People around the world have recently celebrated Lunar New Year, welcoming in the year of the rabbit – a year said to be characterised by peacefulness and contemplation. Unfortunately, judging by current newspaper headlines it is unlikely to be a tranquil year for businesses or their advisers, as recession looms and the cost of living crisis continues to bite. For busy general counsel, hoping to have a moment to catch their breath post-pandemic, this latest set of challenges is likely to be met with an exhausted sigh. It has been well-reported that in-house legal teams have been stretched in recent years, and in some cases pushed to breaking point. Budgets have been slashed, while GCs have increasingly been expected to be involved in wider strategic business discussions and, overall, take a more holistic role. 


Matthew Kay

In a Bloomberg piece mid-pandemic, it was reported that 88% of GCs were planning budget cuts. Workloads continue to grow and this is leading to burnout. A poll by the Association of Corporate Counsel found that 53% of in-house lawyers were working more hours than before, and 74% reported experiencing moderate to very high levels of burnout. And it is hardly surprising. In-house legal teams are facing a myriad of challenges due to factors such as the pandemic, strikes and Brexit, meaning issues such as trade disruption are more likely and supply chains can become elongated or broken, causing chaos and disputes. These issues are coupled with the constant stream of day-to-day legal tasks.

After several years of upheaval and difficulties experienced by GCs and their teams, this seems like a moment of reckoning. Uncertainty became the adjective to describe the pandemic, but this ambiguity has not gone away. It has instead (to revert to another well-worn pandemic phrase) become the ‘new normal’. I think this year will see in-house teams making bigger decisions to ensure they are evolving with these uncertain times, which show no sign of slowing down.

There are of course a huge range of challenges facing GCs, coming from all angles. It is also important to note the ‘traditional’ challenges have not gone away. New legislation and regulation continue to appear, with a growing focus on compliance in areas such as economic crime and director duty. Similarly, environmental, social, and corporate governance continues to be an area of focus – with more environmental regulations affecting big businesses and further public scrutiny of these issues. Many businesses will also be keeping a close eye on the Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill. This could create a different legislative landscape, particularly in areas such as employment, as the bill seeks to revoke certain retained EU laws.

However, the biggest challenge for in-house teams is likely to be how they keep all their balls in the air, juggling heavy workloads and complex and time-consuming legal work, amid shrinking budgets, recruitment issues and stressed teams.

More in-house legal teams have turned to technology to help ease the burden and this is a trend set to continue. In many cases, GCs use technology to help automate their repetitive and straightforward tasks such as document review. Predictive analytics can be a useful way to identify patterns and trends in large amounts of data, which can be valuable in areas such as contract analysis and legal research. The concept of machine-learning then compounds the process, allowing the system to gradually become more efficient each time it is used. However, it often requires an expert to help advise on the specific type of technology which will have the most impact and offer the most efficiencies. Training the team on how to use the tech properly is another challenge which needs appropriate attention.

As well as lacking resources, many in-house teams lack the necessary hands on deck. Post-pandemic, the ‘great resignation’ was observed – a surge in people looking for new roles, prompted by the reflection and change driven by lockdowns. While this has quietened down, partly influenced by the looming recession, we are still seeing the ripple effects and, for many, hiring quality lawyers is difficult. Equally, sourcing appropriate budget to hire new full-time members of staff can also be a challenge. For these reasons, we have seen more GCs consider flexible resourcing, hiring freelance lawyers who can easily slot into the team, at the required level of seniority, and immediately pick up work.

A huge focus and challenge will be keeping teams happy and productive. Staving off stress and burnout is no easy task and many in-house teams are still grappling with both the problems and opportunities presented by hybrid work. Conversations about how best to adapt the workplace to suit this new model will continue, with the focus on ensuring lawyers are properly supported at all levels and toxic cultures of overwork and presenteeism do not become ingrained in teams.

In the long-term, it is an exciting time to be an in-house lawyer as this role continues to evolve into a more integrated and strategically important one. But there is no doubt it is a challenging position, with many teams lacking necessary resources and contending with growing workloads. I think this year, while not necessarily calm and full of contemplation, will see GCs seizing opportunities to work differently and more efficiently, putting their teams on solid paths for the long-term.


Matthew Kay is managing director and partner at Pinsent Masons Vario