Listening, Really Listening, to Corporate Counsel

I’ve spent a lot of time listening to corporate counsel over the past few weeks. The examples they give of how their external law firms “don’t get it” never cease to amaze me. For instance, the GC of a large financial institution said she was once told by her litigation counsel, “Look, it’s our factum; that argument stays in.” Not only did the argument not stay in, but neither did the law firm! 

I’m sure most readers will think, “No one in our firm would be that stupid.” So let me ask you this: if an important client offered to bring her in-house team to your law firm to talk about what an in-house counsel deems important, what would your answer be? If you said you’d welcome them with open arms and make sure there was standing-room-only attendance at the presentation, go to the top of the class and give out the pencils. 

Sadly, that’s not what happened. The GC in question has a road show whichhas been very well received by the few law firms that have accepted her invitation. What’s startling is that when offered this opportunity to get inside the mind of a major client, a number of law firms haven’t been interested. 

So what did they miss? First of all, an opportunity to convince their client that they’re interested in continuing their relationship! Not showing an interest, or not responding at all, speaks volumes. In relationships between clients and their law firms, no news is decidedly not good news. As the GC commented, “If you don’t get feedback, I may just have walked.” When you get the chance to have your client tell you their perspective on your provision of legal services, invariably there will be an opportunity to understand the client’s business further. Understanding the client’s business is number one on the requirements list for most general counsel: as another GC said at a panel discussion a few days later, “We’re looking for people we don’t have to bring up to speed.”

Have you ever asked your clients what’s important to them? There’s a lot of cyberchatter about doing client surveys and client interviews, but even just plain old “How are we doing?” phone calls can go a long way. As the GC of the financial institution said, “Don’t presume to know what we want or need.” She notes that what she really needs as a client is often overlooked: “I wish more firms would do a better job of understanding my day.” 

In my experience, the biggest assumptions are made when the client is another lawyer. Being an external advisor to an organization is very different from being an employee of that organization. External lawyers don’t have the same responsibilities as in-house counsel, who have to support the corporate direction, create and stick to a budget, report at least quarterly, often more frequently, on progress against plan, handle cutbacks and downsizing, and generally do more with less. External counsel assume that the only point of discussion with an in-house lawyers will be fees, yet the research tells us that the attributes clients value most are service-related. 

A common criticism, especially from larger clients, is that some law firms love to send lengthy opinion letters outlining all the options in a given situation, but offering no recommendations. Risk analysis is what clients need, but it’s not what some firms want to offer. Another aspect of this is a sense of proportion: as this GC said, “Your matter may be a very small piece of my life. I may have already decided that I don’t need a Cadillac on this one.” If you don’t get that message, don’t expect to get the work either.

And the simplest things, which cost nothing, can often make a BIG difference: the GC noted, “I get 250 emails a day. If you write a good subject line, I’m much more likely to read your message!” 

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