What Do General Counsel Want From Outside Counsel? 9 Client-Focused Takeaways From the LMA NY GC Forum

by JD Supra Perspectives
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Not surprisingly, the most popular annual educational program in the Legal Marketing Association New York is General Counsel Forum, which was held this year on October 19. Everyone in the legal industry always wants to hear insights from a distinguished panel of representative in-house clients discussing what they value most when working with outside counsel. This year’s in-house panelists included:

  • Daniel Bildner, Managing Director & General Counsel, The Carlton Group
  • Leslie Regenbaum, General Counsel & Chief Diversity Officer, K2 Intelligence
  • Jack Shea, Associate General Counsel, Labor & Employment, Express Scripts, Inc.
  • The program was moderated by Gina Passarella, Editor-in-Chief of The American Lawyer

It was crystal clear from the program that the concept of integrating the voice of the client in all that you do as a firm is the key for success in today’s crowded legal market. I strongly believe that the firms that are successfully able to adopt a strong client-centric mindset will have a significant advantage over their competitors. Here are some key takeaways from the program that I hope inspire you with some ideas for how to enhance the attorney/client relationship:

  1. Each of the general counsel said that they are not asked often enough to provide feedback to the law firms they regularly use and would welcome the opportunity to provide input and suggestions. (I’ve now heard in-house counsel echo this same sentiment at three recent similar panels.) Asking your clients how you’re doing and what you could be doing better/differently should be a no brainer. Your clients want to provide feedback – it’s that simple! Requesting feedback enables you to get deeper insights to ensure that client expectations are being met and that you are delivering value to them. Every outside lawyer should be in consistent communication with the client at every step in the matter life cycle and client relationship, so that there are so surprises and so that the client is put first. Remember, your goal is to become a client-centric law firm that not only collects client feedback but acts on it in an effective way to enhance the customer journey.
  2. Trust, predictability, truly understanding my business, being proactive and cost sensitive are most important to this group of general counsel (and I would argue most GCs today) in the qualities of their outside counsel. Always aim to over-deliver in these areas.
  3. Each of the GCs said they regularly hire outside counsel who they’ve known for many years – from law school, a prior firm, a friend of a friend, a past matter, etc. The lesson here? Cultivating relationships is vital to your success as a lawyer in private practice. You never know from where your next referral or piece of business will come, so be sure to keep in touch with former colleagues, past clients, alumni from law school/undergraduate schools. Enhance these relationships with a combination of in-person and online networking (LinkedIn being THE place where professionals convene and interact). In addition, look for opportunities where you can provide unique insights to clients and targets where you have expertise and they need guidance, such as a key development in the law that impacts their business. Send them a relevant article/piece of legislation about it, or better, write an alert on the topic, and personally send it to them with a note about why they should care about this development. This is how to become a trusted business advisor in the client's inner circle and how to separate yourself from your peers.
  4. These in-house lawyers said they are seeking outside counsel who they can call on for thoughtful quick answers (and not be billed a fortune for that type of guidance), who really understand their business and anticipates their needs. They explained they want not just a lawyer, but a business advisor. At the heart of it, your clients want to know that you consider their business and legal issues to be of the utmost importance and that you will be a fierce advocate for them, protecting their rights and interests. Remember if you are client-centric and predictable at all times, you will delight and retain the client.
  5. Bills from a law firm should be bulletproof and always reviewed by the billing partner, according to this group of in-house counsel. They said they can tell when the bills haven’t been appropriately reviewed, and it is frustrating when that step is missed. The GCs also noted that they each spend quite a bit of time reviewing bills each month from their outside law firms for accuracy, and it can negatively affect the attorney/client relationship when the bills are inaccurate. There should be no questions about how the time was spent by your firm each month on the bills that are sent to your clients. Don't be that firm - if a client starts to question the bills, they will question whether they want to work with you and may look elsewhere for legal services.
