The evolution of in-house work in 2022
The pandemic has meant that in-house lawyers and legal departments have completely evolved, resulting in an increased uptake in technology and hybrid working, a new report has revealed.
As part of the sixth edition of the Global Bank Review 2022, Herbert Smith Freehills spoke to three in-house senior legal chiefs on how their roles and teams have evolved over the course of the pandemic.
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The report surveys the current landscape of the financial sector — as global finance faces a “mounting pressure” to invest in a low-carbon, high-tech world, whilst simultaneously bracing for “intense economic headwinds”, according to the co-chairs of the global banks sector group: partners Hannah Cassidy, Simon Clarke and Tony Damian.
Although banks were already accelerating towards more sophisticated internal legal operations, the report notes that the pandemic represented a “truly unprecedented challenge” for modern businesses, deepening the need for legal teams to step outside their usual roles.
Sharon Cook, group executive, legal and commercial services at National Australia Bank, said that in terms of implementing hybrid working, she was surprised at how quickly both her team and the whole of NAB adapted during the pandemic.
“I’ve been an advocate of flexible working my whole professional life. The pandemic meant the whole organisation was working flexibly all the time with no loss of productivity. It was a marvelous discovery; I didn’t think it would be possible, particularly from a technological point of view,” she said in the report.
“We also saw some great benefits. The relationships with employees became more intimate. You saw people’s husbands, their children, their puppies — you start talking more about personal lives than when you’re sitting in an office. Of course, the negatives are not seeing colleagues in person and those moments that only come from being in an office; those incidental conversations that keep businesses moving. Hybrid working is the perfect solution. You keep all of the good but minimise the bad.”
Similarly, Barbara Levi, UBS group general counsel, said that hybrid working was something that was adapted quickly and easily.
“Even before the pandemic, UBS legal employees had the opportunity to work from home for a few days per week. During the pandemic, more than 80 per cent of employees across the firm worked from home. And it went smoothly,” she noted in the report.
“Based on internal surveys, we know many employees want a hybrid model. So, where role, task and location allow, we will offer this flexibility. We believe a hybrid approach allows for a better work/life balance and makes us a more attractive employer, appealing to a more diverse talent pool.”
In addition to a shift in ways of working, there has also been a massive shift in the type of work in-house teams are undertaking, according to Rene du Preez, group chief legal officer at Standard Bank Group (SBG).
“There’s been a shift to more strategic partnering with our external stakeholders. That requires strategic insight and contribution as well as being commercially minded. Our lawyers have always been versed in future-ready skills,” she said in the report.
“We are increasingly required to create and implement solutions beyond legal advice. There’s an expectation that our teams upskill themselves around these capabilities. We’ve created pathways for them.”
In terms of retaining talent amid “the Great Resignation”, Ms du Preez said it’s been important at SBG to collect data on why people are leaving.
“We keep all our data on staff turnover and what we call ‘regrettable losses’, which are people who are performing on track or very well. Those things have gone up. When we talk about the Great Resignation, we need to know what has driven these departures. People leave for different reasons,” she added.
“The trends we have seen are foreign law firms, South African law firms, start-ups and fintechs headhunting our staff either overseas or from here remotely. Where people are emigrating because of the social or political circumstances in the country, and where they’re being offered packages in dollars or sterling, it’s hard to do anything about that. But we’ve also seen people leave because they’ve been offered greater flexibility. We’re taking all this into account in how we remunerate people and package rewards.”
Despite the pandemic and ongoing competition for talent, the financial services space hasn’t necessarily struggled to find quality candidates, the report revealed.
“Financial services in Australia is a desirable place to be. We’re not having a lot of trouble finding people. We’ve had a big issue here with the royal commission five years ago, which made financial services not be the place at the top of people’s list to work in for a period of time. People have now realised that the banks have learned lessons. They are trying to serve their community, and a purpose has been re-established,” Ms Cook explained.
“There’s also more trust in financial services in Australia because of the response to the pandemic. The main reason people come to work at banks is a combination of the purpose of serving the community, the reputation of the financial services industry and the challenge of the work. Those things are still the same.”
However, there are still a number of elements that make certain organisations more attractive for candidates, according to Ms Levi, who said that UBS learnt a number of things over the course of the pandemic.
“Things like global reach, reputation, career growth, remuneration and exposure to different areas of legal practice [are still] among the top attractors of talent in the legal industry. And UBS is a global financial player, a well-known employer and a bank with a very good reputation. Of course, there are newer factors [that] candidates consider as well — things like flexible working and digital transformation. And we are addressing those as well to remain an attractive employer,” she said.
“One thing we all learned from the last two years is that working from home is possible for many of us. At UBS, we had around 80,000 people working remotely at the same time. This was possible due to our prior investments in technology as well as years of developing remote leadership skills and a supportive company culture.”
SBG has also become more aware of its data in recent years, added Ms du Preez in the report. The bank has, as a result, created efficiencies and synergies across different legal issues.
“The pandemic has concentrated our efforts. We’ve had innovation across our legal teams. They look at what our clients specifically need, and we use things like AI to prepopulate NDAs and marketing agreements, those vanilla-type agreements. It takes those things away from the lawyers so they can focus on strategic and complex matters. It’s freed up a lot of time and engages the team on higher value work,” she said.
“Technology will continue to improve our risk management and profitability. It speeds up our business processes. We’ve developed our own tools in-house with our own teams, such as our matter management solution. One of the first things we did was develop an in-house tool to give access to all our teams digitally to input all details and updates, which has made it more efficient. The data is better and more accurate.”