Taking advantage of an unprecedented opportunity

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Published on 4/19/10

One could view the current market for legal services with the attitude that whenever there is change (a much overused word today), there is also opportunity. If the stock market hits a low, there will be those with the cash ready to buy and make a great deal of money in the long term.

I recently moderated a forum at which the legal equivalent was expressed by a large-firm managing partner: “There have been more new causes of action to emerge during the past year than in any year before.” His reference encompassed everything from lawsuits over the financial meltdown to the need for compliance with a host of new regulations.

The need for legal help is there, especially for corporate America. The question becomes: What law firms will provide that help?

That corporate clients are increasingly disenchanted with their law firms has become increasingly well documented. Consider the ongoing acceptance of the Association of Corporate Counsel’s “Value Challenge” to get more value from the legal profession, and surveys by BTI Consulting and other organizations showing that most corporate counsel would willingly change law firms without regard to past service.

This is a deep-seated dissatisfaction that cannot be cured by superficial fee cuts. Often the problem comes down to communication.

In-house counsel, above all, hate surprises in their legal bills and their legal processes, because they budget on an annual basis and must explain budget variances to their superiors.

Effective outside counsel recognize that and promote quality communication that creates a predictable, mutually positive relationship, one that is cost-effective for the client and yet profitable for the firm.

Whether the relationship between corporate counsel and their law firms is a new one or one of long standing, every new matter offers the opportunity to establish a dialogue that can support a collaborative relationship. By making clear all expectations and objectives right at the start, outside counsel should obtain as much information as possible about the goals and desires of the client.

In-house counsel can further that understanding by bringing to the table a formal checklist that defines exactly what is expected of the law firm. The checklist should cover both qualitative issues and procedural details in such a way that outside counsel clearly knows how the client defines fundamental satisfaction. That should include clear statements of:

  • the goal of and the budget for the engagement;
  • the means and frequency by which outside counsel will keep the corporate client informed;
  • staffing levels and identification of specific lawyers to be used;
  • work product confidentiality and ownership;
  • all the aspects of billing, fees and ancillary expenses.

That kind of documented relationship roadmap allows outside and in-house counsel to work and develop a proactive, interactive engagement approach. It recognizes the leverage that GCs have today to control legal costs.

Collaboration through adherence to a checklist that documents how to provide greater value in legal services produces more effective representation at a lower cost to the corporate client without discounting either the value or the per-hour fee of the lawyer.

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