Legal Consulting in Uncertain Times

Stephanie Szeto from Peerpoint, Allen & Overy’s flexible resourcing platform, provides an overview of the market and offers some useful advice to clients and consultants in the interim legal space.

Choice, control and flexibility are the hallmarks of mature consultant markets that attract professionals to careers carved through legal consulting. They are also the reasons in-house legal teams leverage interim talent for variable resourcing needs. For a business such as ours, these benefits are central to what we want to achieve for our clients and consultants, but how do they fare in the year of Covid-19?

Stretched Teams Working in Challenging Circumstances

Many businesses are facing budget constraints and headcount freezes and there is no doubt that expenditure is being scrutinised more. With the exception of those on the brink of closing down, most businesses will go on and in some cases groundwork is being laid for future investments.

Nobody knows when Covid-19 and social distancing will end, so the focus seems to be on short-term solutions to immediate situations. In this dynamic and complex environment, flexible resourcing will prove to be a lifeline for corporate legal departments that are already working at full capacity, especially if they also need to cover immediate gaps in their teams or support extra demands without adding fixed costs. Additionally, a diverse stable of well-qualified legal consultants enables teams to manage heightened commercial pressures, without jeopardising the sustainability of the work for the rest of the team, and without exposing the business to risk.

So how can organisations manage their resourcing challenges?

  1. Plan Ahead. For small or lean teams, ensure you have ongoing visibility of the business pipeline so that you can plan appropriate capacity to support upcoming projects and business volumes. Ensure the business is aware of your team’s capacity, particularly if you are near or at-capacity. Know your options for support from the consultant market, from the structure of engagements – whether they are short term roles to cover an area of responsibility, ad-hoc arrangements for one-off pieces of work, or retainer arrangements for variable demands for a particular skillset – through to the skills and level of experience available at short notice. Some work can more easily be carved out from teams into roles and some types of projects are more easily scoped. Set realistic expectations with budget holders about the level of experience needed, from paralegal or junior support to interim general counsel and legal project management. Consultant resource, at any level, should genuinely add value to your team.
  2. Upskill Your Team. If you are unable to go ahead with a planned permanent hire or have a gap in your team, take the opportunity to test a new skillset or structure for your team. The latter can take different forms, for example trialling new roles and responsibilities for existing team members, while a consultant with relevant skills can help address the gap left. Current circumstances may also allow opportunities for your team to develop in other ways. For example, an increased need for litigation, compliance, restructuring coverage, which your team doesn’t have specialism in could warrant bringing in a consultant with this experience. Your team will gain exposure to this work while benefiting from the experience of a specialist.
  3. Integrate Consultants Effectively. If you take on a legal consultant, plan ahead to allow IT equipment and training to be ready for their first day, whether that’s at home or in the office. If they are working remotely, it is helpful to initiate regular calls, ideally with video, and certainly with the team during their first week and often thereafter to ensure they are aware of their stakeholders and feel part of the team. Over communicating when working remotely is better than under communicating, especially when colleagues cannot be in the same physical space.

Sustaining Professional Success Through Covid-19 and Beyond

The most common question we are asked by existing and prospective consultants is whether there are roles for legal consultants in the current market. The answer is yes. Legal consulting is not experiencing the same slowdown as the permanent job market. Has demand for consultants been impacted by the softer business environment? Again a qualified yes. Different skillsets and levels of experience have been affected in different ways with some skills proving to be in higher demand, especially when compared to 12 months ago. The impact also varies by country. Just as social distancing measures and working arrangements continue to change, the types of roles available and level of demand continue to evolve. One impact we are seeing consistently is longer approval times for roles, due to the higher level of scrutiny on expenditure.

Another common question is how legal departments are bringing consultants into their teams when many offices are closed. The pandemic has demonstrated that productivity can be sustained through remote working arrangements. Whilst some workplace cultures certainly prefer some in-person meetings, the majority of teams have adapted to recommended social distancing measures such as split team working, if they are not working fully from home. Joining a team in these circumstances will feel different, perhaps even distant. A consultant needs to be prepared to increase their initial outreach to colleagues and internal clients to build rapport and trust, and maintain frequent dialogue so that they fully integrate into a team.

I would always advise consultants to find out how the team they have joined likes to communicate and what their preferences are when working together. Reach out when they have capacity, and when they are at capacity, so that managers have visibility of workloads. Provide regular status updates, so that the teams around them feel that they are handling the work well. This will, in turn, bring more interesting work to them.

If you are a consultant, or looking to become one, the additional tips below will help you stand out and make the best of your experience.

  1. Update Your Priorities and Boundaries. Think carefully about what it is that is most important for you during these times. Is it the variety of work? Or perhaps personal time for interests, a side business or time with your family? What do you need in order to feel that your career choice is successful and sustainable? If your priorities in 2020 remain the same as they were in 2019, can you accept what you consider the drawbacks to be of consulting for the next 6-12 months? Be honest with yourself about your priorities and boundaries, and make the right choice for yourself personally, rather than being swayed by those around you. Even in healthy markets, people take time to reflect on these considerations so it’s even more important now. For some, being a consultant has been a relief, affording them the ability to easily decline work without guilt so they can manage other priorities. Some have been able to consider roles they might not have previously while others have felt a heightened sense of uncertainty, resulting in a re-evaluation of their budgets, sustainability and so on.
  2. Highlight Your Strengths. Lawyers with consulting experience have some of the most valuable skills for the current environment – they are adept at applying their knowledge and expertise to a variety of situations, markets, organisational structures and tasks. This adaptability, versatility, resourcefulness, responsiveness and ability to build relationships quickly should give consultants confidence in translating their skills to handle high pressure client situations. Highlight these strengths when interviewing for roles, whether in-person or virtually, and give engaging examples of how you have used them to bring successful results in the past. Also consider the client’s perspective – what their concerns and preferences are – and address them in interviews. Additionally, as a consultant, it’s important to continually invest in your personal brand, whether that’s through learning and developing or engaging in networking, for example virtual industry forums, or even engaging consistently on platforms such as LinkedIn.
  3. Communicate Your Goals and Stay Up-to-date on the Market Dynamics. If you work with a consultant platform, update them on your goals, and be open and honest about your priorities and needs, so they can share their observations and experience of the market with you.

Whether you’re a business looking to utilise an agile workforce or a lawyer considering your career and options, the current state of the market and how it’s perceived comes down to your needs and priorities.

The driving factors that make the legal consulting market attractive are always present, regardless of whether the business environment is buoyant or challenging. However, as a friend of mine recently remarked, “during uncertain times the highs are higher and the lows are lower”.

To discuss any of the issues raised in this article, please contact Stephanie.Szeto@AllenOvery.com or for information about Peerpoint please visit peerpoint.com

Jurisdictions

Head of Peerpoint, Asia

Stephanie Szeto heads up Peerpoint's business in Asia. She has over 17 years’ experience in strategic business roles at top-tier international law firms and is passionate about working with legal professionals on their career development, and finding solutions to clients’ business needs. Originally from the San Francisco Bay Area, Stephanie moved to Hong Kong in 2008.