Being a problem-solver during a pandemic

By Jerome Doraisamy|07 April 2020
Cara Austen

In-house lawyers are so used to being the ones who fix things, and this will be even more pertinent during COVID-19 – both on a personal and professional level.

Legal counsel are often asked to shoulder enormous burdens. During a pandemic, however, reliance on such professionals may be even more pronounced, muses one former GC.

Speaking recently on The Corporate Counsel Show, Twine Business & Law director Cara Austen – who used to be the general counsel of Allegis – said that there are enormous challenges in front of in-house lawyers right now, and that if they are to manage the professional issues they will have to ensure they are on top of personal ones too.

“I think one of the things to remember as an in-house counsel is that your job has always been to fix things. That’s what you do. You run around, you put out fires, you fix things, you make things work, you put bandaids over stuff. You are being asked to do more with less. But, you really need to take some time out to look after yourself now more than ever – and that isnt just playing with your kids, she warned.

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“If you have kids, it might be literally taking 10 or 15 minutes to meditate, for example, or go for a walk, do something that is just for you so you could get just a little bit of headspace for yourself. Otherwise, you’re not going to be any good to your family, your friends or your colleagues.”

One of the most interesting things about life as an in-house lawyer, Ms Austen reflected, is that you are required to be the problem-solver, or fix it person, for an organisation.

“Especially if you’re a general counsel, you’re the one that the CFO, the CEO and other senior members are turning to be the level head in the team. And it’s important that you remember that that’s what they’re looking for. They’re looking for the level head, but they’re also looking for expertise and you absolutely need to get across what is happening now, I guess, from a regulatory perspective,” she said.

“I think [in-house lawyers] are being asked to do so much at the moment. Yes, on the one hand, business as usual is probably being thrown out the window for many companies, but what people are now being asked to do in responding to a crisis is really going to stretch them.

“I’ve been there and I’ve done that and it’s incredibly difficult, and especially when you’re talking about the possibility of redundancies. You’re having to keep people calm. It is a real challenge and youre still limited in the time that you can devote to it. Youre working from home, where youve got a number of distractions. Its really hard.

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“The primary challenge that people are having is that this is an incredibly stressful time for everyone. All of a sudden, were having to deal with homeschooling and partners who may be unwell already or who also have to go and do their own work. Then were sitting at home in our home offices or at the kitchen table or Ive seen people at the kids table just trying to get some space so they can actually do work.”

Many in-house counsel are on the rapid response team or the emergency response team to this for their businesses and trying to “juggle all of those balls” is going to be incredibly stressful for those professionals, Ms Austen added.

As such, personal management during the pandemic is key, she concluded, so that legal counsel can effectively advise and help steer an organisation through the choppy waters of COVID-19.

“I think we are sometimes the moral compass of the company. Its during these difficult times that we need to step up into that role. I believe we need to make sure that the company is making good decisions that people feel that they can live with,” she said.

In the same episode, Ms Austen spoke about the importance of online interaction for legal teams during the pandemic.

To listen to the full conversation with Cara Austen, click below:

Being a problem-solver during a pandemic
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