Chapter Events – 4th Annual GC Forum

by Tom Mariam on January 26, 2016

The delicate relationship between law firms and their clients was examined at the Metro New York LMA chapter’s 4th Annual General Counsel Forum.  This year’s theme, “Optimizing the Attorney/Client Relationship – Isn’t the Customer Always Right?” featured a panel of in-house lawyers from three multinational companies:

  • Jennifer M. Daniels — Chief Legal Officer, Colgate-Palmolive Company
  • Stephen R. Reynolds — General Counsel, Aramark Corporation
  • Jacqueline Stelling — Chief Trademark Counsel, Nestle Nutrition N. A.

Aric Press of Bernero & Press, LLC once again moderated the lively session attended by 140 legal marketing professionals and hosted by the New York Society of Security Analysts.

General Counsel turn to outside law firms to provide solutions for business and/or legal issues. The panelists all emphasized that the keys to a strong working relationship with external counsel involve a partnership between client and firm, efficiency on behalf of the lawyers and predictability.

Aramark’s Reynolds said the relationship is “all about partnering” and “developing relationships with firms you can trust.”  Nestle’s Stelling reminded lawyers not to have “too big of an ego and really partner with us.”  She added that a strong partnership involves frankness on behalf of the outside lawyers.  “Is the client always right?” she asked rhetorically.  “No.”

Colgate-Palmolive’s Daniels declared that “doing a lot of listening, not talking, is the hallmark of a very good firm.”  She added, “I do assess if they are really listening to what we’re talking about.  Do they understand what we need to be brought to the table from our perspective, not from the law firm’s perspective?   Are they in fact listening and have they done their homework on the business matter?”

Mr. Reynolds said one key way he can tell good firms from not-so-good firms is that the good firms know when to say “no” to a client and then explain it well.  “Three words are important: ‘No,’ ‘Because,’ ‘But.’ The ‘but’ part, that is how we might accomplish the desired outcome some other way, is what I look for.”

Ms. Stelling stressed that lawyers need to learn how to talk to business people.  “It’s not enough to do the work really well, “she said.  “They must have a business sense, too.”   She added that “it’s really important to know our business’ risk tolerance.”

Understanding the client’s business is a major factor in the law firm-client relationship.  Ms. Daniels sounded disappointed stating that only one law firm ever asked if its lawyers could visit factories to see and understand what they do and how they do it.  “If you want my business,” she strongly suggested, “come learn my business.”

She augmented that request by urging outside counsel to “know our competitors and our competitive landscape.”

The idea of partnership extends to the individual relationships between in-house and outside counsel.  “It’s about partnership and colleagues,” said Ms. Stelling of Nestle.  “I don’t want to be treated as the client.”

“I want somebody I can talk to and confide in,” noted Aramark’s Reynolds.  “Someone who knows what it’s like to be in my shoes, to a point.”

Colgate-Palmolive’s Ms. Daniels agreed.  “I want to be treated as a colleague,” she said.  “I don’t like to act like the client or be treated that way.”

The personal relationships need to extend beyond the GCs to be effective.  “It’s not always the GCs you should be talking to,” advised Mr. Reynolds.  “It is the folks who do the real work.  The worst thing a firm can do is treat in-house lawyers as if they are somehow not as talented as they are.”

Predictability means a reasonable expectation of what business result will occur, what the work will incur and costs on which they can concur.  “Corporate America does not like surprises,” said Ms. Daniels.

“Really bad lawyering is when you are surprised,” proclaimed Mr. Reynolds. “No one wants to be called to the CEO’s office to explain a surprise.”

“We are held accountable,” said Ms. Daniels, “predicting for a business what something will cost.  Way under is as important as way over.”  She explained that unused money budgeted for legal costs could have instead been used to fund another initiative by the client.  “Some law firms really miss that,” she noted.

“The pressure we are under as GCs in an in-house setting can be intense,” added Mr. Reynolds.  “And we are held accountable for our outside costs.”

In closing, Ms. Daniels summed it up for the panel by reminding those from outside firms to “put yourself in our shoes.”

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