Points And Counterpoints On In-House Counsel Tips

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In a recent Practice column ("Top tips from in-house counsel," March 12), Jeff Coburn summed up several pointers aimed at offering law firms insight into the general counsel perspective.

It was a practical and useful review from the start, when it offered the simple but essential suggestion that outside counsel should "stay in touch." In other words, communicate!

Too often, outside counsel take for granted that inside counsel will have them on the top of their minds or on the tips of their tongues when a challenge arises.

But general counsel are busy folks who need to react quickly. The outside counsel who does not regularly offer help and ideas may well be forgotten at crunch time. Business development, after all, is essentially relationship development, a contact sport.

The article reflected the fact that general counsel work in a commercial environment that makes them more attuned to the business world than to the legal profession. That was clear in the idea that "[a]n endorsement from someone in the industry is a particularly good way to get hired."

Testimonials and endorsements, in my mind, are contrary to the confidentiality provisions of the rules of professional conduct. They fly in the face of that long-standing obligation. Yet it is one of the essential ingredients of good marketing in the corporate world.

We see that in advertising on every medium. There are actors, politicians and others endorsing the products and services we are asked to purchase. Lawyers are forbidden from doing that.

Some may say that having permission negates this rule. From personal experience, both as a lawyer for a quarter-century and as a coach and consultant to attorneys for almost as many years, I can attest that lawyers do not want their names bandied about, even when they highly value the service they receive.

The same can be said for our clients. While they may feel uncomfortable in refusing a request to offer a testimonial, subconsciously they would prefer not to announce that they have used a lawyer, even one whose service they value.

Another of the article's tips addressed the very heart of our billing system. It was suggested that lawyers bill at a fixed fee rather than at an hourly rate. That is not unreasonable for services that firms provide frequently, because they should have an idea of the effort and cost involved.

When lawyers work solely on the basis of hourly billing, the cost uncertainty makes it difficult for the general counsel to budget, which makes him or her a less capable member of the company's management team. Each member of that team operates under a budget. The outside counsel who can give the general counsel a degree of cost certainty, particularly if it reflects efficiencies from technological innovation, is highly valuable.

In another business development suggestion, lawyers were advised to write articles and issue client alerts. If these raise new issues that in-house counsel did not previously consider, they provide real value. Moreover, they demonstrate that the outside lawyer is an expert in the field, a thought leader who the general counsel will want to consult when challenges arise.

The bottom line is one law firms should take to heart: Communication, cost certainty and shared information are highly valued commodities. Firms that provide them are much more likely to build a strong, loyal relationship with in-house counsel clients.

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