Thought Leadership
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September 15, 2020
An Expanded and Diverse Role for Legal in the New Abnormal
Eric Winston - Executive Vice-President, General Counsel, And Chief Ethics And Compliance Officer
Tags: leadership

The novel coronavirus that has stopped the world in its tracks is having an extensive impact on the legal function. Lawyers, corporate legal teams, and GCs are springing into action overnight to address multiple issues that have come to the fore in the wake of the pandemic.

This includes tackling issues that have emerged at the workplace around employee health and data privacy in Work from Home (WFH) arrangements. It also includes addressing businesses challenges related to contractual commitments, employee concerns around health data sharing (and privacy) and the imperative to remain relevant in unprecedented circumstances by focusing on digital transformation.

Let us look at some of the ways in which legal teams can effectively tackle these challenges.

One of the first things corporate legal teams can do to empower employers to deal with the new abnormal in the workplace is to help them undertake preventative measures. This could include putting together a set of policies related to the pandemic, regularly updating the workforce on best practices to protect themselves and others from the virus and taking timely decisions to enable remote work.

It goes without saying that these moves should be made while ensuring that they are compliant with relevant national and local laws, including those pertaining to workers' pay and work hour regulations.

With relation to data privacy in WFH situations, legal teams need to ensure employees are up to date on the prevailing rules and regulations regarding client data and safety. To guard against data breaches, employees working from home must be reminded to comply with the employer’s security policies, ensure they use only authorized software and hardware, and comply with workplace regulations regarding printouts and back-up drives.

From an enterprise point of view, GCs and their teams are dealing with the requirement to assist leadership in handling contractual agreements. One of the ways this is presenting itself is as an outcome of the massive disruptions that the pandemic has caused to global supply chains. Companies in the manufacturing space especially should keep a close eye on key contracts to better understand contractual obligations and rights in the new abnormal. Legal teams can help enterprises focus on important terms, including clauses that may excuse a company from performing obligations under a contract; clauses pertaining to minimum sale requirements, or other exclusivity obligations, and any other terms that may occasion a risk of breach.

Employee concerns around health data sharing occasioned by strictures around testing and contact tracing has also emerged as an issue that lawyers, GCs, and legal teams are dealing with as a result of the pandemic. In normal times health data is given additional protective status due to its highly personal nature. However, in extraordinary situations including the current global health crisis, these become a critical tool in advancing valuable information about the extent of spread of the infection, possible pockets in which the virus is highly prevalent and contact tracing, among other insights.

Legal teams can help enterprises stay on the right side of the law by ensuring that employee health information remains appropriately private.

Another new requirement that legal teams are facing as a result of the pandemic is client expectation to continue with their digital transformation journeys to stand out from peers in an overcrowded market while wanting to be assured of supply chain continuity and safety. Legal teams need to remain both diligent and responsive to clients in the face of the pandemic so that they are empowered to achieve their goals while at the same time meeting contractual obligations, client expectations and timelines. GCs can help enterprises deal with this by setting out what companies can and cannot offer to deliver, revised timelines in lieu of COVID-19 and a ready list of rules to ensure they are compliant with new regulations.

There is no doubt that legal has had to spring into action overnight to take the lead on several novel issues that are the outcome of a once in a 100-year pandemic. However, with clarity and open communication with company leadership, all enterprises can navigate the new abnormal safely and wisely.