Martha Elena Ruiz, general counsel, Telefónica Colombia

Going digital has become more important now, than ever before. Martha Elena Ruiz, general counsel at Telefónica Colombia shares how she and her legal team have navigated the challenges presented in 2020.

I am a lawyer with a master’s degree in Economic Law and have been working in the telecommunications sector for over 22 years. During these years I have witnessed innumerable modifications and changes in the telecommunications sector, and, at the same time, I have had the privilege of leading Telefónica’s legal team in Colombia from 2004 until today. Telefónica is a Spanish multinational with operations across Latin America in places such as Colombia, Venezuela, Peru, Ecuador,  Brazil, Argentina, Chile and Uruguay.

When it comes to the impact of COVID-19 in Telefónica´s legal team, I have to say that has not been as shocking as you might think at first glance. Indeed, before the COVID-19 outbreak, Telefonica had already implemented mechanisms to reconcile personal and professional life enabling tools such as teleworking one day a week. The COVID-19 pandemic has allowed us to expand such tools and to continue with the day-to-day business in a comprehensive teleworking environment.

Despite finance playing a role, legal also played a massive role with providing support and advice during this time. The finance and legal teams worked together to obtain the required approvals. We did a merger as well. We experienced a lot of challenges during this period. The legal team has done a great job. We have been very cohesive and have been working together, showing a high level of commitment, producing very high quality work.

To monitor the effectiveness of our employees we have set up weekly meetings. Every Monday we have a meeting and divide up the responsibilities we have for that week. At the end of the week we review everything and check in on our work developments and duties. I think communication is the main thing at this time. Not only with our immediate reports, but also checking in with our whole team. Meetings also help us keep in touch on a personal level. It gives everybody the space to explain what they are doing and how concerned they are on a personal level. We try and do some activities to check in on the emotional wellbeing of the team.

However, when doing huge amounts of work, the fact is you cannot be at every meeting all the time, so, you have to relinquish control and empower employees. You have to give them space. We want everybody to be part of the operations of the company. For example, we have adopted different procedures to make us more flexible with reviewing contracts, signing agreements, negotiating, and have adjusted procedures to obtain approvals inside the company. As a result, we became more agile and effective as a team without losing quality. We have improved the way we work from long distance.

I have engaged my team in activities that focus on personal wellbeing. I have tried to strike a balance between focusing on work, without losing focus on life as it is, we are mothers, wives and so on. So, it is important to promote a balanced approach where everything is not just about work. I believe this has emotionally helped our team.

At the beginning of lockdown, we had to do very long hours, but at some point, it became evident that we could not continue that way. At the very beginning we were all committed to supporting all company needs to adjust the operational continuity. Eventually, we realized it was not possible to sustain those working hours. We started to set boundaries and set work times, it was important to respect weekends and lunchtimes.

It is important to acknowledge everything has now gone virtual. As a telecommunication company, we have access to technology to support our work: technological tools for contracts, signing documents, litigation proceedings, virtual hearings. When it comes to legal tech we are not hesitant, we want to keep working and delivering high standards and are committed to moving in the way the company needs.

Specifically for us, Microsoft Teams has been very useful. It is so easy to use, this application allowed us to do our meetings, review documents and share presentations in a simple way. In addition, we have also introduced a contract software called Webdox. This software helps us keep track of all the negotiations and approvals inside the company. It helps us identify the legal areas that we are involved in. Our work as lawyers has a lot to do with negotiations and meetings. We can keep track of the different areas of the company – these are the clients we serve. We have implemented this software to streamline business operations, so we can deliver contracts and services to different parts of the business faster.

When looking at alternate dispute resolution, mediation is always preferred, if that is not possible, we always prefer arbitration over litigation. During this quarantine period, all litigation proceedings were suspended, but arbitration continued virtually, as well as mediation. During this period we reviewed all our litigation and we tried to mediate some of our litigation cases. As a result of this process, we were able to find mediation solutions to some of our litigation cases. As of 1 July, courts opened again.

Basically, all of our contracts have an arbitration clause. In Colombia we have confidence in arbitration and the way justice is provided. Arbitrators tend to be specialised in a particular area and can have more knowledge in a specific field. In contrast, litigation in Colombia can take years. When using arbitration, we are basically fast-tracking cases to get an end result.

Overall, in-house legal teams need to be more business minded and present across all business’ operations. They need to be working hand in hand with different areas of the company. They have to be aware of the legal issues and, also understand the practical business implications of legal decisions. In the future, we have to be more present in the groundwork, be more agile and flexible. We have to be open to redefining the way we work and the way we approach our internal clients.

Nowadays, it is not just about having legal knowledge, it is also about how to approach people and how to achieve goals as a team. It is extremely important to become more business minded – you have to know your company in order to serve them.