Posted by: johnocunningham | February 11, 2015

What Law Firms Want from General Counsel Clients

Law 360 recently published an article about “What Law Firms Want from General Counsel,” which is an interesting twist on the more common surveys of what clients want from lawyers.

This new twist begs the question: How do service providers make reasonable demands or requests of the clients when it is the clients who are paying the bills?

I think that outside counsel should in fact make clear what is needed from each client in order to render the kind of service that the client expects; and that is the way that counsel should frame their requests to clients generally. If outside counsel are clear that they are only making requests of their clients in order to serve them optimally, then the clients are likely to respond favorably. Clients are also likely to make clear what outside counsel can or cannot expect them to do.

The Law 360 article cited a number of reasonable expectations that outside counsel have of clients, all of which should be candidly expressed to any given client at the outset of a relationship, including:

  • The need to get all relevant information about the business necessary to solve a legal problem or successfully complete a legal transaction;
  • The need to know the client’s expectations for outcomes, budgets and timelines;
  • The need to know the business goals in each engagement; and
  • The need to be available and responsive.

Having sat in the GC chair, and having interviewed many GCs, I would advise outside counsel to be aware of the following with respect to the above-listed expectations:

  • You should be willing to spend some non-billable time “getting acquainted with the business” as your best competitors will do that, and clients will not tolerate being billed for you to learn things that many industry-experienced lawyers already know.
  • You should not argue with the GC client’s stated expectations for outcomes, budgets and timelines, nor attempt to “manage their expectations,” as GC clients say they have plenty of experience dealing with lots of firms and they know what a matter should cost, the time it should take and the range of outcomes that are reasonable to expect. If you think the client’s expectations are unreasonable, it is best to avoid the engagement, or attempt to reach a compromise that the client can appreciate.
  • You should definitely know the business goals in each engagement, and if you are not asking about that, you are not a very good lawyer.
  • You can only expect your client to be as available and responsive as you can be. If you don’t think a client should dump a giant matter on you and expect a resolution today, then don’t dump a legal brief or court filing on the client one day ahead of the filing deadline, expecting them to immediately turn it around. I have interviewed many clients who say that this happens all too often.

So, by all means, tell your clients what you need from them to serve them optimally, but be prepared to hear some candid feedback on the limits of how far they can bend for you, and be prepared to accept that feedback because the client ultimately pays your way in life.

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