In conversation with Tom Ferguson, General Counsel & Company Secretary at Well Pharmacy and Mark Levine, Director In-House at BCL Legal, on the impact of the Covid pandemic.
Mark Levine: How will the insights gleaned from the mass home working of 2020 and early 2021 change how your in-house team works in the future?
Tom Ferguson: At a personal level, I had already had the benefit of working in different ways because I worked flexibly when I was at TalkTalk. This taught me that, to collaborate, you need the right tech and a willingness to think a little differently from the standard office-based ways of working.
My team at Well Pharmacy is small so we were able to adapt pretty quickly. At first we went heavy on the day-to-day engagement but soon we found a rhythm that suited us better. We have now been operating in that way comfortably for 12 months and have only seen each other face-to-face a couple of times in that period.
The business is now adopting a formal flexible working policy and, as a team, we have agreed to commit to two or three days a week in the office. As a service function we recognise that we need to work around the business, but we know from the last 12 months just how much can be achieved even when not face-to-face all the time.
I am someone who works well in the company of others – your usual extrovert thinker – so striking a new balance between in-the-room problem solving and remote reflection will be a great opportunity to refresh how we do things.
Mark Levine: What novel issues did in-house lawyers advise on with the onset of the pandemic?
Tom Ferguson: Under the early Coronavirus legislation community pharmacy operators were specifically required to ensure that our pharmacies remained open for the public to access medication and the primary healthcare services we offer. So, the first thing to do was to get to grips with the rafts of new legislation and work out how that impacted our ability to fulfil our public health responsibilities while keeping frontline colleagues safe.
Safety has, as for many people, moved right up the agenda. For us this has meant working at pace and in very imperfect situations where facts and guidance are moving quickly – a situation that always challenges the thinking of every lawyer. Being prepared to say “good enough for today”, and knowing that might change again the next day, was a key skill.
We are a small team and have deliberately sought to make sure engagement with the legal function is easy and not obstructive. That meant we were inside the conversations from the outset and seen as an equal contributor to solving any problems: much of the time it was not about legal skills, but the ability to think critically when presented with lots of information that we were able to bring to the conversation.
We also found that our partner law firms were equally fast at adapting, and all of the firms were brilliant at sharing what they were learning from other clients and sources – particularly in the new world of furlough and self-isolation. I always regard the legal team to be those employed by the business and those employed by the firms we work with, and that was definitely evident during the pandemic.
Mark Levine: How has the pandemic changed the dialogue around wellbeing and work-life balance?
Tom Ferguson: We have all worked hard in the last 12 months! One of the things we have learned as a business is that we can move fast and get things done quickly, and the legal team has been no exception.
The volume of work, combined with the circumstances of working remotely and managing care responsibilities, has felt like we have been sprinting a marathon at times. The loss of a commute has its upsides (sorry Northern Rail!) but, equally, the separation between work and home has been lost and it is clear that we cannot continue in this way long-term.
The work done on engagement with the business during the couple of years I have been in-role means that we are now victims of our own success – so we are now thinking about how we can deliver as much as we do but more efficiently. One area is the use of tech, but it also comes through the development of good governance by giving the business the tools it needs to achieve things that do not need close legal involvement.
Mark Levine: How will you maintain a positive team culture and ensure effective on the job training if teams are operating much more remotely?
Tom Ferguson: The adoption of flexible working – and with luck a degree of normality returning to society generally – means we will be able to get the benefits of seeing each other face-to-face. We will use that time to meet and talk and develop our offering to the business.
We are fortunate that technical training is still being made available by law firms and through partnerships fostered by BCL. The firms have adapted well to this, for which we are thankful, and, social side of seeing one’s peers at a seminar aside, I think it’s an effective format that is here to stay.
As a small but growing team the question of supervision and sufficient on-the-job training is something we are focusing on more. We have learned that remote working requires a different way of thinking about engagement – it feels like the quick chat at the desk has been replaced with an instant message on Teams or a WhatsApp on the phone.
Being remote from each other does, though, require putting more thought into how we share our know-how and develop members of the team.
Mark Levine: Are you optimistic for the next 18 months?
Tom Ferguson: Yes! BCL’s own data has shown that in-house lawyers have worked hard over the 12 months and our experience is the same.
If our experience is anything to go by, the business has valued to the contribution of the in-house team and seen our work as collaborative and focused on problem-solving.
From here the key is for in-house lawyers not to think the job is done, even where we have broken down barriers of business engagement. We now have the opportunity to continue to show the value we provide and how we make doing business easier. For my team that means thinking about how we can reduce the friction of legal engagement, whether through developing self-serve tools or simplifying our internal governance.
Most of all I’m really proud of my team and the way they have all worked their way through the challenges presented to them while maintaining a smile and a sense of humour!
Connect with Tom Ferguson on LinkedIn.