After an unprecedented and highly tumultuous year in 2020 we are all looking forward to a new year in 2021! 2021 will continue to present important opportunities and challenges for in-house counsel. Here’s my “Top 5” focus areas for corporate counsel and their legal departments in 2021:
Continued Covid-19 Impact: While we end 2020 with the beginning of the extensive Covid-19 vaccination process across the world, there will be no vaccine per se for the continued legal issues involving the pandemic. As many organizations prepare for an eventual return of employees back to the physical workplace, a hybrid work environment or even a totally remote work experience, in-house counsel will need to continue to help their clients navigate thru a variety of employment law related considerations. In addition, we will probably begin to see various types of Covid-19 related litigation in our court systems as they try to resume their normal schedules sometime during 2021 as well as continued commercial, employment and other types of Covid-19 centric disputes. Hopefully, industries that have been hit very hard by the pandemic – such as the travel, transportation and hospitality industries – will begin to recover with increased opportunities for their legal teams to help drive positive impact. In addition, US federal Covid-19-related stimulus packages during 2020 such as the CARES Act should create more business opportunities and legal work in key sectors such as healthcare and the public sector. Finally, the “grind” of the pandemic will continue to exact its toll upon the wellness of in-house counsel and their legal departments.
It’s Data Privacy & Cybersecurity All the Time: As technology plays a larger role in our personal and professional lives, issues pertaining to the protection of that technology and its associated data are of paramount importance. At the same time we are seeing more privacy laws being enacted, regulators are become proactive in enforcing those laws and cybercriminals (including nation-states) are unfortunately continuing to weaponize technology to wreak havoc on everyone.
As this intersection of technology, data, privacy and cybersecurity becomes increasingly complex and incredibly relevant to all organizations, this means that in-house lawyers need to “skill-up” in the data privacy and cybersecurity areas. In my view data privacy and data security are becoming core legal skills that all corporate counsel need to be conversant in as they are highly relevant for virtually any in-house counsel role. Here’s some steps that in-house counsel can take to serve as more impactful data privacy and cybersecurity advisors to their respective organizations:
- Staying abreast of the ever-changing data privacy and cybersecurity law landscape and its potential impact to your business;
- Monitoring and learning from the increasing number of cybersecurity and ransomware incidents that are negatively impacting businesses and governments across the globe;
- Helping your clients conduct thoughtful due diligence on your potential technology providers and supply-chain to make sure that your can trust them with securing your data;
- Building deep and trusted legal advisor relationships with senior and influential clients such as your Chief Privacy Officer, Chief Information Security Officer, Chief Information Officer, Chief Digital Officer, Chief Technology Officer, Chief Compliance Officer and their respective teams; and
- Becoming a data privacy and cybersecurity “patriot” by actively shaping and delivering practical data privacy and cybersecurity training to your clients so that you can help create and maintain a data protection-first and cybersecurity-first culture within your organization.
Increased US Regulatory Compliance: After a long and contentious US Presidential election we will have a new occupant in the White House in less than one month. While it will be interesting to see the impact of the new Biden administration on Corporate America, Wall Street and the various business industry sectors, it may be the case that we will see more activity in the regulatory space via new executive orders, the enactment of new laws (which may depend on which political party winds up controlling the Senate and whether there’s any appetite between our political parties to come to consensus on various issues) and more regulatory enforcement. In-house counsel will need to consider the potential proactive regulatory impact of the new Biden administration on their organizations and their legal teams/government affairs teams will need to look for opportunities to build positive relationships with the incoming administration, governmental agencies and key regulators.
Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) is Here to Stay: Over the past several years ESG-related considerations have become increasingly important for businesses and there’s a wealth of opportunities for in-house counsel to positively impact the ESG space. In fact, in-house legal departments may want to consider creating their own specialized ESG-focused practice group in this area if they have not already done so. With the new Biden administration there’s a good chance we will see more active enforcement of the environmental laws and a significant focus on climate control initiatives. More and more leading companies with strong brand recognition have unveiled their efforts to reduce their own carbon emissions and the Chief Sustainability Officer role has the become a newer and highly visible C-Level role in Corporate America. As our society continues to be engaged in important discussions on social issues – such as the continued racial and gender inequality in our country – companies need to be better equipped in both proactively responding to and meaningfully addressing such key issues within their own corporate environments. Increasingly, in-house legal teams need to serve as a smart “sounding board” to help their companies in carefully considering the potential external social impact of their company’s decisions. The area of corporate governance is another important element of ESG – and especially as it relates to companies advancing greater diversity and inclusion in the ranks of their senior leadership and Board of Directors.
Reimaging the Legal Department: The pandemic has forced in-house legal departments to embrace change and leverage leading technology to enable remote work in order to remain highly productive. As a result, in-house counsel and their legal teams have demonstrated their ability to be resilient and to change the way they work to serve their clients during one of the most difficult periods that we have ever faced in our society. I think this coming year provides legal teams with opportunities to hit a “reset” on how their legal department operates and to accelerate their ability to adapt so they can drive greater positive impact for their clients in our ever-changing technology and data-first post pandemic world. As you build and evolve your legal teams to become “world-class” to deliver legal services with greater speed, agility and smarter risk-taking, consider focusing upon the following key areas:
- Identifying more opportunities to work smarter (and not necessarily harder) to free up space to perform more high-value work;
- Measuring your legal team’s success in terms of delivering clear, positive and tangible business impact to your clients;
- Improving your understanding of your client’s changing needs;
- Leveraging highly trusted technology and data insights to better serve you and your clients;
- Driving a stronger culture within your legal team to collaborate, share knowledge, exchange lessons learned, and to truly break down silos;
- Creating superior psychological safety, wellness, diversity and inclusion on your team;
- Requiring greater value from your outside counsel law firms, alternative legal services providers, legal tech companies and other legal service providers; and
- Re-recruiting and rewarding your best talent.
In our increasingly complex and uncertain world, now more than ever our clients need high impact and practical legal guidance that is delivered with speed from their in-house legal teams. Always strive to deliver high value to your business clients and embrace change so you can better serve them.