Problem Solving and Crisis Management in the Post-COVID Era
by Jenny Jennings
As a legal professional who made the transition from BigLaw to in-house a few years ago, I was excited to have the opportunity to attend day two of the In-House Counsel Institute (IHCI). In particular, as a former risk management clerk, the theme of the day piqued my interest: problem solving and crisis management in the post-COVID era.
The day started with a session entitled “Breakfast with the GCs,” featuring Kate Schuelke, SVP, Chief Legal Officer & Corporate Secretary, Seagate Technology; Riley Russell, Chief Legal Officer & Global Senior Vice President, Sony Interactive Entertainment; Jim DeGraw, General Counsel, Volta; and Wendy Lim, Director and Associate General Counsel, Facebook Reality Labs as the moderator. They all emphasized the importance of being pragmatic as an in-house attorney.
One quote that resonated with me was from Jim DeGraw: “we don’t practice law, we practice common sense.” In my own experience as an in-house contracts professional, there are many issues that fall within grey areas and reciting a law or the conservative, risk-averse option does not build trust or valuable relationships. Instead, the legal team becomes the dreaded “department of no,” or as Riley Russell said, “a blocker.” Riley Russell furthered this point in his discussion on branding oneself as a problem solver. In my move from BigLaw to in-house, I learned the importance of laying out the options and the associated risks with each option to stakeholders for their review and decision-making. As a result, this created trust and helped develop a working relationship with my business partners, making me a first point of contact instead of the last.
Another great piece of advice that Jim DeGraw gave to young in-house lawyers is to “know what you don’t know and to be able to admit it.” Working in-house, especially at a start-up with a small legal team, lawyers tend to become generalists very quickly. However, in a generalist role or even a subject matter expert role, a lawyer has to be willing to admit when he or she doesn’t know the answer because giving the wrong answer can have very serious implications and consequences. Jim continued this advice further, explaining that a lot of lawyers have type-A, know-it-all personalities and realizing this and being able to check your ego at the door is a valuable tool in these situations. Further, this not only allows for professional growth, but also allows others to trust your judgment.
I also enjoyed the workshop session focused on crisis management programs and the roles of in-house and outside counsel presented by Mark Aldrich of Airbnb and Mark Webber of Fieldfisher. The workshop walked us step-by-step through the different issues and action items associated with mitigating a crisis.
In breakout groups, we worked on different hypotheticals, including one that was similar to the outbreak of COVID last year. As someone working in-house at that time, this session helped me see the bigger picture and realize all of the different departments and issues that my company went through to address the pandemic and mitigate the crisis. The workshop exercise discussed the immediate action required of different teams–from HR, external and internal comms, and supply chains. It allowed me to reflect on a tough year, and newly appreciate the amount of work that went into ensuring things ran (and are still running) smoothly at my company and other companies throughout the world.
Attending this day of the IHCI was informative and relatable as a former risk manager and current in-house legal professional. In addition, it gave me a greater understanding and perspective on the role of in-house counsel in managing crises, in particular the importance of establishing the foundation of trusting relationships with business partners. As a result of this day of sessions with the IHCI, I am beginning to think more strategically about managing and mitigating crises as an in-house counsel.
Jenny Jennings is a third year law student at Santa Clara University of Law, TechEdge JD candidate, and Commercial Contracts Manager at Twilio Inc.