I’ve just returned from the Association of Corporate Counsel’s annual meeting in Seattle, which was a swirl of people and ideas. This year the big buzz was the ACC’s Value Challenge, an initiative to rethink the traditional business model of inside-outside counsel relationships. This has been a topic of conversation for many years, but this year, with the help of the ACC and pressure from a tight economy, I think some changes are actually in the wind.
I attended a session moderated by Mary Clark of CounselLink, which brought together a lot of the thinking that’s going on around this topic. Legal departments are innovating under pressure to increase their efficiency and reduce outside counsel spending. Some of these efforts include better metrics, more effective methods of evaluating outside counsel and leveraging expertise from other fields on how to foster efficiency and accountability in our processes.
Does that mean the human touch is disappearing from corporate legal relationships? Absolutely not. Networking — particularly online networking — was a hot topic at the conference, and lawyers on both sides of the inside-outside counsel relationship are putting more value on ratings systems and online networks to add value to their in-person meetings and help them learn more about potential relationship partners.
In some senses, the current economic crisis is creating new challenges and opportunities for corporate counsel. Doing more with less has been the mantra of corporate culture for years, and it is now taking root in the legal department — and by association, the outside law firms. That means better tools and methods are the focus, to “flatten” the previously inefficient marketplace for legal services, to enhance communications and increase transparency in the delivery of legal services. It should be an interesting year to follow as these market forces continue to drive change.