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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: 1. The biggest thing is that it’s a two-way relationship. I pay my bills on time and I try to figure out what I can do to make their lives easier. I don’t micro-manage but give input where needed. I also try to make sure they are connected with the right people in my company. And in return, what I am hoping to achieve are relationships in which I know that the attorney is there for me all the time, even on short notice. Ideally I will always get a response in a very short amount of time. That, to me, is invaluable. The best lawyers that I use are the ones that are truly going to be there for me, always. For example, they call me back 24 hours a day. A quick response speaks volumes; at a minimum, the best lawyers send me in the right direction even if what I am calling about is not their area of expertise.
2. Also, I seek practical advice that is given with a clear understanding of my business in mind. They ideally give me advice that works in my business environment. To do that, they should understand my company, its structure, and our core values. They are also smart to understand my specific risk tolerance while helping me meet my business’ specific needs and goals. Outside counsel who understands these things, and my internal clients’ expectations, are the kinds of people with whom I can build long-standing, mutually beneficial relationships.
3. Something else that’s important early on in a matter: a precise case strategy and plan up front that sets clear expectations that I can share internally within my 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: 1. Understand the business. This can’t be overstated. Attorneys are really smart to do this – the best do it thoroughly to come up with resultsoriented and cost effective solutions that are consistent with core values of the company. And doing that is a key to a successful, long term relationship with me.
2. Figure out how to support me. The reality is that I have a lot on my plate and things are often moving very fast in my business. That should be taken into account – in my case, I am called on by my internal clients to make decisions very quickly – lawyers who help me do that are the ones I want to work with most.
3. I would also add that I think law firm marketing directors are underused by partners and law firms; they could be helping to develop the relationship. Marketing directors know how to market and they are misused and underused by firms all the time. For example, if the marketing director is involved in communication and presentations to clients, they are often much better. I deal with great lawyers all the time who aren’t good communicators, and they need the marketing department’s help. I wouldn’t put the burden on the marketing department because I think they want to help. The lawyers, however, often need to proactively leverage the marketing department more. A colleague of mine at a major Fortune 1000 company told me he uses a firm routinely because their marketing department is involved in making the relationship work. I have seen several examples like that; law firm partners would be smart to take note of that fact.
Q: What’s the smartest thing a lawyer or a law firm has ever done for you outside of doing great legal work?
A: Taking time to carefully build the relationship – you may not get the work right away, but the inhouse seminars for free are a big deal, especially for those of us who are on a budget. Newsletters are smart – I index all of them and refer back to them when new issues come up. Firms also are smart to invite us to charity events where they have a table – personally, I appreciate the invitation and it’s smart if they allow us to invite our business people. In my case, I don’t usually like to be invited to lunch – I don’t really value a free lunch, or a free dinner. But, if the firm is helping me promote my company or get CLE, that’s adding value for me and my business. For example, if the client is very involved in the community, use your marketing department to learn about that and create ways to form a stronger bond with the client by working together to further shared interests in the community. A few firms have taken that approach with me very successfully over the years. Find out what the core values of the company are and respond to them to make the bond with the client stronger. When the case is concluded, we always determine to what extent the firm has added value. The firm should be doing that on its own and reporting it to the client. In fact, I had a firm do that recently, and now I feel like I should require that as a regular end of matter activity.
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: Several ideas here. 1. There’s an L.A. firm that I use that does a great job of inviting groups of their outside counsel to dinner conversations in which we can share best practices with our peers. That is a great idea. Bring together your clients for discussions about their businesses.
2. Another idea, give clients options for how to participate in pro-bono programs. Think outside of the box and build the relationship in a way that delivers on the client’s core values and goals. Probono is a great place to start. There are some global firms that are doing a great job on this. Baker & McKenzie and DLA are examples. Also, Sonnenshein does a great job of partnering with women and minority-owned firms so that the work goes to working with diversity firms – as we and other departments in my company are encouraged to do – but what’s smart is that Sonnenshein partners with them and brings big firm resources to the relationships.
3. Another thing that I really believe in: the ACC-in house bar – firms that get involved with ACC will see immediate results. I have retained a lot of firms from presentations I’ve heard. Also, I call inhouse colleagues who are in ACC all the time, and when I ask for their best recommendations, they are usually right on target and very accurate. The outside attorneys who they strongly recommend usually really know their stuff. So it really matters what your clients think of you, and it’s worth going the extra mile for your clients.
Q: Are there other law firm trends that you’re seeing that you’d like to come to a screeching halt?
A: Color copy brochures all say the same thing and nobody reads them for the most part. Stick to results-oriented, practical approaches. That’s how we get measured, so that’s what firms should be thinking of when they pitch us. The glossy brochures and lunches don’t make a difference. Partners should use marketing directors at the law firm to develop cost-effective marketing strategies that add value to the client’s business.
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: I make a big effort to have a win-win relationship. But I will say that firms need to do a much better job on billing and helping to illustrate the value they are adding. There are times when I have sought second opinions. I haven’t fired a firm per se, but I have stopped sending work to them. The most typical reasons why: inefficiency, lack of cost-effectiveness and an inability to give me advice that meets my business needs.
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: Let me offer a quick example that addresses this question: I had a firm that had a younger associate working on my matters, and the short story is that things were not going well because my matters were not being handled cost-effectively. I brought this issue to the firm’s attention, and they immediately — on the same day — made a change, brought a more experienced lawyer onto the matter, and even erased all the fees from that associate, which I didn’t even ask for. In this case, I brought the issue to the firm’s attention, and I think very highly of the firm now, partially because of the way they handled my feedback. Ideally, they would have proactively come to me for feedback, especially because this was a new kind of matter that they were handling for me. The relationship partner should have been more in touch with what was going on. In other cases, firms who don’t seek my feedback in time could lose business. I seek relationships that are strategic relationship and ideally, I feel like they are invested in the relationship, strive to understand my business, and that I can trust their judgment.