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Legal Ops & Business Continuity, Part 1: Stabilizing the Situation

Emily Bogin |

The COVID-19 pandemic has shown enterprises around the world the risks and costs of not being prepared for disruption. Whether they’re large or small, downturns and disasters demand an approach to business continuity that’s more than simply reactive.

Legal Operations is a relatively new field that has been born of the need to keep mission-critical records, documents, and processes functional and streamlined in an increasingly complex world. These core functions of Legal Operations become even more important when new challenges present themselves that might potentially undermine the business continuity that “Legal Ops” is responsible for upholding. Companies look to their Legal Operations team to solder the wounds and innovate new solutions to stay resilient in the face of disruption.

No matter how advanced a company’s tech stack may be, Legal Operations must be prepared to ensure business continuity both in times of “business as usual” and amidst crises. A crisis like COVID-19 is an inflection point; one where some companies learn the hard way the need for automated, streamlined processes but finally have the motivation and momentum to begin implementing them, while more mature enterprises can focus their preparations on the future.

In both cases, it’s up to Legal Ops professionals to assume the mantle of leadership and set their companies on the path to success. As one Legal Ops leader observed recently:

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“(The COVID-19 crisis) plays directly into what Legal Ops teams do on a day-to-day basis, whether it’s financial management or legal technology, communications, vendor management, you name it. Those are all areas that have to continue to function in a crisis so that the backbone of the department carries on.”

Katrina Keiffer, Associate Director of Legal Operations, Navistar

The nature of a crisis

There are three distinct phases in a crisis. The first phase could be said to be the period before the crisis hits: even though this time appears to be “business as usual,” this phase is actually unsustainable and may present (sometimes in retrospect) the cause(s) behind the crisis.

The next phase occurs during the crisis, as the most important action is to stabilize the situation. During COVID-19, this stabilization phase largely consisted of organizations quickly setting up employees to work from home, figuring out how to handle the paper invoices and mail that were still being received at the office, and ensuring that critical processes were still functioning, even if key team members were out taking care of themselves or of their sick family members.

Finally, the last phase of the crisis is what Ronald Heifetz, the founder of the Center for Public Leadership at the Harvard Kennedy School, calls the adaptive phase: “When you tackle the underlying causes of the crisis and build the capacity to thrive in a new reality.”

The adaptive phase that takes place after the crisis is essentially the company’s commitment to not just go back to business as usual, but to ensure that “business as usual” no longer carries the same risks and uncertainties that it did before the crisis struck.

Stabilizing the situation

After the seriousness of COVID-19 became known, legal departments acted fast to “stabilize the patient.” Heifetz likens a crisis to a heart attack that strikes in the middle of the night: Those with the responsibility to react must do so immediately, and their first goal must be to overcome the urgent and life threatening situation.

For this most recent crisis, this meant that employees across the globe were sent home to work from the home offices and living rooms. Governments implemented policies to immediately lessen the likelihood of transmission: preventing large groups from meeting, instructing communities to venture out only when necessary,and the requirement of wearing masks in public were all examples of “stabilizing the patient.”

Work-from-Home Homework: A March 2020 survey by YouGov found 28% of respondents were working from home. The plurality (29%) said they were as productive at home as they were at the office.

Companies needed to ensure not only the health of their employees but also that the company itself was functional throughout the crisis. Many had to make rapid and unprecedented decisions regarding work-from-home policies and processes.

Those with certain technologies already in place had a decided advantage: Rather than having to implement new systems, they were able to rely on existing ones to support business continuity. They could also do so with greater efficiency, even in these circumstances, since they’d adopted those technologies for the sake of reducing costs, improving productivity, and accelerating responsiveness in the first place.

“Law departments continue to be challenged to ‘do more with less’ while also navigating rapidly changing corporate environments.”

Kevin Clem, Chief Commercial Officer, HBR Consulting

In our next post in this series, we will examine the steps that some top Legal Ops teams took to mitigate the crisis, support business continuity, and the role technology, data, and analytics played in that effort.

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