and Zoom, and that became the norm. Theoretically, there was no impediment to us continuing business as usual.”
‘We are all in this together’
While the logistical and technological aspects of the shift to remote working may have been smooth, the socially distant environment was challenging and stressful for some, particularly those with young children, or who shared their homes with flatmates or elderly relatives.
Sarah White, GM Legal and Business Advisory at Xero, said: “We acknowledged that it wasn’t just a shift to working from home, but to working from home during a global pandemic. We had to be mindful of what people were going through and their particular situation.”
Andrew Cordner: “We realised that some of us were not going to operate in the usual way or at the usual times. We made sure that our people knew that we understood this, that they needed to prioritise their families and work around the demands at home, and that we were aware for some that this might impact their productivity.”
There were also challenges in mentally adjusting to the experience of lockdown and the threat of Covid-19.
Cat Prior added: “The shift to full remote working was a big one mentally. We were able to move all our team meetings and stand-ups online and tacked on some short optional extras, for example quizzes and news sharing, which gave us the opportunity to learn more about each other and definitely helped with the team bonding.”
The “all in this together mindset” helped to foster better communication and collaboration within teams.
James Radcliffe, General Counsel at Woolworths NZ, said: “When our team was working from home, we were all in the same boat. That made it easier for us to be aligned and informed. With the shift to level 3 and 2, when parts of teams were back in the office and others were still at home, it was much harder to maintain that alignment. We were having conversations with people in the hallway, not always remembering to include others who are working from home.”
Flexible working arrangements the ‘new normal’
The lockdown experience has normalised working from home.
Cat Prior said: “Pre-lockdown there was a little uncertainty about working from home because not everyone did it. Now almost everyone in the team has a work from home day or two each week on the days that suit them best.” Tim Whiteley added: “I think most of the team will end up doing some work from home going forward.”
Technology has helped to facilitate this ‘new normal’.
Sam Jack, General Counsel NZ at Fulton Hogan, commented: “If our in-house lawyers have a mobile phone, laptop and decent internet connection we can probably do 95% of the things that we could do in the office. The outstanding 5% is the fact that you miss out on the culture in the office, the chance to have useful water cooler or corridor discussions and the fact that it is harder to complete some administrative tasks.”
That 5% will only affect lawyers who are 100% remote working and never come into the office, and teams can find ways to overcome those issues.
Vicki Scott notes: “We must find new and creative ways to maintain our positive team culture as we embrace a more flexible workplace. Flexibility in the workplace is fundamental to an inclusive organisation. The days of enforcing strict work patterns that accommodate only a certain portion of society are well and truly gone.”
Some might argue that team members continuing to work from home in a post-lockdown world is more a reflection of people still wanting to maintain some sort of social distancing while the threat of further outbreaks of Covid-19 remain, but the experience of the last couple of months have clearly demonstrated the benefits of flexible working.
Andrew Cordner: “We have always been supportive of flexible working in our team, but going forward I think more of the team will take up this opportunity as it is seen as something that can really work and provide productivity gains and clear wellness benefits.”
Temporary flexible in-house lawyers
Workload for most in-house teams increased during the lockdown. Some called on temporary flexible lawyers with previous in-house experience to help them or extended the contracts of temporary flexible in-house lawyers already on board.
Cat Prior noted it was “really useful” to have short-term staff available to support the workload, while Andrew Cordner said: “During level 4 we seamlessly ‘virtually’ inducted a very experienced temporary staff member into the team and into a decent workflow providing backfill for one of our senior lawyers on a major project, and she is doing a great job for us.”
The advantage of bringing on board a temporary flexible lawyer with previous in-house experience is that they can hit the ground running and are used to distilling stuff down to the critical issues and the key decisions in the language that organisations use.
James Radcliffe: “A temporary in-house lawyer makes sense from a cost perspective. Their experience also means they can communicate legal issues to the business in a way that is meaningful and helps our wider team make decisions efficiently. The knack of distilling stuff down to the critical issues and the key decisions in the language that the business uses is something that’s quite attractive.”
Sarah White agrees. “The benefit of using temporary staff is that it frees up the legal team to focus on strategic priorities while making sure that BAU is covered.”
Lawyers who are not just legal
The experience of lockdown also demonstrated how ‘flexible’ (that is adaptive and agile) in-house lawyers can be in helping solve problems for their organisations.
In-house legal teams that can work collaboratively and develop and assess options at speed have the ability to deliver real and sustainable positive outcomes for their organisations.
James Radcliffe: “Going forward, high-performing in-house legal functions will have the mindset that allowed people to be successful through the crisis. Highly collaborative, able to prioritise and problem solve, able to keep things simple, able to work in an agile environment in cross-functional teams, and able to comfortably make decisions without all the facts and review and adapt those decisions if they don’t work the first time. Most importantly, it’s about being able to be flexible – to pick up a project, job or task and just do it whether it’s legal or not.”
These are the characteristics of in-house lawyers who can add real value to their organisations.
Sarah White: “We don’t see ourselves as just legal advisors, but as part of a team looking to achieve an outcome. This means we’re involved early in projects and we help to guide and shape them. We need to be agile and able to change our approach to adapt to the changing environment.”
I began this article by referencing back to 2017, where I noted that many in-house functions were slow to offer flexible working arrangements. Now, post-lockdown and into the second half of 2020, it is clear that flexible working arrangements have become the ‘new normal’.
Many in-house functions have found that using temporary flexible in-house lawyers who could hit the ground running were a helpful and cost-effective way of dealing with workload.
Through the lockdown a key imperative for in-house functions was to “get things done”. Through collaboration, agility and adaptability, many in-house lawyers demonstrated to their organisations that they were not “just legal” but pro-active problem-solvers, managers and leaders in their organisations.
Andrew de Boyett firstname.lastname@example.org is Director – Client Solutions at LOD.