The inside story of a year of COVID - as seen by top GCs

The inside story of a year of COVID - as seen by top GCs

It’s been a year since UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced the first national lockdown to halt the spread of Coronavirus in the UK; Italy had locked down the week prior, and the US followed soon after.

It would be trite to talk about how this year has changed our lives, and presented an unprecedented challenge for all of us. There’s plenty of superb commentary from much smarter people than me.

But what we hadn’t seen anywhere was the story of the pandemic from the point of view of General Counsel: the people charged with mitigating risk and guiding businesses safely through a unique business environment. To mark the anniversary of the pandemic, we decided to ask them, get their stories, and share them with everyone.

We spoke to the GCs of some of the businesses most directly affected by the pandemic. Deliveroo, which had to feed the nation; Zoopla, which faced a housing market in stasis; Trainline, which saw all travel shut down overnight; BrewDog, which saw all bars closed and pivoted to producing hand sanitizer. Plus legal leaders facing other affected verticals like tourism, foreign exchange, ecommerce and virtual events.

You can read our findings in full here, but across all of the GC interviews we gathered, some common themes emerged as to the role of the in-house counsel in the COVID and post-COVID business environments. There are three key roles I see for in-house lawyers.


1. The business partner


Now, more than ever, GCs have stepped up and delivered beyond ‘business as usual’ tasks. When the crisis kept growing, in-house lawyers just kept going above and beyond to deliver expert advice and keep the business running. As the General Counsel of Revolut, Tom Hambrett, told us:

“When something like this happens, it’s definitely painful - but it’s important for legal to double down on the pain and grow from it.”


2. The crisis manager


The trusted General Counsel is always one of the first people that colleagues turn to in a crisis - not just for legal expertise, but for commercial judgement and solving problems under pressure. Although it’s a skill we hope lawyers can rest for a while post-COVID, it certainly adds an extra layer of value to the work lawyers do supporting their businesses. At the General Counsel of Deliveroo, Chantelle Zemba, put it:

“It felt like a state of national emergency, and we had a service that could help people, and so we were going to do everything that we could to do it.”


3. The creative thinker


This was perhaps the biggest departure from in-house lawyers’ normal responsibilities. We spoke to lawyers who had to create and manage a real-time resource to monitor travel restrictions on a country-by-country basis, and communicate it daily to the business. That’s quite a departure from keeping MSAs and non-disclosure agreements flowing. Lawyers were confronted with questions that simply have never been asked before - and answered them quickly and intelligently.

A final point that everyone raised was the impact of COVID on them as managers supporting their teams. The General Counsel of Stripe, Trish Walsh, told us: “As leaders and as managers, we were checking on one another’s mental and physical health before moving onto work. That intimacy was an unexpected gift of the crisis." It’s a gift that we hope GCs carry forward with them into a brighter future.

To read GCs’ in-depth reflections on a year of the COVID pandemic, check out the eBook in full: GCs & the pandemic: how legal responded.


Richard Mabey is the CEO of Juro.


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About the author:
Richard Mabey is CEO and co-founder of contract collaboration platform Juro, which helps high-growth businesses in 45 countries manage contracts. Previously Richard was a corporate and M&A lawyer at Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer. FT Intelligent Business named Richard one of the global top ten legal business technologists in 2019.