7 Ways To Make In-House Lawyers Happy

by JD Supra Perspectives

Earlier this week, I attended a Legal Marketing Association Ohio conference, "Perfect Your Pitch," featuring six in-house lawyers:

  • James D. Campbell, Senior Counsel – Litigation and Claims, Big Lots!
  • Ria Farrell Schalnat, General Counsel and Director of Intellectual Property, Vora Ventures
  • Mark G. Stall, General Counsel, Escort Inc. and Cobra Electronics Corporation
  • Peter Jurs, Vice President and Legal Counsel, Fifth Third Bank
  • Robert Horner, Vice President, Corporate Governance and Secretary, Nationwide
  • Fred Stein, Senior Vice President and General Counsel, Redbox

The group shared useful insight into what we should be doing to make them happier and get more work. Some observations (in random order):

1. In-house lawyers want meaningful relationships with outside counsel.

For the in-house people who sat on the panel, it's all about the relationship. They won't give work to people they don't know, people they just met, people who haven't spent the time and effort to get to know them and their company. One panelist said that two years is the minimum amount of time necessary for a relationship to develop into work for the outside lawyer, and that ten years is probably more realistic. That might be a bit extreme, but the point is that they want to work with people they know and like, so the better your relationship, the more opportunities you will see.

...two years is the minimum amount of time necessary for a relationship to develop into work...

2. They like free stuff.

All of the in-house lawyers were in agreement that they appreciated lawyers who give them free stuff: forms and checklists, ideas and suggestions, introductions to potential customers, etc. Doing so demonstrates that you care, that you're willing to invest in the relationship, that you're the kind of lawyer they'll want to have on their team. It gives you a chance to "audition" for more work and, most importantly, it opens the door to reciprocity: additional work, referrals, and the like. It was clear that most of the in-house lawyers who spoke have to operate on limited budgets with fewer people than they need, so becoming a "knowledge source" is a great way to stand out as you help your clients get smarter and do their jobs better.

3. They require transparency.

All of the panelists talked about the importance of transparency at one point or another. A pet peeve was outside counsel who blew through a budget without telling anyone, instead sending a bill for twice the amount. That isn't to say that firms must stick to expected costs for unpredictable work (think litigation), but rather that they want their lawyers to keep them in the loop when fees start to exceed the budget. They recognized that it's not an easy phone call to make, but were clear that it absolutely had to be made for the relationship to continue and grow.

4. In-house counsel is always interviewing other lawyers.

Like all of you, in-house lawyers attend seminars, conferences, social events, and the like. They talk regularly to other providers, and they meet people they like and want to work with. That's a given. For you, it means always taking that extra step, making your clients happy, asking them what they want and then delivering it. But it also means that you're only as good as your last piece of work, and that your client relationships are always at risk.

[Their own] clients are just as demanding as yours and ... the risks are much greater for the in-house lawyer who doesn't make her clients happy...

5. They're struggling to please their own clients.

Several times during the day each of the panelists referenced his or her own clients: the CEOs, executives, Boards, etc., to whom they all report. Those clients are just as demanding as yours and, as one speaker pointed out, the risks are much greater for the in-house lawyer who doesn't make her clients happy. Another said (and said again) that he wants his outside lawyers to ask him how those clients are doing every time they're on the phone together. The bottom line? Knowing who your clients report to and how they're being evaluated can make or break a relationship.

6. They're tired of Alternative Fee Arrangements.

"Alternative fees are a race to the bottom where associates are getting squeezed." That's a direct quote from one of the panelists, who said that getting work "on time, on spec, and on budget" was better than an alternative billing arrangement. It's not that they're wedded to the billable hour, but rather that they have learned that AFAs do not always mean lower costs – or greater efficiency – so they are understandably skeptical when outside lawyers pitch alternative fees. We should instead be creative in developing billing agreements that are win-win and that allow both sides to benefit from technology and other delivery improvements.

...outside counsel should always be improving the delivery of legal services

7. They don't like staleness.

From the panelists' perspective, outside counsel should always be improving the delivery of legal services, the relationship, the quality of work. One in-house lawyer called it CQI: Continuous Quality Improvement, and said that he liked lawyers who kept the relationship dynamic.


[Lance Godard is the Client Relations Manager for law firm Fisher & Phillips' Ohio offices, where he helps lawyers identify opportunities and develop the plans for realizing them. He can be reached at lgodard@laborlawyers.com.]

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