Legal departments can function successfully during a crisis, but doing so requires empathy, cross-functional collaboration and strong partnership with outside counsel, legal chiefs said in a CLO roundtable.
The roundtable, titled “Leading Through Crisis,” featured the top lawyers from some of the nation’s best-known companies—from Amazon and eBay to American Airlines and Uber. It was organized by Michael Wu, who joined Bath and Body Works as chief legal officer last year.
Wu said that the “the work-from-home environment can be detrimental to collaboration and professional development,” especially for new team members and those more junior in their career.
He said about 20% of his team is new to the company.
“Over the past year, what I have been grappling with is establishing a culture within the department,” he added.
Uber General Counsel Tony West sees the same challenge.
“The spontaneity that comes from simply being in the same place as someone and the creativity that can come from those interactions is one thing that is so important to try to make sure you maintain in this post-pandemic culture,” he said.
He said those interactions are especially important in the legal profession because it’s historically been an apprenticeship, where people learn by watching and shadowing.
“People want flexibility. They also want purposeful collaboration—where there’s a critical mass,” added eBay Chief Legal Officer Marie Huber.
“What we’re finding is it really helps to lean in on three things—experience, exposure, education, in terms of developing people. On top of the learning and development, making sure we’re fostering a real sense of belonging in our culture.”
Amazon General Counsel David Zapolsky said that during the pandemic cross-functional communication and coordination became especially crucial at all levels of the company.
“One of the things that allows us to learn from those days and to move forward is that those partnerships continue and we’re better off as a legal department and as legal advisers to our clients from having been through that together,” he said.
West said being in crisis management mode seems like the norm at Amazon. After he joined Amazon in 2017, he spent his first day on the job calling regulators to disclose a data breach.
Many other issues have flared up since.
“We were also facing what I believe was a real reckoning on race in this country. These issues were bigger than all of us, required each of us to think about how we were interacting with one another, and really called on us to take care of one another,” he said.
He said the pandemic led to a redesign of Uber’s app and a stepped-up emphasis on health and safety.
“There was a sense of resilience approaching the business and it was really important,” he said.
Health and safety was also a main focus for American Airlines.
“We have a front-line workforce. When everyone else was hunkered down, our pilots, our flight attendants, our gate agents, they were going to the airport, they were going to work. So keeping them safe, keeping our customers safe was always at the forefront,” said Priya Aiyar, the airline’s chief legal officer.
She said the airline set up rapid response teams and a task force of lawyers embedded in the company’s operating units that were making decisions on a minute-by-minute basis.
“The airline industry can be a volatile one that is exposed to events all around the world. So our legal team always strives to provide advice in real time, embedded with our operational and business colleagues under conditions of uncertainty,” she said.
The panelists said that given the challenges of the past two years mental well-being and sustainable performance became key concerns.
“Empathy is very important during a crisis, such as the pandemic,” especially since we were also dealing with racial and social justice reckoning, Huber said.
“As leaders, we really needed to be aware and to help support our people … in ways that showed that we were feeling their pain and helping them to get through it in a way that was authentic and genuine.”
Terry Theologides, general counsel of Fannie Mae, said she sometimes feels the environment now is almost harder than during the height of the pandemic.
“We had such clarity of purpose and people. The adrenaline and the exigencies of the moment carried us through the pandemic,” he said.
“And now it’s a tough time; people are struggling. They’re rethinking their priorities. They’re still having to adjust the logistics of post-pandemic life. So, as leaders, trying to be sensitive to that and meet people where they are is important.”
He added that unlike other companies, most of Fannie Mae’s employees were in one location.
“It was easier to be empathetic when you could just manage by walking around and see that somebody seemed down or exhausted or that they’ve been working late the prior night. And now you don’t have that visibility,” he said.
The panelists said their expectations of outside counsel evolved during the pandemic. Now, they want outside counsel to prepare them for the risks they can’t foresee.
“Look out for the next big risk or opportunity coming down the road for us. Those are the outside counsel that are truly valuable,” Huber said.
While many companies took a financial hit during the pandemic, the strain forced them to get creative to maximize revenue streams. At Uber, that meant putting more emphasis on its delivery business, which has tripled in size since the pandemic began, and its freight-shipping business.
“We tried to approach it with the same kind of innovation and energy and real grit that we’ve tried to approach anything in the business,” West said.
Amazon exponential growth during the pandemic—which tested the company like never before.
Zapolsky said 2020 and 2021 were the most challenging of his 22 years at the company. But he said employees responded in “superhuman” fashion.
“We experienced at least two to three years of growth in about a 15-month timeframe. And as it hit us, our priorities became incredibly sharp,” he said.
“We had to reform the entire business, the entire logistical footprint, so that we could prioritize the items that people needed most—getting them to the people who need it, who were shut in, who were locked down—not just in the United States but all over the world, in different ways and degrees.”