Maintaining a Resilient Legal Function During a Downturn
By Axiom Law
The economic downturn brought on by the coronavirus has raised many challenges for legal leaders. Remote work, hiring freezes, budget cuts, and an uncertain recovery are issues that legal teams are facing, often with an increase in legal work.
To help legal leaders think about how to approach these multiple challenges, Axiom recently hosted a webinar with Sam Miller, former DGC of Intel and an executive and legal consultant, who also serves as a board member of the Law Foundation of Silicon Valley and the Minority Corporate Counsel Association. Sam spent 16 years at Intel, where she served in many different roles, including as corporate secretary, vice president, and deputy general counsel. In addition, she ran the Global Commercial Legal Organization and served as general counsel of Intel Capital, the company's investment arm.
Sam was joined by Heather Deane, a vice president and commercial leader of Axiom's North American technology practice. Below, we highlight the key points from their discussion, including actionable advice legal leaders can take to build a resilient, responsive legal function. You can also watch a full replay on demand.
The crisis is not hitting every company the same way—some markets are shrinking, others are growing, but either way, legal leaders must do more work with fewer resources. How can legal leaders think about their approach to this situation?
“Doing more with less isn't new for in-house teams,” Sam noted. She pointed out that whether business is shrinking or growing as a result of a particular crisis, the work that the legal team does rarely decreases.
“What feels different to me is the extent of the change and the impact,” she explained. “It’s not a normal increase in work.” Changes to business models, working conditions, and family dynamics are happening rapidly. Uncertainty is a central aspect of this situation. Every aspect of our lives is being impacted by the crisis, and it's hard to plan for the future. Our economy is also more global than ever, making it difficult to translate lessons from earlier events like the dot-com bubble burst, the financial crisis of 2008, or the Great Depression.
In this context, GCs will have to think differently about how they are going to meet tightened budget targets. Some of the main tactics they usually use to reduce spending (like outside law firm spend) are not going to be sufficient for this crisis. Travel has already been curtailed as a result of the pandemic, which is one stream of savings. But law firm spend has been steadily decreasing since the financial crisis of 2008, so is not quite the “low hanging fruit” it used to be.
Sam advises that “as a legal leader you need to look at your options with fresh eyes. You’ve got to rethink all the tools that you’ve used historically to cover your work, and figure out whether there are more creative, new ways to utilize them to deal with this latest round of budget cuts.”
Given the current context, what does it mean to have a resilient legal function, and how do you demonstrate that?
“A resilient legal department is one that can absorb the unexpected and adjust to respond to the needs of their company,” Sam explained. Legal leaders demonstrate resilience by acknowledging the challenges their teams are facing and how the context has changed. They need to be flexible and pivot quickly to respond to ever-changing circumstances and data.
Leaders must balance workload, headcount, and spend. Sam reminded listeners, “There may be significantly more pressure at the moment, but juggling, agility, and resiliency is a skill that in-house teams need always.”
When you have more work than resources, she recommended legal leaders focus on the following:
- Your company’s immediate needs from the legal team; and
- Your team members' immediate needs
Then you can move toward creating a plan for the legal team, including the balance and trade-offs between company and legal needs.
Legal leaders must be strategic in their use of resources—not just ask their team to put in more hours. “You can’t work your way harder through this. You must make the tough decisions between what you’re doing and what you’re not doing,” said Sam.
How do legal leaders approach resources, tradeoffs, and risk level in this moment?
As you’re looking at resources, keep in mind that everyone, whether your internal team, external teams, or business teams, is in a similar situation right now where it’s difficult to be productive.
