How can external law firms best serve their in-house legal team clients? An in-house lawyer considers how firms might develop the relationship that will cement their seat at the client’s table

It is hard to avoid ongoing commentary around the future of legal services, in particular the impact of emerging technology and its potential to disrupt the legal marketplace. Automation, robotics and artificial intelligence tools will clearly be hugely influential on the profession. But for firms supporting large corporates with in-house legal teams broadly responsible for making and managing external instructions, the goal of emerging as the de facto extension of this in-house team, its strategic adviser, has long been coveted. What is the best route to success?

First of all, invest time in understanding the client. Firms can add most value where they do this properly. This goes beyond building personal relationships with the in-house team that they face off to, and it goes beyond “market knowledge”. It is about getting to know the inner workings of the in-house legal team and the wider organisation that the team represents: the client’s client. Firms should develop an understanding of what makes the legal team and the organisation that they both support tick: what drives it, what its priorities, challenges, threats and strategy are; what its ambition is.

Don’t be shy to ask

At RBS, for example, its ambition is to be “No 1 for customer service, trust and advocacy”. Underpinning that is a set of priorities, values and goals. The RBS Legal Function (and the stakeholders it supports) has its own strategic objectives that dovetail with these. Those strategic objectives educate and influence risk appetite, what we prioritise, the decisions that we make and the direction that we take. If external advisers aim to act (and be viewed) as an extension of the in-house legal team, they should be familiar with their clients’ objectives and priorities, they should treat them as their own, and should be cognisant of them when providing support. Absent this level of awareness and understanding, advice provided will struggle ever to be genuinely fully formed.

Successful firms also use their business management teams to support their key clients, ensuring a smooth operation of the non-legal aspects: making sure that there is a strong understanding of the client’s needs and requirements across the firm, ensuring adherence to panel terms and conflict processes, and acting as an invaluable line of communication when the main partner is not available.

Any law firm which does not feel it has this holistic and ingrained understanding of its clients simply needs to ask. Temporary awkwardness will be replaced by a client which is delighted to have a firm which is asking the correct questions and showing an appetite to get as close to it as it can.

Firms which can successfully position themselves as an extension of the in-house legal team are able to take that a step further by aligning their goals. A good example of this is in the pro bono and diversity space. A number of our external firms share our objectives around pro bono and community investment, and use that common goal as an opportunity to collaborate on projects, pool resource or share best practice. Diversity and inclusion programmes are another area ripe for alignment. Ideally, where a client prioritises diversity and inclusion or sets specific targets or objectives, those goals should filter through the organisation to service providers, including external law firms.

Proactive collaboration

Once firms have a strong understanding of their client, they should use that knowledge to go the extra mile. While the premise of this article is that in-house legal teams and their external advisers should be symbiotic, it does not mean that each side brings the same advantages and attributes to the relationship. The best firms build on a strong and deep understanding of their clients to go the extra mile by proactively using that knowledge to help them deliver against their goals, to help their legal function remain market-leading and feed into the success and growth of their organisation. A true “partner” is as vested in the success of the in-house team and the organisation as it would be if it were actually part of it.

Going the extra mile allows firms to distinguish themselves from the competition: be creative, strategic (in the widest sense) and treat them like your most valued client. The role of the strategic adviser should extend beyond project work and black-letter, technical advice to how to deliver against a client’s priorities. It should be about how they use technology to operate more efficiently; how they remain market-leading and progressive.

Develop an internal culture of collaboration. Firms can set themselves apart by leveraging the strength of their entire teams and, by extension, their firms as a whole. Often there will be a partner that the client predominantly faces off to, and most if not all of the work will be filtered through that individual, albeit there will almost invariably be a team of more junior resource working on a matter in the background. My own experience is that I have strong relationships with the partners in the firms that I work with but, in the main, it is only the partners that I know. There should not be a reluctance to move the more junior resource from the shadows. The more you know about the firm, those who are supporting the team and their bench-strength, the more confidence you have in them and the more they feel like an extension of your own, in-house, team.

A step further

The same point is true “horizontally” as it is “vertically”. The best external advisers also encourage the in-house legal team to develop broader and deeper relationships across the firm: they are not territorial. They allocate work based on experience, expertise and capacity even if that means that another partner has to lead on a project or piece of work. The best firms are confident in opening up the full breadth of their expertise to clients. They put the client at the centre of their resourcing model.

Taking that a stage further, the most future-looking, and confident, firms embrace not only internal collaboration but also external collaboration. Collaboration is a sliding scale with softer, networking-based activities at one end and “stapled” instructions at the other. At RBS, for example, partners from panel firms are encouraged to join forces to deliver training sessions, particularly on market trends, so that we have as wide and holistic a view of the market as possible. We also run regular collaboration sessions where partners from competing firms collectively provide strategic input on best practice and emerging market trends.

In terms of collaboration at the chargeable side of the scale, for larger instructions, straddling various disciplines or practice areas, very few firms are likely to be best of breed in each area. An aspirational position may be an increased prevalence in firms collaborating on instructions (with other firms or alternative providers) with a view to delivering the best possible client outcome.

The long view

With the evolution and proliferation of a broader legal services sector, more is expected of panel firms and it will be harder to compete. Often, while the concept of a partnership model sounds appealing, there is a reticence by firms to embrace it fully. Acting in the best interest of the client – investing time and resource in getting to know the inner workings of their organisation, being proactive, collaborating with other firms – is not necessarily what generates immediate income. But it is likely to lead to increased income generation over the longer term. The most successful firms are likely to be those who evolve, who build strong and deep relationships and invest in a client-centric value proposition – and who recognise that it is about long-term, rather than short-term, gain.

The Author
Leigh Kirkpatrick is Senior Legal Counsel at the Royal Bank of Scotland
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