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Be like Southwest…: And other tips for firm lawyers working with in-house counsel

August 01, 2017
By Dennis C. Garcia
Dennis C. Garcia is an assistant general counsel for Microsoft based in Chicago. He leads the legal support function to Microsoft’s U.S. Central Region Enterprise & Partner Group team that is based in an 18-state region and across six Microsoft districts.

In my more than 20 years as an in-house lawyer I have had the opportunity to partner with many law firms serving as outside counsel. Those law firms have ranged in size from very large law firms to solo practitioners. Here are some observations on how law firms can embrace a client obsession mindset and better serve the evolving needs of their clients.

Provide practical advice

Most in-house counsels do not have the benefit of dispensing legal counsel that is grounded in theory as many are overworked, practicing “triage” law on a daily basis and have highly demanding business clients who want legal advice ASAP. Be sure to tailor your legal advice to in-house counsels in such a way that enables them to help their business clients engage in practical, smart risk-taking.

Learn your client’s business

Invest time in understanding your client’s marketplace, its customers and competitors so that you can provide more impactful legal advice. Ask if you can spend some time being “embedded” with your clients and their business teams — at no charge to your client — so you can learn more about how they conduct business.

Avoid writing a legal treatise

Be thoughtful regarding the length, breadth and complexity of your e-mails, legal memorandums and other written communications to in-house counsels. Remember that the ultimate client and recipient of legal advice from the in-house counsel is a person that is very busy business professional with limited attention spans who are unfamiliar with legal speak.

Embrace alternative fee arrangements

The billable hour has been around since the early days of the legal profession and is becoming increasingly outdated. Given the buyer’s market for legal services, in-house legal departments are requiring law firms to be more creative and predictable with their legal fees via alternative fee arrangements.

Be like Southwest Airlines

Southwest Airlines is one of my favorite airlines because they don’t charge passengers for additional miscellaneous fees for luggage, extra leg room or reservation changes. While in-house counsels recognize that their outside counsels should be appropriately compensated for their work, avoid nickel-and-diming your valued clients.

Leverage best-in-class technology

Using leading technology tools can make you more efficient, productive and collaborative in your interactions with your client. Understand the technology your clients are using, considering also using such technology and if your law firm is using more robust technology to achieve more, politely suggest such technology to your client.

Provide lessons learned

Upon the conclusion of an involved legal matter consider developing some “lessons learned” for your client — free of any charge — that provides a series of best practices in the form of preventative law for your client to implement to help limit the likelihood of a similar matter occurring in the future.

Be more diverse & inclusive

American Bar Association Resolution 113 and its mission to create a legal profession that better reflects the diversity of our nation was passed by the ABA at its annual meeting last August. Numerous chief legal officers and general counsels support ABA Resolution 113 and many in-house legal departments are requiring their outside law firm partners to be more diverse and inclusive — especially as leading studies have concluded time and time again that diverse teams are more higher performing than nondiverse teams.

Culture of cybersecurity

Increasingly sophisticated cybercriminals are seeking unauthorized access to sensitive client information in the possession of law firms. Protect that information — and protect your law firm’s reputation — by using state-of-the-art cybersecurity practices, downloading security updates from technology providers and embracing appropriate data backup procedures. Also consider storing such information with a highly trusted and reliable cloud services provider that utilizes world-class data security procedures.

Actively seek client feedback

It has been said that feedback is a “gift” and being open to receiving and learning from feedback provided by others is an important way for all lawyers to improve, embrace the “growth mindset” and provide better client service. Be sure to periodically ask you clients for constructive feedback regarding your legal services, thank them for it and turn such feedback into actionable steps moving forward.

In this highly competitive marketplace for legal services in-house counsels are increasingly requiring greater value from their law firm partners. More than ever before it is critical for all law firms to be client obsessed.

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