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7 minute read | 9 years ago

“What is Stopping Our Teams From Changing?” In-House Counsel Ask at LMA Tech Conference

Photo of Thames Schoenvogel By: Thames Schoenvogel

The following was posted October 26 by Lindsay Griffiths on her blog, Zen and the Art of Legal Networking. Griffiths is the International Lawyers Network’s Director of Global Relationship Management.


If you’re a regular reader of Zen, you’ll know that I love in-house counsel panels.

During the recent Legal Marketing Association’s Technology Conference, we had one of the best in-house counsel panels I’ve seen. Moderated by Wicker Park Group’s Nat Slavin, the panel consisted of:

Lest we return to the office and tell our lawyers that we needed to change our strategy based on what one panelist said during the session, Nat gave a great disclaimer to start, reminding us that it’s still “one size fits one” when it comes to clients. So I share that with you here as well.

That being said, we do still hear a lot of the same themes and ideas, many of which boil down to the point that you need to know your clients and communicate with them regularly and effectively to find out what works best for them and what it is THEY want. 

So what DO clients want?

Olivia Pope.

For the non-Scandal watchers in the crowd, Olivia Pope’s trademark phrase is “It’s handled.” She’s the Washington fixer who comes in to deal with all the problems that her clients have, and to make them go away. And that’s what your in-house counsel want from you – the consummate fixer of problems.

This being a technology conference, and panel, there were some things that showed the impact that technology has on all of us (in some cases, specifically these panelists, but in others, on companies in general). The first of these is response time:

“Responding within 24 hours is the low bar.”

It used to be that law firms and lawyers could brag if they responded to their clients within 24 hours, but that’s now that minimum. Clients expect you to be getting back to them much faster – you don’t always have to have their problem solved, or have the answers to their questions, but you have to at least respond and let them know that you’re working on it for them. In-house counsel have smart phones, and they know you have smart phones, where you can check your email from anywhere at any time (and respond). So they’re expecting you to do so.

Relationships are still the most important, but technology makes in-house counsel expect things to happen faster. It’s not that in-house counsel don’t want you to have a life – they just want to know that you’ve gotten their emails and will respond. And they want to know that you’ll be there to bail them out when there’s a real emergency.

They don’t want to read analysis from you; they want you to solve their problem. The panelists said that they want the quick and dirty answers in hours. If it’s more complicated, it’s okay if it takes longer, as long as you’ve acknowledged receipt of the email first. And in turn, they promise no fire drills.

“The biggest thing I deal with now is not even getting the acknowledgement email.”

The in-house counsel panelists also stressed the importance of social media. They’re using it to:

  • Check wins/losses
  • Who is connected to whom on LinkedIn
  • Whether they’re really qualified
  • How outside counsel use social media

It’s now standard practice, said the panelists, to look at LinkedIn to research outside counsel. And if your profile is missing online, you’re not relevant.

But it’s not all just about the new-fangled technology – more typical law firm marketing materials have their place too. Client alerts are useful not only in the moment that firms are sending them, but also because they stay online forever. They can help in-house counsel decide whether that’s the kind of legal advice that they’d like to receive by their tone and the way they deliver their message.

“In a world of ‘volume and noise’ content can help in-house counsel identify who they want to work with.”

The panelists also echoed something we’ve heard from a lot of in-house counsel, that being a great lawyer is just a gating issue now. It seems that more lawyers and law firms are understanding this, but the difference is that we didn’t used to hear about using technology to drive efficiency and to improve the attorney-client relationship like we are now. Not surprisingly, in-house counsel are looking to drive value, create efficiency and save money. What kinds of technology are they using to do this?

  • eBilling
  • RFP software
  • Workflow technology
  • Electronic signatures
  • Viewabill

Clients may be on board with these technologies, but many firms are still lagging behind, and this is incredibly frustrating to in-house counsel. They want to know:

“How can we still be having the same conversations? We’re still circling back about the same topics – what is stopping our teams from changing?”

Electronic signatures are a perfect example of this, said panelists.

“The face that law firms are still sending me printed out pieces of paper to sign sh!t, that’s crazy!”

Some companies are entirely paperless, and don’t even have anywhere to store paper, so they find having to sign documents in 2015 entirely mind boggling. Two out of the four panelists didn’t have scanners at the office, and couldn’t sign something and scan it to send it back if they wanted to.

“By not using [electronic signature] technology, you are leaving money on the table.”

They’re also using other technologies that they want their firms to either understand or get on board with.

“If you don’t know what Slack is, now is the time to get onto it. And don’t fight me on Serengeti. Whatever you do to make it more difficult for me to get my bills processed makes it more likely that you’re going to be ‘bye Felicia!’”

Even if you can’t get on board with some of these technologies, you have to at least understand how they work.

The panelists challenge law firms to step up and innovate – they’re frustrated with outdated law firm practices. Things like using “FYI” as the subject line of an email is useless because they get so many emails, and it doesn’t tell them anything.

Nat surveyed the room to see how many firms are using Viewabill, and nobody raised their hands – it was really surprising to him, and a great opportunity for those in the room. Viewabill allows clients to tap into the firm’s billing system to see their matters in real time. It reduces the delay time between the work and entering the time, and the panelists love it. It also allows clients to track their budgets.

“Most decisions are driven by data now. Business is data driven. Legal cannot be the exception to that rule.”

That’s where something like Viewabill can help both firms and clients. The panelists also admitted that while firms may think accrual day is painful for them, it’s also painful for in-house counsel. It’s important to note that:

“If you’re off, and I’m off, eventually the decision of whether to do business with you will be taken out of my hands.”

As important as technology is, though, the panelists still agreed that you can’t hide behind it – outside counsel still need to form real relationships with their in-house counsel.

“If they know how you look, it’s harder for them to fire you.”

Before the panelists wrapped up, we got some final pieces of advice from them:

  • “Make my business personal to you. Don’t send me general sh!t.”
  • Add value while keeping spend as low as possible.
  • Counsel will take the cheaper deal if it’s “good enough.” “If you’re charging $1200, you’d better be a superstar.”
  • You need a feedback loop – all of these are starting points for a conversation.
  • 8 out of 10 emails could have recommendations and action items at the top (and don’t). Do that.
  • Have empathy for your clients – put yourself in their shoes. What would you need to do their job well?
  • Ask for feedback on how you’re doing as a lawyer/firm and be proactive about it. Give them feedback too – the in-house counsel on the panel said they like getting feedback.
  • What you want is a long, sustainable relationship with your clients. So think of it as a partnership.

Another excellent in-house counsel panel, with some great food for thought. Where can you improve the communication with your clients to ensure that you’re not missing the mark with them? If they were on a similar panel, would they be saying these things about you?