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Q: In your best relationships with outside counsel, what are the three most important things other lawyers could learn from them?
A: The most valuable thing is outside counsel being savvy about my business and having true empathy for the needs, business pressures and political dynamics that I navigate daily within my company. In-house counsel truly desires for outside counsel to be a reliable, integrated extension of their internal team. Second, outside counsel also provides additional value by providing cost-effective, efficient, predictable and practical services. The third thing I value in outside counsel is their genuine curiosity about my business, products and organization in order to better understand the underlying motivations for our legal needs.
Q: And, of course, the follow-up: What are three things outside counsel should never do?
A: Three things:
1) Lack of attention to detail. Quality of service must always be upheld, even in the face of budgetary constraints.
2) Adherence to budget while remaining focused. Outside counsel’s focus on the goal of a project can get distracted when asked to focus on adhering to budgets while providing top-notch legal services. In these instances, we find ourselves having to be unnecessarily vigilant in ensuring that outside counsel remain focused on achieving the objective of the project while asking them to be fiscally disciplined.
3) Missing committed deadlines. Missing deadlines undermines the credibility of outside counsel, strains the in-house/outside counsel relationship and often places in-house counsel in a politically awkward position internally for failing to meet a committed deadline.
Q: How has purchasing legal services changed?
A: In-house counsel are more regularly including operational factors, such as the use of new legal technologies and program/project management skills, on the same footing as an outside counsel’s legal prowess as part of their selection criteria. Since outside counsel has not consistently, proactively and willingly embraced such technologies beyond basic tools like e-billing and e-discovery, a sea change is building where in-house counsel is strongly influencing the direction of next generation legal technology development (e.g., predictive analytics, automated workflow and document creation and adoption of e-signature) as well as driving the very adoption of these technologies. Many partners have shared with me that the slowness of law firms in adopting the use of such technologies has resulted in a tension between partners. Law firms need to adopt such technologies because it’s a priority for their clients while at the same time navigating the internal unfamiliarity and institutional resistance to adopting these new technologies. Such dynamics begin to change the in-house selection criteria for law firms to a more holistic approach that includes a firm’s operational efficiency.
Q: With all the highly qualified lawyers out there, what factors really influence your hiring decisions?
A: I think the fundamental relationship is really about outside counsel providing predictable, cost-effective and high-quality work to corporate clients while at the same time appreciating and understanding the business dynamics of their clients.
Q: Competition is fierce among law firms; what have law firms done effectively to market to you that captured your attention?
A: Building a relationship with me in advance of pitching me work is critical. It’s not about merely calling me up, like other firms do when there is a new litigation, and asking for the work for the first time then. Rather, by building a long-term relationship, outside counsel is able to establish a more engaging dynamic with the client that resonates and motivates a prospective client to engage. When the time comes to find outside counsel for a matter, the client will instinctually know who he or she wants to work with on that new matter. Looking at the long-term relationship goes a long way to building goodwill with the client that will pay dividends later.
Q: What law firm trends are you seeing that you would like to come to a screeching halt?
A: Law firms need to figure out why they seem to discourage the proactive adoption of new legal technologies. A close second is the lack of empathy that law firms seem to have for clients and their needs. It would be great to see these elements change for the better. In speaking with my colleagues, we often wonder why law firms don’t more regularly invite in-house counsel to speak at internal firm events to educate their attorneys and staff because they are curious about learning how to be more effective in understanding their client base as well as learning how to better service them. Often firms come off as looking at such events as merely another opportunity to pitch a client or prospective client. There also is a troubling lack of fiscal discipline in the delivery of legal services. This is nothing new, though—it really is still a lot of the same-old. Unfortunately, lawyers are not taught these skills in law school and need to learn this skillset in real time.
Q: What is your greatest challenge as in-house counsel?
A: The challenges for in-house counsel are the same as for outside counsel: providing predictable, timely and business-savvy legal services to a business client. You can be right from a legal standpoint but you need to be aligned with a company’s business objectives, too. The ultimate goal of providing legal services to a corporate client is to provide practical legal advice that helps solve an issue at the appropriate risk level that will further the company’s business objectives. Such an approach will help you to better substantiate the business value (e.g., ROI) that executives expect from lawyers.
Q: Lawyers often are 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: The genuine curiosity of firms and their attorneys to engage in-house counsel to better understand the client is invaluable. This approach results in better legal services and a stronger relationship between the firm and its clients. Any company that doesn’t value such curiosity isn’t looking for good legal advice and someone to serve as an extension to their team. Rather, such companies merely are looking at legal services as a commodity. Genuine, sincere curiosity and establishing business value are critical to countering the commoditization perception of our profession.
Q: Any other advice you would like to give law firms?
A: There seems to still be an “us against them” perception between in-house and outside counsel. I am a strong believer that in-house counsel and outside counsel must interact in a cooperative and constructive manner that results in a teaming environment. The more outside counsel can facilitate this, the better.