Inside Perspective: Cheap is OUT; Value is IN: Communication makes it happen

Dan Harper is vice president, corporate counsel and secretary for Océ North America, Inc., a Canon Group Co.  He is also president of the Chicago Chapter of the Association of Corporate Counsel. The views expressed herein are the opinions of the author and do not reflect the position or viewpoint of Océ North America Inc., Canon Inc. or any of the Océ or Canon companies.

I have learned that trying to guess what the boss or the client wants is the most debilitating of all influences in the creation of good advertising.

Leo Burnett

I took a bit of liberty in using Mr. Burnett’s quote, applied to the advertising industry.  But the concept, if a word or two is changed out, applies just as well to the attorney/client relationship.  I have learned that trying to guess what the boss or the client wants is the most debilitating of all influences in the creation of a healthy attorney/client relationship.

A while back, I wrote that profit is good for the outside law firm and that we in-house counsel believe that our outside firms should make money and be profitable ( In-house lawyers want VALUE for their money, not cheap fees.  But what does it take to deliver value to an in-house team of lawyers, especially a small law department with little in the way of benchmarking tools and fancy matter management systems?

Upon arrival at a new company, a good in-house lawyer takes some time to learn the business.  The newly retained outside lawyer should follow the in-house lawyer’s lead and do the same.  The general counsel should expect the outside lawyer to research the company as much as possible using public sources, then spend some time with the general counsel to learn how she does business; gauge her interests, plans and strategic goals for the department; learn where she (and her department) fit into the business; learn how outside counsel has been used in the past; and find out where she sees the future of the inside/outside “partnership.”

Then it is time to learn how the actual business operates- what does it do, how does it do it?  What are the business weaknesses and where does potential legal exposure lurk?  The general counsel should introduce the outside lawyers to the key players in the organization.  By this I do not necessarily mean the C-Level folks or even vice presidents.  Rather, the general counsel should introduce outside lawyers to the people with whom the outside lawyers will regularly work on matters.  The small department lawyer must leverage the business resources to provide the needed information to the outside people so that her day is spent performing legal work, not gathering documents and performing administrative tasks to keep the outside lawyer busy. 

Develop a protocol for communication between the outside and inside legal teams, one that may include the business people.  Word of caution: do not open the floodgate by inviting the business client to call the outside lawyer “any time they have a question.” Your outside legal team will be on the phone constantly with your business people and they WILL bill this time.  So, the inside team should always serve as the conduit for contact with the external legal resources.  This will serve the general counsel well in several ways:  She will be personally (or through her team) aware of potential legal issues developing; she will have an opportunity to put an internal resource on the problem right away to try and resolve it before it requires expertise or time commitment beyond that available to her via in-house sources; and she will be aware of the matters that her team is addressing; billings will be monitored, controlled and minimized. 

A very important piece of the inside/outside relationship is the development of trust.  Trust is gained on both sides through positive day to day or issue to issue experiences.  Each side of the relationship must be wholly open and communicative about their thoughts, concerns and expectations.  There is a social element to building trust as well.  There is nothing wrong with spending down time with your outside firms.  However, it would be terribly foolish to compromise your decision making on behalf of your client due to the social interaction you have with your outside firms.  Lawyers, though, are particularly adept at keeping business and pleasure separate to ensure such compromises do not take place.  

As a legal matter develops, it can change, the expectations, goals and expected outcomes and means to the end may need to be adjusted as a result.  Neither side should bury their respective heads in the sand and avoid uncomfortable conversations.  For a healthy, long-term relationship, expectations and deliverables must regularly be updated to reflect changing circumstances. 

In closing, let me reiterate the most important points mentioned above – communication with and education about the client, about how the client operates, about expectations and about changing game plans.  Following these elementary rules will go a long way in developing and nurturing a valuable, long term relationship.


One response to “Inside Perspective: Cheap is OUT; Value is IN: Communication makes it happen

  1. Good article, Dan. Perfect Advice. Charlie Brown

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