  6. What do general counsel want in content from law firms? Tailored, value-added, short and easily digestible alerts and newsletters with engaging and to-the-point subject lines is what resonates most with them. It goes without saying that the content produced and shared by law firms should always be client-focused – think of show vs. tell in every piece of content you create. This is the concept of demonstrating that you are the very best lawyer/law firm rather than telling someone. Also, the content that is sent to clients and prospects should be sent strategically and sparingly. So don’t send a labor and employment in-house counsel a client alert on an M&A topic, and don’t send the CEO of your biggest client several alerts per week or you run the risk of over saturating them and increasing the chances that they will unsubscribe. Spend the time to segment your mailing lists and to analyze engagement and open rates. Your email marketing software and social media analytics provide a treasure trove of information that most firms under-utilize. Many firms are taking a "random acts of content" approach to their content strategy, which is a waste of time for everyone involved, most importantly, the client/prospect on the receiving end of the information. Always remember to delight the client - put yourself in their shoes at all times and think about how you would want to be communicated with if you were them.
  7. Personalization is one of the biggest factors to whether general counsel look at marketing materials sent by law firms (newsletters, client alerts, etc.) and they are more likely to read content from law firms they use and trust, so keep that in mind when you are considering purchasing a random list of in-house counsel from an outside company (it's most likely not worth it). Here’s a novel idea in today’s digital world: Try sending a handwritten note to a client with a hard copy mailing/invite. These in-house counsel said that a light touch like that would stand out from the sea of email content they receive each week. 
  8. On staffing matters, the panel encouraged law firms to develop a strong bench of lawyers for the future and to make sure your clients know exactly who is on their legal team. They want multiple points of contact with their outside counsel and they want to get to know the associates working on their matters (sometimes, they want to work directly with associates because for certain types of work, it is more cost effective than paying a partner to do the same work). They also prefer to work with a handful of outside law firms versus firms in the double digits, hinting at a trend of overall consolidation in the number of firms being used by clients, and their desire to have closer relationships with their outside counsel. Reinforcing the predictability concept brought up multiple times during the panel, the panelists noted that they like to see monthly status reports from their outside counsel that outlines all matters being handled by that firm, their current status, jurisdiction, stage of case, number of hours/current fees, etc. One GC said that he often has to ask for this from his law firms and that many firms do not proactively provide this to him, or will send him something that is not tailored or helpful. Developing a client-focused, user-friendly matter status report is a great way for firms to differentiate themselves and delight the client. 
  9. I’d like to reiterate a point that I have made before. The days of taking a client to lunch, or for a purely recreational social activity are falling by the wayside. While there is still a time and a place for in-person social interactions, your clients are very busy individuals who are getting pulled in many different directions both professionally and personally. General counsel prefer to build the relationship with their outside counsel through touchpoints that enable law firms and lawyers to demonstrate how you provide value to them. This allows firms and lawyers to showcase their legal prowess and the value that they can bring to that client/prospect. This type of reputational marketing has a much stronger impact than any concert or fancy dinner – so offer a CLE program or send them an article – better yet, co-author an article with them, invite them to speak on a panel with you or offer them a free pass to a conference your firm is sponsoring. Invest in your clients in a way that enables you to showcase your talents and to build the relationship, which is a win-win for everyone involved. 

To sum it all up, it's never been more important to adopt a client-centric approach to everything you do as a law firm in this incredibly competitive market. General counsel keep saying that they want outside counsel who they trust, who are predictable, who truly understand their business, who demonstrate that they are a fierce advocate for them, and who are proactive and cost sensitive, and it's time that firms really listen to them. Also, it's one thing to ask for client feedback and entirely another to actually implement what your clients say in return, especially when you receive feedback that you may not want to hear. So going forward, follow through, put the client first and do what they ask you to do. That is true key to delighting the client and building long-lasting attorney/client relationships. Again, if you always put yourself in your clients' shoes, you will always be on the right path. It's that simple.

*

[With more than 15 years of experience in professional services marketing, Stefanie Marrone leads the business development, marketing and communications functions for full-service, mid-size law firm Tarter Krinsky & Drogin LLP. She has worked at some of the most prominent law firms in the world, developing and executing global revenue generating, business development, internal and external communications strategies, including media relations, branding, content marketing and corporate journalism, and multi-channel content marketing and thought leadership campaigns. She is currently the secretary of the LMA Northeast Region and is a frequent speaker and published author.]

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