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CLOC Annual Conference: Pandemic’s legal market disruption is an opportunity for positive change

Thomson Reuters Institute  Insights, Thought Leadership & Engagement

· 5 minute read

Thomson Reuters Institute  Insights, Thought Leadership & Engagement

· 5 minute read

CLOC president says legal operations were “made for this moment”.

In a year of upheavals and massive changes, the Corporate Legal Operations Consortium’s (CLOC’s) Global Institute returned for its annual conference, but under very different circumstances.

At the recent virtual event, CLOC President Mary O’Carroll told the community that legal operations “were made for this moment,” adding that “we thrive on transformation.” Indeed, there have been numerous changes over the last year from remote working to conducting virtual court hearings. But now more than ever, the legal community is embracing technology to optimize performance and drive value, while also attempting to balance home and family commitments and maintain a sense of sanity in our currently chaotic world.

Not surprisingly, mental health has taken a front-row seat in our lives.

So, what opportunities has the pandemic presented for legal ops professionals? A panel, Meet the Change Makers: Legal Disruption as an Opportunity, at the CLOC event discussed the legal industry’s resilience and innovation amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Panel moderator Jenn McCarron, CLOC board member and Director of Legal Operations & Technology at Netflix, said this time is an opportunity for us to steer the future.

Reimaging lawyering in a world on fire

We are in the middle of a trifecta of change — from a health crisis to financial crisis to social crisis — and the legal industry is feeling the ripple effects of all of it, according to panelist David B. Wilkins, Professor of Law at Harvard University. “All three have major implications for CLOC’s mission to reimagine the market for legal services,” Wilkins said.

Because of the major disruptors we’ve seen this year, countries and companies are moving to insulate critical aspects of their supply chains from globalization even as those entities try to serve a global marketplace, Wilkins said. This has important implications for CLOC and its fundamental goals. According to Thomson Reuters Acritas, 58% of general counsel report an increase in work, but only 6% anticipate increased resources. This means an opportunity for collaboration and for utilizing technology for a historically tech-shy workforce. “Seven months ago, you had to convince lawyers that technology was going to have a major effect on their practice — now we are all living on Zoom,” Wilkins explained. Even after there is a vaccine, it is unlikely that we will go back to the way things were.

What are the implications for CLOC and legal operations in general? On one hand, the world of work has seen and will continue to see permanent change. Most lawyers and general counsel strongly believe they are continuing to provide excellent service to their clients while working remotely, Wilkins said. In fact, 77% of lawyers reported they wanted to continue working remotely at least two days a week, post-pandemic, according to a recent Acritas survey.

On the flip side, however, is that in-house counsel and legal ops professionals are struggling to build community and collaboration online. More importantly, they are struggling to avoid burnout. “It’s not working from home, it is sleeping at the office,” Wilkins warned.

The challenge of well-being in legal

Panelists agreed that one of the biggest challenges they are collectively facing is with burnout in both community and collaboration. Panelist Cornelius Grossmann, Global Law Leader at EY, said he was surprised at how very little disruption there was to worker productivity as people began working from home. However, he noticed a more alarming trend. “What really worries us is the well-being of our talent,” Grossmann said, adding that he was concerned especially for younger workers drawing the right boundaries and not working off-hours if possible.

Another panelist, Aine Lyons, Vice President and Deputy General Counsel of Worldwide Legal Operations at VMWare, said the biggest challenge her law department faces is having to react to the pandemic and all the consequences. Yet she also recognized that the pandemic gives legal professionals an opportunity to reimagine how they are operating, especially under tighter budget constraints.

Lyons stressed, however, that we can be opportunistic in making our profession more humane and more diverse. This means acquiring new leadership skills to manage a distributed workforce and help employees gain connection and community.

“How do we change our mindset from presentism, perfectionism, and number of hours worked to people’s impact?” she asked. “How do we support them because mental health is coming to the forefront, now more than ever.”

Managing talent & mental health

The productivity is there, but our people may be burning out while keeping up with the work, Netflix’s McCarron said.

Panelist Mitch Zuklie, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe, agreed there was an imbalance that firms have to manage. He explained that Orrick addresses the new landscape of managing talent and mental health by keeping Fridays clear of non-essential meetings. This gives employees the ability to focus on a project in a concentrated and uninterrupted manner.

Zuklie said that when he or his staff send emails on weekends, they try to be respectful of one another’s time by labeling the email essential or non-essential. “We are very much open to learning from others,” he said. “We certainly don’t have all the answers, but we are experimenting with creative ways to create space for employees.”

EY’s Grossmann noted an uptick from employees seeking stress counseling, online tutoring, and general mental health management. He also encourages managers to stay close to teams and have an early morning check-in with staff — not just about work, but about life.

Staying close to employees and making them feel included is key, especially in high-stress jobs like legal. Moreover, making sure you are taking exercise or meditation breaks to disrupt these long Zoom days is another key, VMWare’s Lyons added.

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