When approaching resourcing questions, legal leaders must understand:
- Your company’s business priorities and risk tolerance level
- The personal and business needs of your team
- What is going to help your team get their work done more effectively and efficiently
- Resources available to you—such as traditional law firms; flexible legal resources like Axiom; and technology like form agreements, FAQs, and contract builders
Next, assess each workstream you need to get done, and decide what type of resource is the best fit. Some considerations on which resource to use for a particular workstream include:
- A key project for a general manager, requiring deep knowledge of/connection inside the company or a development opportunity
- Lean toward assigning to an internal team member
- A project that requires specific expertise or back-end support not available in-house
- Look at working with a traditional law firm or flexible legal resource
- An expected longer-term workstream that outstrips the capacity of your internal team
- Consider engaging a flexible legal resource
- A simple agreement that is needed multiple times, or a legal question that regularly comes to the team
- Explore your internal tech abilities to create a self-use form and/or a set of interactive FAQs
How can engaging flexible legal talent help legal leaders build a resilient legal function?
Flexible counsel can be a great fit if you have a project you would like to give to an internal team member, but they do not have the bandwidth. “They get closer to the cost structure of an internal team member, compared to a traditional firm, and you can get the time commitment of an internal lawyer,” explained Sam. Flexible counsel is especially helpful to ease pressure on your internal team. “If it is work where you're not sure whether it's a new norm or a surge, or you are under a hiring freeze and can’t bring on internal people, you may want to bring on flexible counsel,” Sam explained.
Compared to the last large economic downturn, in 2008, Sam observed that flexible counsel is a much more mature legal market. More lawyers are making a conscious, career-building choice to work for companies like Axiom, so GCs will find high-quality lawyers who are looking for challenging roles.
What advice do you have for how legal leaders can work successfully with flexible counsel?
With your flex counsel provider, discuss the work you need covered and your expectations for the role. Spend time talking about the onboarding process as well, as they may be able to take some of the heavy lifting off your plate. Sam observed that “it’s more effective if you and your flex provider spend time thinking about how best to integrate flexible resources into your team,” and noted that this is a place where a legal leader may be able to lean on the flex provider to do some of the heavy lifting on the integration planning and implementation.
To successfully engage and work with flexible counsel:
- Consider bringing in someone with a higher degree of seniority than you think you need—a lawyer who has experience, is a self-starter, and is capable of self-managing will help them best succeed in an in-house volatile environment with the least ramp time
- Treat your flex counsel as they're part of your team from day one, and integrate them into your team and workflow.
- Be sensitive to your internal team—ensure they see flexible counsel as a resource for them and not a replacement.
“Whether or not you use flexible counsel, you should absolutely understand the breadth and depth of what's available,” said Sam. “This is a time to pull out every tool that you have, look at them, and figure out which ones are going to be helpful to you now.”
What three key points should legal leaders keep in mind in terms of taking care of the mental health of their team?
First Sam reiterated that legal leaders have two priorities: Serving their company, and serving their team. From Sam’s perspective, legal leaders, like all leaders, are very focused on the question, “What does my team need from me, and am I doing everything I can for them?” When thinking about how to serve and support their team, Sam recommends the following three things:
- There is no such thing as too much communication. Leaders must increase both their visibility and their communication, including regular check-ins that are not solely focused on work.
- A strong leader isn’t afraid to show their vulnerability—it’s a scary time, and acknowledging how everyone is feeling can go a long way in building trust and confidence that a leader has their team's back.
- Be kinder to yourself—remember you are doing the best you can with an unprecedented and unpredictable set of circumstances.
Overall, legal leaders have much to balance. To build a resilient function, they must factor in the needs of the business and their team; consider the wide variety of resources available to them, including flexible counsel; and acknowledge that the context in which they are working is constantly evolving.
To hear more from Sam Miller and Heather Deane about building a resilient legal function during a downturn, watch the full webinar.
At the end of the webinar, Sam also recommended several organizations where lawyers could contribute their skills to pro bono work during the crisis, including San Mateo Legal Aid, Samaritan House, the Silicon Valley Law Foundation, and state bar associations. The New York State Bar Association has partnered with the New York State Court System and is seeking volunteer lawyers to assist people impacted by COVID-19 and the ensuring economic fallout. Pro Bono Net has also produced a Remote Legal Support Guide specifically responding to this crisis.