What do in-house lawyers really want from their relationships with private practice? The issue was discussed at a recent forum in London

A perennial hot topic among in-house lawyers is how to work best with external lawyers, i.e. private practice. When it works well it can be a beautiful, lasting working relationship. When it doesn’t, things can turn nasty and a quickie divorce is often the outcome, with vows never to work together again.

I’ve gathered views from senior in-house lawyers working in Scotland about what they look for from the all-important private practice relationship. I had a chance to share these views, as well as my own, with private practice lawyers in London recently at the Legal Week Global Independent Law Firms Forum 2014, as part of a panel of in-house lawyers. The panel was chaired by Nina Barakzai, group head of data and privacy of BSkyB. Other members were Natalie Jobling, head of the corporate legal service team at Network Rail and board member of the Commerce & Industry Group; Tim Bratton of Lawyers on Demand (previously general counsel of the Financial Times); and Anthony Kenny, head of the European in-house legal team at The Boston Consulting Group/Association of Corporate Counsel, Europe. I was there because one of the In-house Lawyers Group’s main aims is to strengthen the relationship between private practice lawyers and in-house lawyers, so it was a great opportunity to talk about how to do that.

The all-important “first date”

The panel was asked: “How do we rely on external counsel to help us do our jobs?” “It depends”, was one answer – there is a huge variety in how much or how little particular GCs decide to outsource. Large or volume transactions, local law issues in overseas jurisdictions, specialist advice and litigation were examples.

Tim relayed a real life horror story – to continue the relationship analogy, this was definitely a bad first date. When he was GC of the Financial Times, he phoned a firm he hadn’t used before to ask for advice. He understandably thought they’d be pleased to get his business and was shocked when they couldn’t seem to get him off the phone quickly enough. He certainly won’t be calling them again, and I can’t say I blame him.

More positively, Nina asked the audience if most have had relationships with their major clients for more than a year, and the majority said yes. Nina said this was good – ongoing, sustainable relationships should be the goal for both parties.

Are you eligible?

The next topic was “How do you find an external lawyer?” Natalie mentioned Lexology, which she uses as a chance to see a firm’s or a particular lawyer’s style and the areas they are focused on. Tim looks to social media and said this is not a fad, so firms need to embrace it. All audience and panel members who use Twitter said they got value from it. Adam Shutkever, chief operating officer of innovative firm Riverview Law, said lawyers are often afraid of voicing an opinion on social media but they shouldn’t be – silence is never going to make you stand out from the crowd.

All panel members used websites to look for firms. Tim checks whether a firm’s website passes the “wavelength test”. He also thinks that “full service law firm” means “no strategy law firm”. Natalie and I also talked about how firms can get themselves noticed by potential new clients by speaking at industry body events, such as those run by the Commerce & Industry Group in England & Wales or the In-house Lawyers Group in Scotland. Other things we said we might look at were awards, client testimonials, blogs, legal directories, and not least, recommendations from colleagues or other firms (networks).

How can a firm get onto our panel? Being clear on their website about what they stand for (i.e. “choose your spot”), and contributing to innovative discussions, were mentioned.

A follow-up question was: “Do you mystery shop firms?” Nina said she always tests potential firms with (1) general advice on a question she already knows the answer to – the response must be right, and communicated well; and (2) a quote for a big project – this will determine whether the firm’s intentions for the relationship are a one-night stand or something longer term.

Make the right moves from the start

The next question was: “When do you rely on general advice rather than specialist?” Nina said that a big picture view is always needed. Natalie said that should apply within firms too – different departments should share the knowledge they’ve gained from work they’ve done for us internally.

I thought in-house lawyers could sometimes improve the instructions they give to private practice, and suggested asking questions to make sure everything is really clear up front to avoid arguments down the line. Nina revealed that she will always challenge external lawyers on whether they really understand her instructions. She expects questions and is highly suspicious when there are none. Also, her internal clients Google the answer and challenge her when the external lawyers give a different answer to Google!

Keep it fresh

The importance of keeping established relationships fresh was mentioned as a key point, so regular reviews are good practice. Ben Rigby, legal journalist, made a good point from the audience that firms can add value by proactively suggesting process improvements or other work which could be done later.

Finally, as with all relationships, it’s above all a two-way thing – it has to work for both parties, so this should always be front of mind. With a bit of work from both parties, there’s no reason why it can’t be a long and happy marriage.


The Author
Sara Scott is vice chair of the In-house Lawyers Group
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