When it comes to creating a successful partnership with a client’s in-house lawyers, there is more to it than simply “doing good work.” Lawyers at outside firms must be intentional about effective communication and, perhaps more importantly, about understanding their client’s businesses. The goals of this article are to take a closer look at these elements of the relationship between outside and in-house counsel and to highlight steps that outside counsel can take today to make in-house lawyers’ lives easier.
Communication is key in virtually every type of relationship, but particularly so in the relationship between outside counsel and their in-house partners. Effective communication reduces stress, eliminates surprises and ensures that everyone involved stays on the same page. However, there is more to effective communication than some may realize.
Setting expectations: Setting realistic expectations at the outset of a new matter is critical. In-house lawyers do not want an overly optimistic view of the case — they want the truth. If you tell your in-house partner that a case can likely be dismissed or settled for a modest amount, understand that they will be relying on your prognostication to manage expectations within their company. If the outcome of the case ends up worse than you originally predicted, it doesn’t just make you look bad — it makes your in-house partner look bad, too. Set cautious but realistic expectations, then deliver results that meet or exceed those expectations.
Avoiding surprises: Relatedly, corporate clients value certainty and predictability, and they do not like surprises. Accordingly, outside lawyers should seek to avoid springing surprises on their in-house partners. In-house counsel are often dealing with complex corporate organizations with multiple stakeholders, so responding to last-minute surprises can be complicated and time-consuming. This means setting realistic expectations, sharing pertinent developments and making sure in-house lawyers are aware of the wide array of issues that could potentially arise during a given matter. For example, if you anticipate that your client will need to retain multiple expensive expert witnesses to effectively defend a case, you should communicate that fact to your in-house partner at the outset of the engagement rather than springing it on them later in the case. In the legal world, most surprises are bad surprises, so it is critical for outside counsel to communicate early and often with their in-house partners in order to avoid them.
Responsiveness: The importance of responsiveness in communications with in-house partners cannot be overstated. While many lawyers believe in the “24-hour rule,” a quicker response is advisable when your in-house partner reaches out with a question or concern. While it is not always possible to provide an immediate answer or solution, it is always possible to acknowledge the request and establish a time frame within which you will provide a substantive response. This simple step will provide your in-house partner with certainty and peace of mind, knowing that their request was received and is being handled.
Understanding the client’s business and industry
Understanding your in-house partner’s business and industry is a critical factor in the attorney-client relationship. In-depth knowledge of a client’s business helps outside counsel anticipate needs and potential risks and be proactive about communicating practical legal advice in a way that fits the client’s business objectives.
Anticipating needs: In a rapidly evolving world, understanding how global and local events impact your client’s business will put you in a better position to identify potential legal needs and risks so that you can help your in-house counterpart plan, prepare and respond to an ever-changing legal landscape. Simply put, understanding your client’s business and industry will make you a more effective partner in helping your client avoid surprises.
There are many ways to do this. Most obviously, you can — and should — research your client’s company and industry, including your client’s competitors. We recommend setting up news alerts to ensure awareness of events and developments that are relevant to your client’s business, and we also recommend attending industry conferences and seminars to stay abreast of thought leadership in the field. But perhaps most importantly, you should not be afraid to ask your in-house counterpart informed questions and listen to their concerns. You will never understand your client’s business as well as they do, so listening to their concerns and asking educated questions is always the best way to further your understanding of their business. This also ensures that in-house counsel will view you as a trusted partner who can be relied on for quick and effective advice when they need it.
Tailor-made advice: Another benefit of understanding your client’s business is that it allows you to tailor your advice and recommendations in a way that supports your client’s goals and objectives. Understanding your client’s business will help you better understand their risk threshold, which will in turn allow you to provide practical legal advice that strikes the right balance between acceptance and avoidance of risk. In-house counsel prefer concise advice with realistic answers rather than a long, legalistic review of all the potential issues. Understanding your client’s business will also help ensure that advice is packaged in a business-friendly format that will be quickly understood by key business personnel without any need on the part of your in-house partner to explain the advice and its relevance.
To recap, creating and maintaining successful partnerships with in-house lawyers requires more than obtaining favorable results in specific matters. Along the way, outside counsel must communicate effectively and develop an understanding of their clients’ businesses in order to build trust and make the relationships last.•
Nicholas Alford and Benjamin Broadhead are associates at Faegre Drinker Biddle & Reath. Molly Cue, senior counsel at Roche Diagnostics Corporation, contributed to this article. The opinions/views stated in this article are the authors’ alone and do not represent the views of their respective employers.