RANCHO PALOS VERDES, Calif. — A recent frank exchange among general counsels and other corporate legal officers shows that there’s a lot that law firms can do by simply putting client priorities first.
At a recent panel, entitled The Company We Keep: Mastering Client Collaboration in Relationship Management, at the 24th Annual Marketing Partner Forum gave several general counsels a chance to articulate some of these concerns. The panel was moderated by Goulston & Storrs’ Allison Prince, with counsels and compliance officers from companies including Microsoft, Google and U.S. Bank ticking through a list of what law firms often get wrong.
Delays, errors and obvious padding in billing is an issue, even for top-ranked firms, several panelists said. Pamela Tracey, Vice President and General Counsel at Osram Sylvania, said that billing timeliness “is an area where there needs to be across-the-board improvement… It’s critical that you get us what we need on a quarterly and fiscal-year basis.”
“Here’s a great pitch book idea: Bring nothing, because you’re going to ask me what I need, so why would you need to give me anything? In some ways, that’s the best pitch book of all.”
— Christopher Lenhart, Senior Vice President and Deputy General Counsel at U.S. Bank
Katie Potter, Vice President and General Counsel at Five Star Quality Care, agreed and added that law firms need to seriously review bills before sending them to clients. “We have to make sure things get allocated to the right places and accounted for appropriately,” she said. “The last thing anyone wants to do is be time-crunched because the bill wasn’t quite accurate and we had to redo it. I often say to relationship partners be sure you’re reviewing the bills before they get to me.”
Other complaints coming from the corporate side include being billed for expensive lunches that have dubious connections to the lawyers’ duties for the client, or additional names turning up on invoices beyond the initial group of partners and associates who took on the work. Andy Hinton, Vice President and Chief Compliance Officer at Google, said he’s adamant that his outside lawyers “don’t look me as a short-term source of revenue. Don’t take advantage of the size and scale of a Google or a Microsoft — that really ticks me off.”
Panelists said what they most want is honest and specific advice, with clients setting the agenda, not vice versa. “Ask me what I want to hear before you bring people [to a meeting],” said Christopher Lenhart, Senior Vice President and Deputy General Counsel at U.S. Bank. “Here’s a great pitch book idea: Bring nothing, because you’re going to ask me what I need, so why would you need to give me anything? In some ways, that’s the best pitch book of all.”
Lawyers with in-depth knowledge of a client’s business are rare and greatly valued by clients, panelists explained. “When we have outside counsel who see a theme in, for example, our claims history and can make recommendations based on their experience, that’s incredibly valuable to me,” Potter said. To this point, panelists agreed their loyalty is to individual lawyers, not law firms themselves. So if a client’s favorite attorney switches firms, the original firm should expect to lose that client’s business. “I have never thought of myself as hiring firms,” Lenhart noted.
Another factor is that in the future, “we’re going to be doubling-down in terms of diversity in our outside counsel,” Google’s Hinton said. “We’re going to be looking for relationship partners that are diverse — that’s going to become a much bigger factor for us, trumping the firm.”
Indeed, a law firm’s diversity profile is just one of several factors that could have greater weight in client hiring decisions rather than just going on law firm reputation alone. “Maybe it’s your use of technology, or your legal project management skill set,” said Lucy Endel Bassli, Microsoft’s Assistant General Counsel for Legal Operations and Contracting. “Who you’re going to hire will be influenced by more factors than ever before.”
So, given this predominant attitude among many corporate clients, what can law firms do?
It can be as simple as returning a client’s call promptly, panelists said. Or seeking honest feedback about past performance. “Real feedback, where the process feels genuine and we see an actual change in something they’ve done or in the way they operate with us,” said Osram Sylvania’s Tracey. “There is no more heartwarming feeling than being heard.”