I recently attended a panel discussion where general counsel discussed their expectations for outside counsel. What they valued most, they said, was a firm that knows their business or is willing to learn it.
One general counsel admitted he actually hired a law firm based on a piece of direct mail he received. The circumstances were very specific--his company is in a narrow business that requires a high degree of specialization and industry knowledge. As a result, most firms know the generalities of the business and industry he plays in, but not the subtle nuances and specific details unique to his company's legal needs.
But one very smart firm did and sent him a brochure accompanied by a letter penned by a partner. The letter outlined a specific solution to a unique legal challenge that general counsel in his industry often face.
The partner didn't know the company, but he knew the business. As a result, the partner got a new client and the general counsel got a firm that understood his specific challenges.
Another general counsel on the panel took this idea one step further. She suggested that law firms not only learn their client's business, but also find new business opportunities for them.
The panelist was a solo general counsel who works for a privately held company that delivers groceries to the greater Twin Cities' residential and business community. One of her outside firms also represents a group of residential and commercial developers. The firm realized the two would benefit by working together. Needless to say, the parties connected and forged a relationship that helped the general counsel grow her client's business. Her CEO was no doubt shocked and pleased when she walked into his office with new business in tow. Meanwhile, the firm solidified its partnership with two of its clients.
When was the last time your firm did that for you? If the answer is "never," then you are losing out on a great opportunity to leverage the relationships your firms have with other clients.
One of the greatest challenges legal departments face is avoiding the perception that they are a pure cost center--a necessary evil. Your law firms can help you find ways of proving your worth beyond your legal function to the CEO or upper management. But you have to be the catalyst.
For instance, law firms often ask their clients to speak at retreats and share their insights into what clients want from their law firms. Speaking at these retreats is important because it gives you the opportunity to opine on the fundamentals of the relationship. But it often isn't enough. Your outside counsel need to be committed to bringing together clients that have shared business interests.
Firms should "profile" their clients and create real opportunities for them to meet and network. They can take the form of luncheons, roundtable discussions, or conferences.
Furthermore it shouldn't be limited to large clients of large law firms. Most of you aren't managing multimillion-dollar legal budgets. But all of you have an interest in improving the strength of your business. In fact, most of you are modest-sized clients of moderate-sized law firms. That's where the most exciting opportunities occur; in the vast majority of companies whose profitability forecasts don't move markets, whose corporate executives' names rarely, if ever, appear on the front page of the Wall Street Journal. It is those types of businesses that can gain the most from law firm matchmakers.
So the ultimate question is: How do you get your firms to create networking events? Just ask. If they won't listen, that's answer enough.
Nat Slavin is the publisher of Corporate Legal Times.