How to develop the General Counsel & law firm relationship

How do you really get the most out of the relationship between internal and external counsel? Where do you start? What can you do to accommodate your partner on the other side?

With this in mind, we are exploring the key takeaways from our ‘My Life Working with Law Firms’ series. We asked three experienced, current and former, General Counsel to share their insights on what both in-house counsel and law firms can do to help this all-important relationship reach its full potential.

From pet peeves to simple hygiene issues and investing time, read on for our tips for both sides in navigating and maximising this relationship.

Featuring insights from:

  • Ian Jones, author, legal commentator and former-General Counsel at Truphone with over 35 years of experience in law.
  • Della Burnside, Partner at The Burnside Partnership, with a career which encompasses both in private practice and in-house.
  • Adeola Adebonojo, consultant, advisor and mentor with years of experience working with sub-Saharan African private equity-backed companies, as well as in Europe.

Relationships are a two-way street

For any relationship to grow and succeed, both sides need to actively participate. However, Della Burnside argues that sometimes in-house legal teams expect the world of their external law firm partners, without necessarily first looking within. As she explains in her video, ‘I think it's sometimes overlooked, the role that General Counsel have in that’ and how they need to consider the strain on law firms whilst taking more of a responsibility.

The client and the law firm both have a role to play in successfully working together. There needs to be an element of reciprocation, but what steps can both parties take to achieve this?

What can the General Counsel do to aid this relationship?

Remember your responsibility in working together. Be considerate of the fact your external counsel has other clients which come with additional demands and complexities. Don’t expect more than you’re putting in - if you’re only putting in 20%, then don’t expect 150% from your law firm.

You can also help your law firm by considering the following things:

  • Requirements - You know what people say about assuming, right? Well nobody wants to be made to be an ‘ass’. Make sure you set out your requirements upfront and clearly rather than assuming that they are a given.
  • Business & Context - Help your external counsel by inducting them into the business and its context. Yes, they have to be willing to learn but you can guide them. Are there situations or sensitivities they should be aware of? What are the goals and mission of the business which could influence dealings? How will the company expect them to respond to certain circumstances?
  • Be Trusted - Be known as someone who has on-the-ground business knowledge, does their research and provides comfort. This will allow the wider business to trust your advice and choice of law firm - making it a smoother journey for all involved.

    What can the law firms do to aid this relationship?

    As a law firm, you want to provide your client with value. However, what does that look like? And how can you do it? Ian Jones says, ‘We all know the cost of everything, but we don’t know the value necessarily.’ Value is subjective. So, communication is key for a smooth and successful relationship with your client. The best way to truly provide value is by asking the General Counsel what value looks like to their organisation.

    Similarly, though it might seem insignificant, Della highlights the benefit of discussing hygiene issues early on. Simply asking yourself ‘How can I make this General Counsel’s life easier?’ rather than treating them as a generic client will make for smoother sailing with fewer frustrations. For instance, Ian explains that frustrations can arise if law firms appear aloof from the pressures faced by their clients and the realities of their business - something which could be avoided through better communication and, in particular, listening.

    Make sure you consider how you are communicating, and calibrate your communication to the recipient. The way you position a message may differ depending on whether you’re speaking or writing to the General Counsel or to somebody else in the business.You need the ability to communicate with everyone and get your messages across without being too complex. Good law firms read their audience and people they’re working with.

    Investment: Get to know the business & secondments

    The best way to ensure this relationship is long term and fruitful is by investing in it, not just making things run smoothly. Two key things were picked up by our interviewees. One, more abstract - a willingness to learn. The other, more tangible - judicious use of secondments.

    Law firms who are invested in this partnership will want to learn about their client’s business - everything from what it does to the goals and strategy.

    It’s important for law firms to understand the business they are working for and take an interest. This is something that law firms and in-house counsel should work together on. Taking an interest and understanding the business signals a sense of longevity and trust. It is also the key for law firms to give the General Counsel what they need to do their job because they understand the context, objectives and intricacies of the business.

    As Adeola explains, it says a lot about a firm who is keen to learn about the business and there are several ways to do this including inviting you to speak or write articles, as well as secondments.

    And speaking of which… Secondments are one of the best ways to invest in the relationship between in-house and external counsel. Whichever way round they are - there are so many benefits to secondments. Not only do they give a law firm the chance to learn about a client's business through actual experience, but it also shows a willingness to invest by offering private practice experience for the clients’ in-house team.

    Secondments also help to strengthen bonds between younger lawyers (internally and externally) through networking and learning opportunities. And in turn, this invests in the future strength of the relationship between law firm and client. Investing in younger, in-house lawyers rather than simply focusing on General Counsel is beneficial because, as Della says, ‘they will be the General Counsels of the future.’

    What are some of the pet peeves?

    We’ve shared some of the ways to start maximising the relationship between General Counsel and external counsel. But what are some of the pet peeves our presenters shared in the series?

    Ian Jones: ‘The meetings that I’ve been to where, what I refer to as, the six pack turns up. That is two people who I know involved intimately on what we’re working on and four who I have absolutely no idea what their involvement is.’

    Adeola Adebonojo: ‘Please answer your email if I send you a message. I know you’re very very busy, but if I’ve left you a message and sent you an email or phoned you, do not call me back 36 hours later.’

    Della Burnside: ‘Whilst understanding that, you know, marketing / business development is something that lawyers in private practice have to do is part of their job, what can be sometimes a little irritating is very blatant cross-selling.’

    Want to watch the series in full? Find the box set here.

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