How to get a seat at the in-house counsel's table

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Published on 11/27/06

Smaller law firms often think that in-house corporate counsel will work only with the mega-firms.

Corporate counsel do want to work with a minimal number of contacts, but I believe that small, local firms still have opportunity. Ninety percent of what in-house counsel want is someone who can do the work properly. Show you belong and you can get a place at the table.

How can you get considered? Jeff Carr, general counsel of FMC Technologies, recently spoke with me about his own expectations when interacting with outside counsel. He addressed the issue of convergence: corporations reducing their number of outside law firms by 70 percent or more, and urging the remaining firms to pursue discounts and incentives.

This model is often adversarial, and Jeff talked by contrast about how the law firm needs to collaborate with the corporate law department. Collaboration produces more effective representation at a lower cost to the company without discounting either the value or the per-hour fee of the lawyer.

Peter Jenkins, a noted consultant to corporate general counsel, has suggested that outside firms recognize the cost and time constraints on GCs and come up with unique ways to address them. Peter says that outside law firms can assure their place as valued legal service providers when they develop solutions to these typical GC concerns:

  • How can I manage my IP portfolio more cost-effectively? I simply don't have any money in my budget for new systems.

  • Electronic discovery costs are going through the roof. How can I gain effective control on this runaway, unpredictable expense?

  • I would love to explore creative billing arrangements, but the law firms I use have little or no experience in decision tree analysis and budgeting. How do I get where I want to go?

  • I know I could save a lot of money if the law firms I use would pay more attention to how they staff my matters. I just don't have time to oversee this; nor would I really know how to make effective staffing changes. What would you recommend?
The bottom line is that corporate counsel look for performance in the firms they hire. Performance is composed of many elements: communication; understanding and focusing on the corporate client's business objectives; use of technology; and specialized knowledge.

That can require a mindset change at many firms. For example, once a large corporation pays for research, it does not want to pay for it again to another lawyer or law firm on another case in another part of the country. The research goes into a database shared by all lawyers and law firms of the corporate client.

No matter how proprietary lawyers want to be, this is not the intellectual property of the law firm. As work for hire, it is the property of the client who shares it with other vendors for greater cost efficiency.

Corporate counsel live in a world that favors and rewards continuous improvement, and they want to see the same kind of commitment in outside counsel. Firms that can provide it stand an excellent chance to get the corporate counsel's attention - and business.

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