In-house counsel adapt in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic

In-house counsel are dealing with increased demands amid the new landscape of social distancing

In-house counsel adapt in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic

With numerous businesses closing or modifying operations to curb the rapid spread of COVID-19, legal departments are facing a host of new challenges. Organizations are struggling to continue serving customers and support employees, many of whom are now working remotely. As of March 19, there were more than 700 cases of the virus in Canada, and the number increases daily.

“Our clients are grappling to keep on top of the situation on an hourly basis and making sure they understand the implications of any potential changes in what they will need to do with their workforce,” says Nadine Zacks, partner at labour and employment boutique, Hicks Morley Hamilton Stewart Storie LLP. “In-house counsel are adapting daily operations and mostly focusing on answering questions related to these issues and figuring out contingency plans.”

Many in-house lawyers are already equipped to work remotely, and this has become the norm during the past week, amid health recommendations to practice social distancing.

Employees at Telus have been able to work from home for some time, so the remote protocol has been simple to implement, although some workers are finding it challenging to juggle work with childcare.

“My team is struggling with staying as productive as they’ve ever been with kids at home and needing to respond to the changing nature of the work,” says Andrea Wood, chief legal officer at Telus. “On the telecoms side, things are changing daily so lawyers are having to demonstrate nimbleness and flexibility and practicality.” Telus’ Emergency Management Operating Committee sends out daily communications to help the team stay connected.

At the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, a remote working option was also implemented some time ago so the transition to working from home has been smooth for members of the legal team. A business contingency plan has now been implemented to ensure that all files are backed up.

“We are all working remotely, so as far as strategy is concerned what we’ve done is identify all the different files and projects we’re working on and determined which ones are essential in case, at some point in time, we have limited resources,” says Sylvie Bourdon, VP legal services at CMHC. “We need to have a backup for every major file. If we reach a point where we have people taking a break because they’re sick or they have to look after someone or we have limitations for whatever reason, then we have prioritised the work that we need to continue and what can be put aside.”

Meeting the demand for immediate legal advice has been the biggest challenge in the face of the crisis for Gary Goodwin, executive corporate secretary and counsel at Ducks Unlimited Canada.

“People want opinions really quickly,” says Goodwin. “Trying to give confident legal opinions on shifting ground in a hurry is very challenging.” Goodwin stays connected with colleagues across Canada by using Microsoft Teams for regular conference calls. Much of the fundraising organization’s income comes from events and large group activities which are being cancelled due to the pandemic, so staffing may become a concern.

“We’re not sure if we should go ahead with new hires or what we are looking at with existing staff who can’t work remotely,” says Goodwin. 

With many Canadians working from home, the need for Telus’ telecoms services has risen significantly so the legal team is working hard to support the technology strategy team as it aims to keep networks functioning at optimal levels. Efforts are being made to scale up apps such as Babylon by Telus Health, a free mobile app that allows users to check symptoms, consult with doctors via video conference, and access medical records. Telus is working to recruit extra doctors for this purpose amid the growing demand for the app.

"We are working hard to keep Canadians connected and healthy," says Wood. 

Meanwhile, the organization announced a decision this week to close Telus Koodo and Public Mobile stores in malls until March 31.

“Every time the corporation makes a decision like that, we are in the background advising on the legal implications. We’re working around the clock to ensure that we’re responsive to all the company’s needs as it responds to the crisis,” says Wood, who participates in daily calls with the leadership team to advise on new developments. “The decision points are coming at us fast and furious.”

Wood anticipates that her team may have to devise strategies for continuing to handle the volume of work with fewer people, if team members fall ill. She is actively reviewing succession plans so there is no break in the chain of command.

“It is challenging to maintain any other type of operation because business is being pushed aside to focus on these issues,” says Zacks. “In-house counsel need to ensure that they are up to speed on the latest developments and reviewing changes to quickly determine the impact on the business.”

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