Legal Promiscuity: Choosing the Right Firm(s)

In a recent tweet, I was asked whether a company should use a big, medium or small law firm. In my opinion, the answer is “Yes”. In my time as in-house counsel at a company with operations in every province, I’ve learned that it’s essential to establish relationships with a number of law firms across the country, of various sizes, in all provinces. While it irritated me when I was in private practice, the era where a company was faithful to one firm for all legal services is over. Using multiple firms can be a very effective tool in managing legal spend and getting the best results for your client. Legal firm promiscuity can be priceless…

For example, if you are looking to craft a human resources policy that is legal and enforceable across the country, you need to work with a firm that either has offices across the country or is willing to work with other firms in provinces where they don’t have a presence. In many cases, a big firm, with presence in many provinces, can do this much more effectively and efficiently than a firm with only an office in the city in which their client is headquartered. Some firms may argue that they can advise on the laws of every province even though they have lawyers licensed in one province. In my experience, this doesn’t work. While laws are similar across the country, employment and labour law is very local and it pays dividends to get opinions from people on the ground. Local counsel will also be aware of common but obscure issues that trip up clients in their jurisdiction. Big firms, with presence across most parts of the country, can help manage those issues and lighten the administrative load for their clients.

Conversely, if you are dealing with an issue before a tribunal in a smaller city of a province where your “big firm” doesn’t have an office, it may be useful and more effective to use local counsel who has appeared before that tribunal before rather than bringing in a “carpetbagger” from a bigger city. In a big city with a big case, you may want to us a bigger firm with a good reputation, even though the cost is higher. At the same time, for smaller cases, it might be more cost-effective to use a smaller firm whose lawyers are just as competent but could, due to lower overhead, bill out at a much lower rate.

Different firms have different competencies, different rates and a very different willingness to negotiate those rates. I’ve found that there are amazing lawyers at firms of all sizes. It’s not the firm that matters in many cases, but the professionalism of the lawyer you’re working with and their fit with your culture.

Note, having multiple ongoing “open” relationships with many different firms can be challenging from an administrative perspective. However, so long as you are transparent and honest with your partners and your “relationship status” is clear with all parties, legal promiscuity can be the best way for a company to meet its legal needs.

Do readers agree? Share your thoughts and challenges in the comment thread.

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