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Access Group, Inc., Debbie Swartz, Vice President of Legal Affairs and Chief Compliance Officer

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Access Group Inc., Debbie Swartz, Vice President of Legal Affairs and Chief Compliance Officer

Founded in 1983, Access Group is a non-profit membership organization comprised of 196 ABA-approved nonprofit and state-affiliated law schools. Access Group works to further access, affordability and the value of legal education through research, policy advocacy, direct member and student educational services, and student financing options.

Q: In your best relationships with outside counsel, what are three important things other lawyers could learn from them?

A: The most important thing is finding a relationship partner that you really trust – that you know is going to look out for your and your company’s best interests. The attorneys that are really good are going to learn your business, understand your business and suggest things that might be helpful to you. I still work with the attorney I used in my previous position because we have such a great, trusting relationship. I can ask the partner who can help me with certain areas, and he can point me to the right people inside or outside of the firm. It’s making yourself a true partner and not just trying to upsell your services. That is what I look for in my go-to firm.

The next one is pretty basic. It’s responsiveness. It’s hard to believe, but there are a lot of lawyers out there who aren’t as responsive as they should be.

The third would have to be being cost effective. That’s not being the cheapest but delivering the best value. For example, we’ve used a really large firm for many years but limit use because of the expense. There is an attorney who is a student loan guru and is a really valuable resource. Yesterday I had a specific and very technical legal question so instead of me slogging through a bunch of information to find what I need I called the lawyer, and he got back to me within five minutes. He was able to pull out a memo on the subject from 2000 that was exactly on point and gave me the information I needed on the spot. Even though it wasn’t current, the information gave me the comfort I needed to proceed quickly. That was a lot of value.

Q: And, of course, the follow-up: what are the top three things that lawyers could learn from your least successful relationships with outside counsel over the years?

A:  Law firms have a tendency to get complacent or get a little lazy when you’ve worked together for a while. Stay on top of the relationship. Don’t take it for granted.

Another frustration is not being proactive. For example, in the e-discovery or litigation context it is rare that outside counsel will ask if we have started a litigation hold. Thankfully almost every firm that I’ve dealt with is by far the exception not the rule.

And to me, being non-responsive is just a fatal flaw in a lot of outside counsel.

Q: How has purchasing legal services changed?

A:  More so than even looking at AFA’s, people are definitely moving away from the larger firms to find a better value. There are some great lawyers at a better price point in a more entrepreneurial environment and with lower fees.

Q: With all the highly qualified lawyers out there, what factors really influence your hiring decisions?

A:  Trust. Trust that they can put together the right team and to admit when they don’t have what you need. I like to have a go-to firm that can do a number of things – litigation, corporate work and some other areas. You can get better pricing with volume discounts by consolidating, and it makes it more efficient. It’s having that trust that you can pick up the phone and get a straight answer. Do they have the right resources, and if they don’t will they admit it?

Q: Competition is fierce among law firms; what have law firms done effectively to market to you that captured your attention?

A:  Frankly, not much. One thing that’s a big turn off to me is that any firms with a touch point to us would send us copies of the docket and ask if we knew we were being sued. We know. That kind of blind, unsolicited approach is a big turnoff. It’s different if I have a good relationship, and the firm is just letting me know they are watching out for us.

Lawyers who are subject matter experts going to conferences and seminars and speaking demonstrate their knowledge. And offering a value-added service like a webinar is a great value-added tool. It’s giving people the opportunity to recognize your expertise. I was at an industry meeting where a guy from a law firm’s Atlanta office spoke for an hour session. I was blown away. I would hire the guy in a second if we had a CFPB (Consumer Financial Protection Bureau) issue. Seeing how an attorney presents, answers questions and engages with an audience is really useful.

Q: What law firm trends are you are seeing that you would like to come to a screeching halt?

A: The big one that is still not fully unfolded is in the e-discovery space. Firms have to recognize that they need to create a subsidiary to do things in a more rational, cost-effective matter. They can’t keep billing out associates to do document review. Also there is greater sophistication with vendors and in-house counsel. There is room for improvement for firms to fully change over to the new order and clean up. There has been a lot of improvement but we still need progress.

Q: What is your greatest challenge as in-house counsel?

A: Right now it’s juggling everything effectively with a really busy practice and getting my clients to be more realistic about deadlines. One point of pride in my career is being very responsive, but when you are a department of one and can’t hand off stuff except to outside counsel, it’s very difficult. Everyone thinks their “thing” is the most important.

Q: Lawyers are often worried that seeking client feedback, ascertaining the client’s preferences or learning more about the business will be viewed by the client as an imposition.  How would you respond to that concern?

A: I think it’s a good thing. It’s hitting close to home. I was so pleased when my firm sent you in to seek my feedback. It can be a little bit hard when you are moving so fast getting the work done so (the client interview) allows you a better forum to reflect and think about what really are your pet peeves and what really works in the relationship. There is a lot of pressure on firms to deliver better value and to be more efficient so a great differentiator is to really understand what clients value. Firms that seek client feedback can really understand their clients’ needs.

Q: Any other advice you would like to give law firms?

A:  Get out of your offices. Come to events and interact with in-house counsel. Meet us informally. Come to ACC meetings. Try to find opportunities where you can get out and listen to what challenges your in-house counsel clients and potential clients are facing so you can be more tuned in to what they need and understand what their pet peeves are. That will set you apart.

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