The role of the in-house lawyer in handling a crisis

Crisis management has been a feature of many in-house lawyers working lives in recent years due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the Russia-Ukraine conflict. This year’s final Centre for Legal Leadership webinar, hosted in conjunction with Thomson Reuters, focused on an in-house lawyer’s role in handling a crisis.

Themes raised during the discussion included the key attributes required in a crisis, establishing a crisis team, relationship building and protecting the wellbeing of your team and yourself.

Key attributes required in a crisis

It can be difficult to distinguish when an emergency becomes a crisis but, typically, it’s the severity of the impact that the event has on your organisation that tips the balance. Some crises will have a global impact, while others will be industry-wide or sometimes company-specific.

Whatever the scope, during a crisis a business will want clear, concise and practical, rather than theoretical, advice from its in-house lawyers. In times of high anxiety, when colleagues may be panicking, it’s important to help calm things down and absorb that stress. Giving reassurance is part of your role. Other useful qualities during a crisis include:

  • A sense of humour. A joke at the right time can help lighten the mood.
  • Emotional intelligence. Being sensitive to how people are feeling is vital (see Practice note, Emotional intelligence: an introduction).
  • Innovative thinking. The ability to think laterally and identify solutions that are not always obvious.
  • Listening critically. Being willing to ask difficult questions that may help improve decision making.
  • Experience. You may be able to apply lessons learned from previous crises.

Avoid an “all hands-on-deck” approach

Business as usual work needs to continue during a crisis and it’s therefore important to quickly establish a team that can help calm the chaos and “make sure the shop stays afloat”, as one speaker put it. Decide how big that team should be, a core membership of three was suggested, and who should be on the team. Remember to tap into subject matter expertise, where it’s applicable.

Good communication is a must. The crisis team must be easily contactable (email distribution lists can be helpful) and be prepared to meet the business where it works by using their communication channels, such as Slack or Teams. The quality of the information you receive is important too; second hand information is often detrimental.

Accurate record keeping is vital but records management can be difficult due to the range of different communication systems that a business may use. Establishing a control room where key documents are stored is useful.

Relationship building

Depending on your industry sector, regulatory updates may be required during a crisis. It’s therefore important to establish a good relationship with your regulator and understand what they want from you. Some regulators will prefer immediate information, while others may like steady or regular updates.

A crisis can provide an opportunity to build relationships with other stakeholders too, including:

  • Internal departments.
  • GCs in organisations operating in the same industry.
  • External counsel.

Ideally, you should have established these relationships before a crisis hits. One way of improving your relationships with your colleagues is by showing an interest in areas outside your normal sphere of influence. For example, by inviting yourself to business meetings that a lawyer would not normally be expected to attend.

Crises are generally task-driven for junior lawyers, and they can provide an excellent opportunity to gain exposure to the business. This first-hand experience and “time in the trenches” can help with career development and lead to long-lasting relationships with business colleagues.

Wellbeing: looking after the team and yourself

One of a leader’s key roles is to look after the wellbeing of their team during a crisis. This is more difficult in a hybrid working environment and it’s therefore important to have regular touch points with the team. These meetings can give the team the space to share any difficulties that they are facing and can help you identify if someone is struggling to cope with the pressure. Mental health first aiders can be valuable too. For further information, see Practice note, Workplace stress: six habits to help you meet your management responsibilities.

It’s also vital to look after yourself during a crisis. Know your limitations and remember that you are not superhuman. Our speakers suggested that meditation and mindfulness may be helpful. For further information, see Practice note, An introduction to mindfulness: the mindful lawyer.

Retrospective: lessons learned

Once the crisis has abated, it’s important to take a deep dive into what happened and why. A crisis provides the opportunity to upgrade processes by questioning what didn’t work and help future-proof the businesses for the next crisis.

For further information, see Practice note, Crisis management for in-house lawyers.

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