Client Q&A: Joe Benage
Interview with Joe Benage, Vice President, Insurer and Employer Services
Quest Diagnostics provides crucial diagnostic information that supports and enhances decisions people make to improve patients’ health. The company offers a wide range of products and services that benefit patients, healthcare providers, pharmaceutical medical device companies, life insurance companies and employers.
Q: In your best relationships with outside counsel, what are three important things other lawyers could learn from them?
A: They always make you, the GC, look good, which usually means they are consistently successful at a reasonable price and have good communication skills, which they consistently exercise with you, other senior management and the board. They are responsive and diligent on projects for you. They keep you informed and keep surprises to a minimum. They are creative in finding solutions and look to provide advice about potential dangers and opportunities for the business.
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: Performance or attitude unlike those mentioned in the previous response. For the most part during my almost five years as GC of a small but rapidly growing public company, I have had excellent relationships with outside counsel. I have experienced greater frustration in my six years as VP of a $500M division of an $8B public company. In that business role, I was assigned in-house counsel based in a remote city who often did not understand my businesses and who were not dedicated to them. Outside counsel also was assigned to my businesses for the most part without my input. These inside and outside counsel, in many cases, had other agendas that impacted their effectiveness.
Q: How has purchasing legal services changed?
A: Most of the changes I observed occurred during the 22 years I was in private practice before my career as GC and business executive. The practice became much more specialized, and most mid-sized general practice firms were squeezed out by large firms and small boutique firms. Also, starting associate salaries for top students and attorney hourly rates increased dramatically. As our firm practice grew in size, more time was spent on management. In my practice, all of this made it more difficult to represent small and emerging businesses effectively for a reasonable price. However, over time much of my practice became transactional, and clients still appreciated those qualities I listed above in response to the first question. Often lost in this changing landscape is the depth of knowledge of the inside workings of the client and its currents of strategies and personalities. Important facts can be left out of the discussion with the client, so in those circumstances the lawyer must be especially aware of and diligent to discover these things that can impact his or her effectiveness.
Q: With all the highly qualified lawyers out there, what factors really influence your hiring decisions?
A: Relationships, confidence in their effectiveness and, as mentioned above, their ability to make you as GC look good to other management and the board. I look for smarter, more knowledgeable or more effective lawyers than myself who also are not insufferable egomaniacs.
Q: Competition is fierce among law firms; what have law firms done effectively to market to you that captured your attention?
A: Active participation (leadership, presentations, papers, etc.) in trade groups and associations in specialized practice or business areas. I would also go to Washington, DC or New York for specialized outside assistance. For the most part, I paid little attention to marketing materials.
Q: What law firm trends are you are seeing that you would like to come to a screeching halt?
A: Put that way as a question, I can’t really think of anything. One potential issue—which as GC I demanded be kept to a minimum—is paying to train new associates on your account.
Q: What is your greatest challenge as in-house counsel?
A: Getting things done with a high quality in a timely manner for a reasonable price. Never losing the trust and confidence of other senior management or the board. Doing what you said you would be able to do. Keeping other senior management and the board informed with an understanding and appreciation of the things that sometimes require more expense and time than desired or expected.
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: Keep it non-disruptive, and don’t worry about it. Clients and potential clients appreciate the opportunity or, even if in some cases they don’t, you won’t be punished for having asked (you will just be ignored).
Q: Any other advice you would like to give law firms?
A: Honor and do justice to the trust the client places in you. Treat the client as you would like to be treated. Make the client feel that you are just as concerned as they are about their legal matters that are entrusted to you.