As part of the Linklaters & Crafty Counsel ‘Building Back Better’ series, Linklaters partner Jessamy Gallagher sat down for a virtual chat with Nicola Tassell, Managing Director and Divisional General Counsel for Europe at PSP Investments, to share perspectives on the past year and how General Counsel can create a better future in the legal industry following the Covid-19 pandemic.

Empathetic leadership at the forefront

“The first question I have is about keeping teams motivated, and how do you keep your team motivated and resilient when we’re all working remotely and everything is unpredictable? What have you been doing?” Jessamy asked.

Nicola said that, after the initial phase of the pandemic, she found that having on-camera check-ins with her team every day was not helping motivation and resilience, but rather doing the opposite and leading to screen fatigue.

She added that her team moved away from what she called “artificial check-ins”, where her colleagues were not able to be fully honest anymore. Instead, she encouraged the team to keep up-to-date with colleagues by having more spontaneous and open, but also non-intrusive, conversations.

“So there’s a bit about showing genuine empathy and concern about what’s going on in people’s lives, but also a desire and a concern to make sure that they are able to draw some lines, I think, and keep the [conversations] fresh because, otherwise, people just become very stale,” Nicola said.

Next, Jessamy said that she thought it must have been really hard to be in a leadership position during the pandemic. “So, let’s talk about helping leaders lead, and what tips do you have for those who are in leadership positions on how they can be better and more effective leaders?” she asked.

Nicola noted that a big part of her leadership role has been empathising with her team during the pandemic, while also being honest with herself whenever she is struggling, stripping away the reluctance that leaders can have towards showing vulnerability.

“It feels as though people, more than ever, we need to be human and alive to the fact that there’s a whole pile of things that are going on in people’s lives off-camera that we don’t see. And it’s a miracle that the wheels are still on the wagon and people are doing the jobs they’re doing under these crazy situations. And hearing leaders being honest about the challenges they’re facing, I think, is really important,” she said.

Doing the right thing in strenuous times

Next, Jessamy asked for Nicola’s thoughts on the perception that the role of general counsels is increasingly to help and to lead their organisations: not just to do things right, but to do the right thing.

Nicola said that, while it is a truism, she agrees with the statement that one can tell the true measure of an organisation by the way they make decisions in a crisis.

“Having your general counsel with a seat at the table where those decisions are being made to ensure that the information is flowing the right way around the organisation and that you’ve got the right information in the hands of people making the decision, that corners aren’t being cut, this all goes to corporate culture,” she added.

Nicola also noted that, in that sense, the function of her legal team and the advice they give to the business has not fundamentally changed in these situations.

“This is the organisation we are, and this is how we do things, and that doesn’t get eroded because we’re in a tight spot or the pressure is on at the moment’,” she said, adding that it has become increasingly important to do things the right way in difficult times since those decisions are the ones which are judged later on.

Jessamy added that “the fibres of culture have sort of been strained, just because it’s so long since we’ve all been together and you really do have to kind of dig deep into what you’d already built up”.

Innovating PSP’s knowledge sharing

Whilst not entirely linked to the pandemic, remote working has increased the importance of seamless knowledge sharing between teams of lawyers that sit in Montréal (PSP’s main business office), New York and London. Until relatively recently, all of the lawyers sat PSP were based in the Canadian city, where they could “just swing their chair around” and ask each other about how they did things previously.

“And the knowledge was there, it was literally sat in the room. Now, that’s not the same. And we’ve obviously got to try and figure out how we share that knowledge effectively across time zones and different offices,” she said.

Her team is still looking at different options on how to make sure that crucial information and knowledge is available to all who need it wherever they are. This gives her an opportunity for innovation of processes and practices, and she hopes that their methods and outputs will be shared and prove beneficial not just to the legal team but also across PSP business teams in the future.

The future for legal teams, however, is not something she likes to predict, since the last five years have taught her that predictions are easily changed. Nevertheless, she points to data, AI and ESG as key trends that her team will have to follow.

“We see, obviously, a lot of focus with our sponsor partners that we invest alongside on (ESG) issues. And quite rightly, it is an area of concern that is given a high level of focus. But I don’t view it as a novel trend so much, more as a continuation, really, of an emphasis that has already been in existence for a while really,” she added.

Nicola’s key takeaways for GCs

  • Teams can quickly experience on-screen fatigue, and thus more spontaneous and open check-in sessions between colleagues, and off-camera calls when possible are encouraged.
  • It is important for legal teams to remain clear in their steering of a business towards doing the right thing, especially when times are difficult.
  • The expansion of AI technologies and ESG will be key issues in the next five years.