Leadership during a crisis

In-house lawyers have highly-developed analytical, specialist and focused skills – but even the most rigorous legal education will not have included the techniques to lead during a crisis.

This article examines how the in-house lawyer can rise to the challenge of crisis, bringing their talents to the organisation’s leadership team, while guiding and directing the legal team through difficult times.

Models of Leadership

In business, there are many models which provide tool kits for analysis, for communication, and for leadership. There is not space to rehearse them here, but the concepts they embody are useful starting points for determining how best to lead in a crisis. Some notes on further reading are set out at the end of this paper.

Whilst the coronavirus crisis is of a different scale and geographic impact to almost everything which has gone before, there are significant lessons to be learnt both from the global financial crisis and from previous disruptive events.

Aviate, Navigate, Communicate

The study of law may not focus the student on crisis management, but it is instructive to learn from other professions which do. In aviation, student pilots are taught that in times of crisis they must aviate, navigate and communicate. They are in command of the aircraft. They must keep it airborne at all costs. They must then work out where they are, and where they are going. Finally, they must communicate – between themselves, with air traffic control, and with their passengers.

The aviation world also teaches us that human factors are critically important – in working together; in ensuring key messages are heard, and that there is a willingness to speak up about concerns.

Aviate - keep the organisation going

There is an absolute imperative that the leaders actually lead the organisation – and are seen to be doing so. The primary duty of a leadership team in a crisis is to keep the organisation going, and to ensure that it emerges in a fit state to carry on afterwards. The GC and in-house lawyers have that duty as much as any other member of the leadership team.

So, what can you do?

  • Prioritise. Identify what needs doing to keep the organisation going, and focus absolutely on that. There will inevitably be a financial element – but also physical, reputational, operational and legal primacies. Analyse and understand what they are – and what you can do about them, personally and through your team.
  • Use the business continuity plan. Your organisation may well have a crisis management or business continuity plan. Use them. They will almost certainly need to be adapted, but they are an excellent starting point. Remember that someone needs to be (and be seen to be) in charge, and decisions must be made and implemented quickly and effectively. [See The Legal Team’s role in crisis and post-crisis management (insert link if possible)].
  • Rewrite your role – urgently. You have limited capacity and resource, and your priorities have changed. The things you personally, and your legal team generally, were doing before the crisis must be re-evaluated. Determine what needs to be done now, what new priorities exist, what can be deferred and what can be done by someone else. Don’t be afraid to move responsibilities around, and to re-prioritise. Divide responsibilities so that someone is responsible only for crisis issues, and someone else for day-to-day management of the teams. Rearrange non-essential commitments; put non-critical projects on hold. Give absolute focus to the things that matter to the survival of the organisation.
  • Reassess your priorities regularly. This should be done both with the senior management team, and with the legal team. Are you still doing the right things?
  • Remember which hat you are wearing. In-house lawyers belong to many teams – senior management, legal, divisional or subsidiary teams, and project roles. You may not have a formal leadership role – but colleagues will still be looking to you for leadership. Prioritise, plan, rewrite your role, and reassess the priorities for each one of those roles, and ensure your legal team members are doing the same.

Navigate - Where are we? Where are we going?

All organisations – and many legal teams – will have management information structures. In a crisis there is a need to assess where you are – what is the current state; and where you are going – what information do you need for the future? This may not be the information you already collect. In the global financial crisis, for instance, many organisations needed an entirely new set of management information - to track claims received, notices given and received to counterparties, the financial health (or failure) of counterparties and extensive legal, financial and employment-related information.

A number of legal teams found that they could reassign staff – particularly knowledge management specialists, paralegals, or legal ops specialists - to collate, manage and communicate key management information within the legal team and across the business.

Developing a tracker to present the information clearly, quickly and in a way which highlights trends is important – if the legal team doesn’t have the skills, can you borrow them from planning, strategy or operational colleagues?

Communicate - Which audiences? Which channels?

As a leader, people will look to you for information, advice, reassurance and direction. Colleagues may be confused, anxious and uncertain. Conversely, others might not think the crisis affects them or their work.

