Brown Shoe Company, Inc.
Brown Shoe Company, Inc., Michael Oberlander, Senior VP, General Counsel and Corporate Secretary, March 2009
Brown Shoe Company is a global footwear company that inspires people to look and feel good every day, with a compelling portfolio of loved and trusted brands. They put more than 100 million pairs of shoes on the feet of women, men and kids around the world each year through partnerships with department stores, national chains and independent retailers on behalf of their footwear brands, as well as their own retail stores, catalogs and e-commerce sites. www.brownshoe.com
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: Communication, communication, communication. I do not hire outside counsel simply to provide me with legal work, but to provide me with advice and counsel – they can’t do that if they don’t communicate what they are doing and why. Also, surprises are inevitable, but how outside counsel handles them separates the best from the rest of the class. Remember that every form of communication matters, from emails to invoices.
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: The quickest and surest way to stop doing work with us is for outside counsel to put their own interests before ours. That can take the form of how they handle conflicts of interests, how to staff projects and how to invoice for time spent on matters. Again, it all comes down to effective communication.
Q: What’s the smartest thing a lawyer or a law firm has ever done for you outside of doing great legal work?
A: Anticipating our needs. Most competent lawyers can answer the phone when I call and pull together a team to handle a transaction, lawsuit or other matter. But, those who anticipate my needs and are proactive earn my loyalty. They need to be true business partners.
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: Not too many. The continued use of technology to speed the delivery of service is expected, but I would expect that firms continue to strive for efficiency as well as speed. Firms tout the use of intranets and “firm wide” accessibility to research, etc., but I have not seen a benefit. With this economic downturn, I would hope that firms allow their people to spend more time getting to know their clients’ businesses – travel with them to tradeshows or to other locations (without billing, of course) in order to learn firsthand about the business interests you are supposed to represent.
Q: Are there other law firm trends that you?re seeing that you?d like to come to a screeching halt?
A: Annual fee increases. I also never understood the “class” system for associates. Why does it matter if someone is a first year or third year associate – all I care about is that the person has the skills to get the job done. Maybe law firms could learn something from the business world and promote people when they show that they can perform at a higher level. Have Associates, Mid-level Associates and Senior Associates and promote them when they are able to handle the responsibilities of the next level (like being promoted to partner).
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?
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: In some cases, perhaps, but we value our partnerships with our outside law firms so much that we treat them like our internal colleagues. We demand and expect open and candid communication internally and do the same with our external partners, so we are direct and honest without outside legal providers.