At a Counsel to Counsel Forum earlier this week I was able to listen to corporate counsel from global corporations describe what they want from outside counsel. A few days later, here in LA at LMA, I participated on a panel that Leigh Dance, President of ELD International, moderated called What Corporate Clients Need from Law Firms Around the World. There was a lot of good content this week. In short, corporate counsel of global legal departments want value, predictability and empathy from their lawyers.
It’s easy to think that the most important thing would be to provide the highest quality legal services. But if you listen carefully to what corporate counsel say, it’s really most important to provide the appropriate quality of legal services balanced against the appropriate price. In other words, it’s value that is most highly prized. Despina Kartson, CMO of Latham & Watkins, related many examples of how her partners provide value to clients as an effective way of growing their practice. Lawyers seeking new business who are able to speak forthrightly and early about cost are at a significant advantage in winning business.
Predictability requires responsiveness. Not facing unpleasant surprises is mentioned frequently by corporate counsel, both in the context of getting a bill that’s off budget, and also in hearing too late about a matter going in the wrong direction. Mike O’Neill, General Counsel, Lenovo Corporation (the huge PC maker that acquired IBM’s Personal Computing Division) related a story on point. He said he recently got a long voice mail from a lawyer telling him that he got his message with his questions and that he was in an airport and wouldn’t be able to be reached for a day, and so on and so on, and at the end of a very long winded message, without responding at all to Mike’s questions, said “I just wanted to be responsive to your call.”
Finally, while empathy is always important, it’s particularly critical when dealing with corporate counsel with global responsibilities. One story related to the uncomfortable position corporate counsel are often in when faced with conflicting laws of different jurisdictions. The empathetic lawyer talks about relative risk in a practical way. Unfortunately, according to several corporate counsel, too many private practice lawyers focus too much on the “letter of the law” without translating what this means within a global economy and an international web of laws and customs.