Stuart Weitzman, LLC, Barbara Kolsun, Executive Vice President and General Counsel, February 2014
Stuart Weitzman Holdings, LLC is a global leader in designer footwear and distributes its shoes through fine retailers. Currently, Stuart Weitzman operates retail stores across the United States including New York, Beverly Hills, Chicago, Boston, Las Vegas and Palm Beach. The brand is now sold in more than 70 countries.
Q: In your best relationships with outside counsel, what are three important things other lawyers could learn from them?
A: Three things that are important to me are cost, rapidness of response and efficiency in communication. Get back to me fast and don’t make me send three emails to hear back from you.
Q: And, of course, the follow-up: what are the top things that lawyers could learn from your least successful relationships with outside counsel over the years?
A: Over charging is a pet peeve, including charging for internal conversations. If you are going to give the work to a junior associate that’s fine just don’t charge me for the internal communication and learning time. I don’t want to pay for education.
Lack of responsiveness. I use outside counsel when I need something done fast and well. I do most of the work myself. One firm is doing a ton of agreements for me now and doing it very efficiently. To me that’s worth the amount billed.
Q: How has purchasing legal services changed?
A: We’re working with more smaller firms with greater depths of expertise. Big Law has changed significantly. I limit my use of Big Law to where it’s absolutely necessary. For example, in France I use a solo practitioner for all of our labor and employment matters. She is extremely efficient, communicates well in English, is practical and by that I mean she has a good business head.
We are all also working with smaller budgets. I have to budget enough to leave a pot of money for unseen litigation. We are staffing up more internally with more specialists and doing more and more work in house. Michael Kors just hired a real estate lawyer internally. Fashion companies also have good employment lawyers on staff now. It’s much more expertise driven in-house as well as with outside counsel.
Q: With all the highly qualified lawyers out there, what factors really influence your hiring decisions?
A: Relationships are big. And lawyers who do things for us for free will certainly be on the top of our list. I’m talking about little things. There is a California lawyer who regularly shares information to us at no cost and she gets a lot of work. We also appreciate CLE programs. Some of the larger firms really put on great ones and that’s part of the reason people use them. We appreciate firms giving the benefit of education.
Q: What law firm trends are you are seeing that you would like to come to a screeching halt?
A: When big firms are working on transactions they need to have better internal communication. If three different people are working on the transaction I don’t want to see communication from three different people in three different areas. We don’t have time to answer the same question over and over again. Firms need to better communicate internally so they are not all contacting me.
The other trends are already declining, but there was a recent New York Magazine article on the demise of a big firm. The stories of the waste and enormous bonuses – those things make our stomachs turn. When I teach students in fashion law class I always point out to the students to think about the perspective of the judge and to consider how much the judge makes and how that will affect their views of a case. It’s the same things with in-house counsel when we hear about waste in law firms.
Q: What is your greatest challenge as in-house counsel?
A: I’ve got so many hours in a day, and I have to make the best decisions about what is outside my expertise and how to spend my limited resources to get those things handled. I’d say my greatest challenge is learning when you need that outside expertise and how to budget your limited dollars to get it.
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: We get bombarded. For me phone calls are best. If outside counsel is reviewing an agreement for me one phone call can usually replace a series of back and forth emails. And marketing efforts have gone to the extreme. There are only so many things (alerts, bulletins, newsletters) we can read and events we can attend. Firms need to be aware of that.
Q: Any other advice you would like to give law firms?
A: Remember that we are lean and mean, and you should be lean and mean, too. Keep staffing to a minimum, review bills closely and make sure we are not getting charged for internal time. I’ve been complaining about that for a million years and it still goes on. Find the most expert lawyer for the deal and focus on efficiency.