You must identify the key audiences for your communication. One will be the senior management team, another may be the board, a third will certainly be the legal team itself. You will also need to communicate with your external lawyers – and in a crisis, in all possibility with other external stakeholders.

Map out these audiences, what you need to say to them, and when. Be certain what you want to say, clearly and in a straightforward way. Consider how your message will be understood and interpreted. Communicate regularly - but not so often that your messaging becomes commonplace. Communications against a schedule will help you to appear consistent, calming and in control.

Understand too that your audiences are intelligent, sophisticated and informed. Your legal team will know what is going on. They will know the impact on their own workload – whether they are seeing many more default notifications, for example. They will talk to their colleagues across the organisation and will hear the informal rumours. It’s important to be honest and empathetic, and to tell people exactly what they need to hear – and how issues affect them.

Consider which channels you use. Daily updates across email or other tech channels are important for large teams, or across time zones. There is no substitute, though, for personal communication in person or by phone. Make it a rule to speak to everyone who reports to you daily. Check in at least daily with your key colleagues. You may be speaking hourly, but keep the rule anyway. It’s lonely at the top and even a Chief Executive will appreciate a call at the end of the day to catch up and ask how things are.

Human factors

Leadership is a personal relationship. Those whom you lead need to trust and respect you. In turn you need to trust and respect them. The same applies to your working relationship with senior colleagues, external law firms, and other stakeholders. A crisis is your opportunity to build and enhance that trust.

Don’t assume, though, that you should rely only on the same resources as in business-as-usual. Your organisation’s issues may have changed fundamentally. You may need different people, external lawyers or specialist resources. You need people who have been there before, as far as possible, not those who are learning at the same time as you are. Don’t be afraid to change.

Crisis situations are frightening. People will not behave rationally. They may be exhausted. Trusted colleagues may no longer be available. Respected advisers may desert you. Don’t be surprised if people ignore advice, bite back, don’t do what you expect, or are plain difficult. Don’t react, but expect the unexpected and be prepared to deal with it.

Don’t be afraid to question or to challenge (positively) colleagues and advisers. In crisis, often no-one has the right answers; they might have missed something you can see; they might still be working to an outdated plan, and they will certainly be uncomfortable and under pressure.

Be aware, too, that a post-mortem will follow. Hindsight and the luxury of critical analysis may judge your responses differently, and it is necessary to have an eye on the way your actions will be perceived. Ensure that an audit trail of decisions is kept, and consider what material may be disclosable.

Finally, look after your own health and mental wellbeing. You cannot lead effectively if you are exhausted and unwell. However difficult it may be, try to find a way to achieve at least some element of recuperation in your schedule. [See Resilience and Recovering from Setbacks (insert link if possible)].


Leadership is difficult. Crises are challenging, frightening and unpredictable. Leadership in a crisis is all those things. It is hoped that the suggestions in this article will help you, and your organisation, to navigate them, and to emerge ready to succeed in the new reality.

Links: Further reading

Analysis Tools:

PESTLE Model. Political, economic, sociocultural, technological, environmental, legal analysis.

Porter’s Five Forces: Michael E. Porter Competitive Strategy, Techniques for Analysing Industries and Competitors. (Free Press 1980/1998)

CLL Papers:

The Legal Team’s Role in Crisis and Post-crisis management

Resilience and recovering from setbacks


Harold Evans Do I make myself clear? Why writing well matters. (Little Brown 2017)

Rob Goffee, Gareth Jones Why Should Anyone be Led by you? (Harvard Business School Press 2006)

Herminia Ibarra Act like a leader. Think like a leader (Harvard Business Review Press 2015)

Ben W. Heineman Jr. The Inside Counsel Revolution, (ABA 2016)

David H Maister Why Should I Follow You? from True Professionalism (The Free Press 1997)

Richard Moorhead, Stephen Vaughan and Cristina Godinho In-House Lawyers’ Ethics (Hart 2019)

Richard Tapp The Future of the In-House Lawyer (The Law Society 2016)