By: Christopher D. Carusone and Anthony H. Chwastyk
Corporate clients rely heavily on their law departments when legal issues arise. This responsibility puts no small amount of pressure on our in-house counterparts, considering that outside counsel fees can be enormous, and few nonlawyer professionals truly understand the value proposition of legal advice. Becoming a trusted adviser to the in-house team is critical to growing a fruitful partnership with your corporate clients. The following are some tips to strengthen those relationships.
Know the Business
It is a basic tenet of professionalism that knowing a client’s business is necessary to understand their needs. From a customer service perspective, an outside counsel’s clear comprehension of industry best practices and regulatory obligations assures corporate counsel that they hired the right lawyer. The fear of hiring the wrong outside counsel keeps in-house legal departments up at night because failing to hire the right people reflects poorly on the in-house team. Being literate in a business unit’s distinct needs is the easiest way to demonstrate your commitment to a client’s success. On a more pragmatic note, the more you know, the less counsel needs to explain, and anything that translates into client convenience only increases client satisfaction.
Establish Needs Ahead of Time
Legal department budgets are tightening and corporate counsel need to exercise discretion with utilizing outside counsel services. Outsourcing legal work is a convenient way to increase the department’s production output, but it comes with the potential of a large bill at the end of the month. In-house counsel do not have the time to micromanage attorneys, and they need to trust that their legal vendors will apply good judgment in ensuring that the bill does not spiral out of control. A hefty payable with nothing to show reflects poorly on the in-house group, and you can be assured that further business will not be forthcoming.
Establishing the goals of representation with your in-house counterpart early on indicates that you understand their need for cost-effective representation. Perhaps counsel generally works through a legal problem and simply needs a “yes” or “no” as opposed to a lengthy memo setting forth all the potential pitfalls in their proposed course of action. Maybe the client needs a full-on project manager for a merger and decides to delegate all responsibility to you with only a few check-ins. Be upfront with corporate counsel, and let them know that you can be as involved as needed.
Avoid Death by a Thousand Phone Calls
Contrary to popular belief, in-house life does not end at five, and it can come with an equally large caseload as law firm life (sometimes larger). Therefore, an endless series of phone conferences only prolongs the amount of time corporate counsel has to stay in the office or log into their VPN from home. Even worse, they do not get end-of-year bonuses for logging that extra time.
Most conference calls or Zoom meetings can be emails, especially when taking into account the amount of time it takes to marshal together the parties who need to be on the call. Also, calls inevitably lead to more billable work for outside counsel because best practices dictate sending a follow-up email documenting the contents of the call.
Clearly, phone calls should not be eliminated altogether—especially when your client requests them and they are certainly appropriate when dealing with project milestones (e.g., settlement discussions or reviewing the most recent draft of a commercial lease). However, the effectiveness of a call is likely enhanced when the client requests it. So, consider an email.
Give an Answer!
Lawyers are risk-averse, but businesspeople—not so much. That’s why they can afford lawyers! To solve a client’s problems, we take in facts, filter them through the law, and pray that you can distill that process into a simple answer. Almost always, we are forced to lean on the old chestnut, “it depends.” However, companies are not used to dealing with the vagaries of legal analysis, and therefore demand actual answers they can use. Chances are, in-house counsel has identified the problem and the related legal ambiguities. They called you to provide a solution for how the company should proceed. You could always regurgitate the issue and cite the general state of the law, but I would not expect future business from your corporate contact. The attorneys who can expect long-standing relationships with their in-house counterparts are the ones who can be counted on to provide practical advice on a legal issue, preferably on the spot.
Don’t Leave Your In-House Counsel Hanging
Businesses do not always differentiate between their fellow employees and outside counsel. No wonder—both sets of lawyers have an equal chance of holding up a deal that the sales team needs to close overnight or taking “too long” to review documents that “look totally fine” to the operations group. The difference is that in-house attorneys must work daily with disgruntled business folks who might not appreciate legal interfering with their proposed plans.
Part of outside counsel’s role is to take on the unenviable task of giving bad news or reminding clients of their legal obligations when the time is right. This sounds obvious, but when the tensions are high in the c-suite, it can be easy to depend on the legal department to convey an unfavorable court ruling or to share recent legislation that could increase a companies’ compliance costs. Taking that heat off of the legal department will generate great respect with the team that hires outside counsel.
Do not be too quick to disagree with the client. While they retained outside counsel to address an issue that could not be handled internally, the in-house team knows the client and its operations far more than outside counsel. Do not dismiss their ideas out of hand, but rather give them due consideration before proposing alternatives. And please, do not take credit for corporate counsel’s ideas (which seems obvious, but you would be surprised).
Reprinted with permission from the February 23, 2021 edition of “The Legal Intelligencer” © 2021 ALM Media Properties, LLC. All rights reserved. Further duplication without permission is prohibited. For information, contact 877-257-3382, firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.almreprints.com.