Ask any general counsel what keeps them up at night regarding outside counsel management, what gets them frustrated, or what even makes them want to fire a firm, you’re likely to get some variation on this: unmet expectations.
General counsel are working in a fast-paced world of change, with increasing regulatory complexity and compliance challenges, focus on risk management, and ever-present cost constraints. They want efficient, dependable service from their outside attorneys — and they don’t always feel like they’re getting.
Here are a few of the service areas and characteristics they view as most important for outside counsel to demonstrate:
- Be responsive — Being attentive and available at a moment’s notice — or at least within several hours — and excited about the opportunity to serve isn’t something that should fade away after the contract has been signed.
- Respect the budget — The budget is there for a reason, and it’s to be followed. Anticipated departures from the agreed-upon plan should be discussed as soon as feasible. In billing, accuracy, transparency and compliance to guidelines are expected and critical to working relationship. Inevitably, there are times when scope increases and the staffing for outside counsel must expand to accommodate the new requirements. But that shouldn’t mean that there will be an unpleasant surprise waiting to be sprung months down the road: Timely communication can allow for a discussion of developments and a restructuring of expectations regarding staffing and billing.
- Understanding the business –– General counsel expect that the outside attorneys working for them will know the industry, its particular complexities, culture and current trends.
- Utilizing technology –– Outside counsel should not only be comfortable using basic technology but be proficient at leveraging the latest developments to provide the most efficient, effective service they can per billable hour.
- Be fair, ethical, responsible –– Staff the work appropriately and don’t try to milk a project for more than it’s worth.
- Make it a good relationship — This is less important for a one-off project, but the benefits in a long-term, productive professional relationship of trust and mutual respect cannot be undervalued.
How best to help the relationship flourish and handle the task of outside counsel management? Here are three key ways:
- Communication — It’s a simple concept that’s sometimes difficult to execute. Nevertheless, it’s an investment in time and effort that is critical; too often a simple lack of communication or a missed message leads to a major problem that could have been avoided or more effectively managed with a timely phone call. And remember, the phone works both ways — it’s not entirely the responsibility of the general counsel or the outside firm to initiate conversations.
- Technology — As mentioned earlier, leveraging technology is important for outside counsel to deliver state-of-the-art efficiency. It’s also a way for general counsel to manage the relationship, through real-time e-billing monitoring and collaboration software, for example. It’s the sensible way to track current projects and leverage information to make informed decisions going forward.
- Mutual respect — If outside counsel is performing admirably, saving money and/or producing exceptional results, they need to be applauded (or rewarded) and, over time, given the appropriate display of trust as it is earned. Similarly, of course, outside counsel should conduct business as if their purse strings were controlling the budget and that the client’s success is their ultimate goal.
Communication and mutual respect are a matter of professional behavior. On the technology front, if you’re a little behind the times, Busylamp can show you how software can be a key team player in collaboration, efficient operations, compliance, and outside counsel management.