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A Business Partner in Need: How the Current Climate Pushes In-House Counsel to be More than Lawyers

CEEIHM Issue 1.1.
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Going beyond a purely legal role has been necessary for in-house lawyers for many years – but Stanimir Vlahov, Associate Counsel Bulgaria at Mondelez International, explains why the current COVID-19 outbreak has made this need even more pressing.

2020: A historical year for the planet. The COVID-19 pandemic has caused unprecedented disruption for businesses everywhere.

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to hamper the economy and up-end business, lawyers are wrestling with the big questions of how to move forward, promote business sustainability, and continue partnering with the business, while scrambling to keep up with changes in “overnight” government regulations and guidelines, even as organizations are trying to cope with everything from shutdown orders to labor shortages.

As the sheer scale of COVID-19 unfolds, in-house counsels need to handle all sorts of “special situations” scenarios with flexibility, while also planning ahead for “back to normal” life. And who can do this better than an insider who picks up the business scent even through a mask? In tough times like today having an in-house counsel is an advantage for businesses, and this is the time to prove the role’s strength and importance. More than ever before, in-house counsels need to get out from behind the desk and gain a better understanding of the business – join in on sales calls, walk around the manufacturing plants, be familiar with the production lines and plants project in the manufacturing sites, follow up on after-sales calls and know in general what makes the business tick. Risk cannot be managed without understanding the business, without living its values, sharing its goals and live with risk appetite as well.

During the State of Emergency, in-house lawyers have to consider two main issues: business continuity (i.e., clients, customers, and partners) and employee issues. From a customer/partner perspective, any risks need to be assessed carefully, including ensuring company solvency through cost assessments, cost reduction, and management of commercial contracts (particularly with force majeure clauses), as well as issues involving the supply of information, tools, and raw materials. This is particularly true for businesses operating internationally and across borders (which are often difficult to pass, these days).

In-house counsels have been key participants (leads or coordinators) on crisis management teams and have been directing action to reduce the impact of COVID-19 on employees and their businesses. They have had to handle numerous legal issues, including those coming with the day-to-day new legislation, Government orders, business cases, and so on.

But what is new? The legal counsel’s role has always been there. In many international companies the in-house lawyer’s role has more significantly stepped in as a business partner – the one who is drawing the safe path for business to grow. Expertise, multitasking, straightforwardness, agility, openness, networking, creativity, and credibility are only a few of the skills and characteristics that the in-house counsel should have and never stop developing and are the factors that make it or break it in times of crisis. This key characterization and basically a “must have” of the legal function make the in-house counsel a “mandatory” member in every kind of business meeting, even if non-purely-legal topics are involved. The Legal Counsel is invited to the table at the earliest stage of processes. COVID-19 just made this role and its weight more visible for everyone in the organization. Social distancing did not isolate the counsel by any means; it moved the role closer to business than ever.

Once the COVID-19 outbreak passes, there will be an eagerness for business to get back to strong productivity levels, which means more pressure on and opportunities for in-house counsels to partner in all business efforts and helping to overcome obstacles. Those who have proven their value will be best suited to support their organizations – they will be stronger critical business partners.

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