Dorsal Aerospace Corporation is a newly-formed company designed to design, construct and operate a fleet of innovative low cost cargo aircraft.
Q: If you think about your best relationships with outside counsel over time, what are three important things other lawyers could learn from them?
A: The most important things outside counsel need to do are (1) to communicate effectively with the client, which includes being responsive and, as one of my old mentors puts it, making your first call be the one that you least want to make; (2) make the effort to understand the client’s business and objectives, including the internal needs and politics; (3) keep the client’s interests paramount; and (4) anticipate issues and solve them proactively, which drives effective and efficient outcomes and avoids surprises. I know that’s four but they’re all really important.
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: My less successful experiences have all been the flip side of the successful relationships. Where I’ve had outside counsel go wrong, they’ve violated at least one of the four items I just mentioned, and in most cases more than one. That said, I think it’s also important to recognize that success is a two way street. One of my most successful outside counsel relationships started off on a sour note, with a communication issue, which led to a discussion about how I prefer to work. In the end, we got a fantastic, and efficient, result. I continued to consult this gentleman for the rest of his life.
Q: What’s the smartest thing a lawyer or a law firm has ever done for you outside of doing great legal work?
A: This goes in the categories of putting the client’s interests first and understanding its business objectives. I was once doing an acquisition in which we were going to loan money to the target to keep it afloat long enough to close. Our investment bankers were telling our business people that we had to do it on an unsecured basis, and our people were prepared to go that route. Our outside counsel objected strenuously—really exploding on the conference call, briefly going toe to toe with the bankers, our CFO and head of corporate development. We, the inside legal team, were still shaking our heads on our end of the call. Ultimately, because of our outside counsel’s confidence in his position, and his refusal to see us unnecessarily disadvantaged, we got what we needed.
Q: Are there any client service or business development trends you’re seeing among law firms that you think are headed in the right direction?
A: I think the combination of CLE with business development, which we’ve been seeing in New York in the ten years or so that we’ve had CLE requirements, is really positive. It’s a way of showing off the firm’s expertise, and at the same time meeting a real need for the in-house lawyers who are critical to the hiring decision. And, it can lead fairly directly to work. At one of my prior companies, we ended up using counsel for a major litigation who I had first encountered at a couple of CLE events.
Q: Are there other law firm trends that you’re seeing that you’d like to come to a screeching halt?
A: Over the last few years, I’ve seen an increasing proportion of work performed by partners. This has clearly accelerated with the recession. It’s unhealthy for a number of reasons—first, the client pays for work that could have been done, and done effectively, by someone with a lower billing rate, and second, it makes it harder for the firm to develop the talent that clients will need in the future. Also, it corrodes the relationship between lawyer and client because it’s an example of the law firm partner putting his or her interests above those of the client.
Q: Have you ever fired a major provider of legal services or have you ever had internal suggestions that you should fire a major provider?
A: Unfortunately, I have. The example that pops to mind is one where the lawyer violated all four of the principles I listed in answering the first question.
Q: Would it have been helpful if somebody other than the relationship partner proactively requested your feedback and then acted on it, perhaps annually?
A: Absolutely. Although in the example I mentioned I clued in the relationship partner pretty early and he was closely involved in trying to solve the problem. But the responsibility belongs to all lawyers handling a matter to understand if it’s going off the rails, and to put it back on.
Q: Are there any other questions we should have asked you? If so, please ask and answer your own question!
A: No, you clearly know your business. I think you’ve covered the bases.