Partnerships Are Often What Matter Most to GCs

by Seth Apple on December 14, 2012

Apple, Seth 2014Grab a seat…if you can find one.  Whether gathering at a local venue in connection with a Metropolitan New York LMA Chapter event or in a large convention hall at the annual Legal Marketing Association national conference, the “General Counsel Panel” always draws a large crowd.

Our chapter’s luncheon seminar, Reality Check for Law Firms, on October 25 was certainly no different, as nearly 200 business development and legal marketing professionals gathered to hear the assembled panel of in-house counsel discuss what they look for and expect from the law firms and attorneys they hire.  CMOs to Specialists, Big Law to Boutique, Vendors to Consultants – the audience represented a range of size and expertise synonymous with the LMA membership.

The panel was equally diverse, providing a broad perspective to the discussion as a result of the varied industry sectors (insurance, electronics, cosmetics), company size, and counsel levels (general, associate general and assistant general counsel), they collectively represented.  The panel consisted of:

  • Vincent Castiglione, General Counsel of Coby Electronics, a mid-sized and privately held company that focuses on traditional as well as well as emerging digital media consumer products.
  • Shelia Murphy, Associate General Counsel at MetLife, one of the largest global providers of insurance, annuities and employee benefit programs, with 90 million customers in 60 countries.
  • Courtney Robbins, Assistant General Counsel at Elizabeth Arden, Inc., the global cosmetics company whose brands are sold in 120 countries.

The program opened with a brief introduction from moderator Aric Press, Editor In Chief of American Lawyer Media and some general remarks from the panelists.  What followed was a discussion regarding the key influences involved in counsel selection and retention.

General Selection of Outside Counsel

“It largely depends on the nature and type of matter” said Ms. Murphy, indicating she directly manages counsel selections on litigation while transactional matters are escalated because established relationships are often less prevalent.

Ms. Robbins agreed, adding she handles the day-to-day issues but higher exposure/cost matters require general counsel consultation.  “On larger matters, I typically choose three firms, conduct due diligence and interviews in a sort of a ‘mini-RFP’ and then confirm with my general counsel.”

While type of matter, potential exposure and geographical limitations may impact certain selections, the panel generally agreed that, in the end, it continues to be all about partnerships and relationships.

“I consider all engagements to be a partnership, as if outside counsel was a partner with us on the matter” said Ms. Murphy.  “Oh, and I want to have a voice too”, she said, emphasizing her desire to collaborate with outside counsel on the matter, not simply be updated regarding its status.

Personality, style and diversity of staffing are “very important to us too,” said Mr. Castiglione, but “marrying to our corporate culture is what really matters.”

In other words, it is important to establish a comprehensive commitment to the client by demonstrating an understanding of its business, its industry, and the overall climate in which it operates.

Opportunity Killers

As expected, poor relationship management, being disrespectful and failing to listen were highlighted as opportunity killers by the panelists, but transparency was of particular importance in connection with expanding existing opportunities.

“We are able and willing to pay for results, but we don’t like surprises, said Coby’s Castiglione.  “We look like garbage when we have to go to the CEO with a surprise, so keep us informed on what is going on,” he enthusiastically added.

When it comes to new opportunities, first impressions are critical – particularly when it comes to outside counsel’s engagement during the initial meetings.  “Coming into a meeting and pulling out your Blackberry sends a real message,” said MetLife’s. Murphy.

Ms. Robbins of Elizabeth Arden agreed, adding “I have no interest in working with someone who is not even listening during our initial meeting.”

The panel also encouraged outside counsel to be creative and interesting in their pitches.  “Don’t treat us like idiots” said Ms. Murphy.  Showing the client that you understand its business and how your representation will address an existing issue are highly desired presentation features, according to the panelists.

Dollars and Sense

Beyond the business pitch itself, there are other issues that need to be addressed, as they were by the panel: case management, alternate fee arrangements and the ever-popular debate over paying for junior associate time.  The panelists agreed that while cost is important, there are other critical factors in play when it comes to counsel selection and retention, including timely billing, outside vendor management and continued open communication regarding fee totals via monthly and quarterly checkups.

“Getting bills in on time is really important” said Ms. Murphy, noting that financial, as well as legal, management of the matter is essential.

Mr. Castiglione agreed.  “We really look for good case and project managers – especially in connection with outside vendors handling things like e-discovery.”

GCs and AGCs are often business executives first and legal executives second – meaning much of what they handle may be centered around corporate rather than legal issues.  As a result, it’s important to be mindful of the company’s internal payment process and budget, where feasible.

Flat fee arrangements are welcomed and appropriate in certain instances, such as in connection with a motion to dismiss.  However, the panelists cautioned that attorneys should also be mindful not to compromise effort or communication as a result.

“Don’t cut corners because it’s a flat fee,” warned Ms. Murphy of MetLife, noting specific examples where it was clear to her team that outside counsel gave less that 100% in connection with certain flat fee matters.

Mr. Castiglione of Coby Electronics added that the arrangement must be thoughtfully prepared.  “We work with outside counsel to come up with meaningful rates and arrangements, but they must be thoughtful proposals, he said.

When it comes to paying for associate time, the response was similarly focused on the development and cultivation of an open and honest partnership, with Mr. Castiglione mentioning the importance of “monitoring” their work and activity on the file.

Ms. Robbins agreed, indicating that reviewing bills was the worst part of her job.  “We are all under pressure” she said, “but if you are reasonable we will be reasonable.”  Reducing associate time on the file up front, not billing for leaving a voicemail, discounting for requested research the firm has already completed, and, if necessary, proactively making an associate switch on the file at the request of counsel are examples of proactive relationship management that the panelists mentioned were appreciated – and noticed.

The Firm v. The Attorney

“I have to be honest with you, I hire the lawyer”, said Mr. Castiglione.

“There are a lot of good lawyers out there, with great CVs, so it’s often more about personality than qualifications” Ms. Murphy said, citing “breath of relationship with the lawyer” as being a another critical component to matter selection.

Juniors Matter Too

The importance of relationship management was further emphasized when outside counsel is interacting with the client’s junior attorneys and staff.

The panelists confirmed that they review and take into account feedback provided by their junior staff regarding outside counsel interaction and work product.

“Outside counsel needs to check their ego at the door said Mr. Castiglione. “We delegate a lot.”

“We take it very seriously, Ms. Murphy added.  “Don’t forget these people will go up the chain.”

In the end it was clear – regardless of the matter involved, the core driver for general counsel is a conscious effort by outside counsel to establish and cultivate a partnership with them and the businesses they support.

Traditional marketing “do’s and don’ts” from the panelists

  • Do: send out client alerts – provided they are timely.
  • Don’t: offer glossy firm brochures or traditional ‘dog and pony’ shows.
  • Do: emphasize diversity – in staff, attorneys and partnership.
  • Don’t: overvalue traditional attorney bios – there are a lot of good lawyers who went to good schools and work at good firms.  It’s what’s behind the bio that really matters.
  • Do: make your pitch interesting and specific – tell us what you can do and how it will help our businesses.

Seth Apple is Co-Chair of the NYLMA Communications Committee and a Business Development Manager at Davis Polk & Wardwell in New York.  You can reach him at seth.apple@davispolk.com or www.linkedin.com/in/sethmapple.

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